Human trafficking is a real thing. One should always Google search and fact check. These were the thoughts that swirled through Halima Aden’s mind when she was approached by IMG models back in 2016 after competing in a beauty pageant in Minnesota. It sounds funny now, especially for fashion industry vets who can vouch for the credentials of the well-known agency. But for Aden, who went from a refugee camp in Kenya to a small town in Minnesota, trust didn’t necessarily come easy.
One thing that does come easy for her is joy. And if you’ve spent even just mere minutes in the presence of the ESSENCE January/February 2020 cover star, then you will feel it. It’s partially where her glow originates— (nope, it’s not just Fenty!)
On Thursday, the 22-year-old traiblazer shared the other reason for her radiance. Speaking with ESSENCE Chief Content & Creative Officer MoAna Luu before a packed house at ESSENCE Fashion House NYC, Aden encouraged young people to be bold.
“Don’t change yourself, change the game baby!” she shouted happily. “And it’s okay to say no. Having standards and the right people that love you, that care for you…they will work with you just the way that you are. You don’t have to conform or fit the mold in order to find success.”
Aden didn’t even win that pageant. Yet, it still opened doors for her, and for other models coming behind her. She remembers being afraid as the first hijab-wearing woman in the Miss Minnesota USA competition. The following year, 7 women in hijabs participated. Now, seeing a model in a hijab is becoming normalized. Her insistence on standing in her truth and being willing to forgo certain opportunities in order to do that is what has led her to her current success.
“As young people, we have to go and just enter a space,” she said. “Even if you don’t see somebody who looks like you in that field, be that person. Beauty is how you define it. You don’t need to sit and wait for someone to represent you. You go!”
Of course, having Rihanna as an ally also doesn’t hurt. That, and her steadfast attitude and passion for life, which led her to become the first model to wear a burkini in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue. As a trailblazer, she’s changing designers’ minds. She’s shifting perspectives. She’s opening up doors.
And, she’s giving back through her work with UNICEF.
“Fashion is not the world I come from. But I did know UNICEF and so I was like, ‘if I’m going to model, I really want to combine it with activism,'” she said. “When somebody helps you when you’re at your lowest, you want to remember them now that life has gifted you. It can’t just be a blessing for you to keep; you want to spread it. I never expected to become a UNICEF ambassador. I was like ‘Am I even worthy?’”
Above all else, the 22-year-old beauty credits her success to her mother, her sisters, her girlfriends from elementary school, and the women who have held her up and supported her through the years.
“Have good women around you,” she said, in closing. “Women that uplift you, women that mentor you. Women to be the voice of reason and inspire you. I think the biggest secret to success is having powerful women around you.”
Watch the full panel conversation above and then be sure to head back to ESSENCE.com for more of everything you missed at ESSENCE Fashion House NYC.