Liya Kebede, supermodel, entrepreneur and activist! This New York mom talks about doing it all. One thing at a time. Whether you recognize her from magazine covers or for all the charitable work she's done, Liya Kebede is the uber-supermodel mom you simply can't ignore. She is an internationally recognized supermodel, an actor, designer, maternal health advocate and mother.
She is the founder of the Liya Kebede Foundation, a Goodwill Ambassador for the World Health Organization's maternal and child health program, a Champion for an HIV-Free Generation and an Advisory Board member for the Mothers Day Every Day campaign.
N: You're a mom, model, a maternal health advocate, a clothing designer and an actress. You've appeared on the cover of Vogue twice. How do you do it all? What's your secret to success?
Liya Kebede: Oh God, I don't know. It always sounds so much more oppressive when you read it. It's not like that, it's a little chaotic and I sort of deal with things as they come, you know, work it out and go on to the next thing. Acting is new to me, its something I really enjoy doing. I did Desert Flower-the movie. That story is my life, that story is moving and inspiring and touching. And it is a movie with a cause-something I'm really passionate about. Fashion is something I've always done and it will always stay with me, and in a way I enjoy it better because I'm at a level where the job that I do is more collaborative. The thing that is cool is that nothing is really full time, so I tend to have time for my kids.
In 2008, you launched a line of children's clothing called Lemlem. What inspired you to do that? The whole Lemlem thing came about because in Ethiopia we have these incredible weavers-they've woven our traditional garb forever and now, with Westernization, they don't have a market or a place to showcase anymore. So I thought, me being in fashion, I can do something to help preserve the art of weaving and preserve the assets we have in this fast-paced world. And, at the same time, it helps bring jobs to people. They have families and mouths to feed, and by doing this, I can helop them create a more sustainable situation. It also slowly teaches them about the demands of the Western world. Social entrepreneurship is really wonderful! This spring Lemlem will be in J.Crew and we're launching a women's line. We'll be at Barney and in Japan and London. The pieces are uniquely made; they last forever, you can pass [them] on to your kids.
N:You were first discovered by a Parisian modeling agent when you were in high school. And then, many years later, Tom Ford discovered you in Paris and an entire issue of Paris Vogue was dedicated to you. Whas that such a huge culture shock? Going from student in Ethiopia to the cover of Paris Vogue? There was a lot of time in between, so I was slowly getting accustomed to changes. I remember doing that Vogue issue. It was incredible! It was amazing. It was one of my favorite things to do. It was really inspiring - working with Tom Ford - and impressive: you learn a lot. I was in his studio and his office. I learned so much; he's so detailed and so specific and so clear on what he wants so professional. You see through him and learn a lot just standing there and bing pinned and fitted. Ultimate perfection!
N:What do you miss most about Ethiopian culture? Have you brought your children to Ethiopia? I miss...There's a lot of things I miss. I miss the continent itself, pretty much; it's such an incredibile continent. Every time you travel there and you arrive there - the landscape, the sky, the air, the people - it's a different experience. I miss all of that. I grew up there. My kids grow up in New York! We do want to take them and make it their home as well, the way it was for us. The genuine-ness of the people is contagious and addictive. Being around them - it will change your perspective on everything. The best time of year to go is Christmas break. Winter here is summer there. Summer break here is the rainy season there.
N:What have been some of the biggest challenges?Everything has challenges. You deal with it when it comes. Nothing is simple, stuff happens.
What are the greatest rewards?When your kids sort of look up to you. My daughter especially. You were a girl, too, so you know what the world is to a girl. You do a lot of work for women and children's health.
What got you interested in that? When you grow up stricken with poverty, it stays with you. There are doctors, tests, vitamins. The differrence is, you happen to be born in a different continent. You don't have to worry about dying. We experience it differently. It is really awful, and the worst part is that you could die from the simplest complication, and they don't know there is another way. Every minute, one woman dies of pregnancy. Seventy to eighty percent don't have to. That is why I love to help.
How did you and your husband, Kassy, meet? On holiday in Ethiopia. I was living in Chicago and he was in London.
How do you keep the romance alive with Kassy? Once a year we go away... Well, we used to. And sometimes we take nights off, book a hotel in the city. Try to get away just for sleeping in.
What is your favorite thing to do with your kids in New York City? My favorite thing to do with them is read together. Their favorite is Harry Potter. And my daughter loves coloring, drawing, and she loves to hang out. And of course they like the playground. Oh, and after seeing Fela, I've been bombarding my son with Fela music constantly!