Liya Kebede Plays Famous Black Model, Says Runway Needs More

Kerry Pieri
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Liya Kebede has delicate features, yet is intensely beautiful which sounds like a contradiction, until you see her up close. The philanthropist, Goodwill Ambassador for the World Health Organization maternal and child health program, current face of H&M billboards, and oft Vogue cover model who has played some bit parts in great movies is headlining a role close to her heart, that of fellow African model Waris Dirie. The film, Desert Flower, is based on Dirie’s best selling novel of the same title, which chronicles her escape from poverty stricken Somalia where she faced the brutal cultural traditions forced upon women, her time spent as a servant in London and her glamorous modeling career, to come full circle as a UN Ambassador to Africa. Read on for Liya’s take on what may be the role of a lifetime, and how the fashion industry may not be any more diverse than it was in Waris’ modeling days.

Why was this an important film for you to be a part of?

I read the book and the book really touched me. Her story sort of inspired me and moved me and I really felt compelled that I had to do this film and I had to be part of this project, and I had to be part of this wonderful journey of this young girl and the way she led her life.

Did you meet Waris before the film?

No, I met her the last day of shoot.

Without meeting her beforehand, what did you get from the book and script in terms of how you approached playing her?

It was just taking the story and internalizing it and trying to understand what it must have felt like. You know, for someone to be out there in the world, in a foreign world, with no friends, no family, not speaking the language and trudging along and going into new territories every time, and having this kind of incredible courage to just go out and do stuff and overcome stuff. I mean, I found, for me-for my personal life, I found it to be quite inspirational.

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Film still from Desert Flower

Obviously when the book first came out in the 90s it created a lot of buzz and people were really very supportive of going out there and finding out about the atrocities happening to women in Africa. Beyond the creative message-what would you hope this film gives people who see it, and what kind of reaction would you hope for?

Well I think this film will have you laughing a lot, I think. I think you will be touched emotionally. You will cry a little bit. I think you will also be hopeful. You will come out of there with this really wonderful movie that will stay with you for a long time. It’s not a movie that you will forget very quickly. And that will give you something…the feeling of wanting to do something after. I think it’s a really wonderful all around type of story.

And why is it important to you personally to always concentrate on being philanthropic and helping other people, especially in Ethiopia? Why is that such a personal mission for you?

I don’t know if I see it as a mission. I think it’s just… it’s something that I’m able to do. So I think I should be doing it. Growing up in a place like Ethiopia where there’s so much poverty around me, and as much as I travel and all of that stuff and seeing how the rest of the world is living and how most people’s basic needs are not met on the day-to-day and knowing that, I think you… you have to do something. And we can. All of us can do so much, and with very little effort. And so there’s no reason why we shouldn’t all be doing something.

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Liya and Waris

Do you think that the fashion industry overall has more of a social responsibility to give back more?

I don’t think the fashion industry more particularly has to do it more than others. I think it’s really everyone. Every individual even, more specifically. I know it sounds really cheesy saying it like this but, we are all in it together, in a way. We’re all living in this one world. We imagine lines of division, which really are not real.

Portraying this model who was so successful-and you’re obviously such a successful model-what are your thoughts on diversity in fashion right now?

I think it has a long way to go, honestly. I think they still have a long way to go.

Who are some models that you’re kind of a fan of right now? Some, maybe, younger African-American or African models?

Or there’s actually a bunch of ones! I mean there’s Joan Smalls. There’s obviously Chanel Iman. Jourdan Dunn! There’s a lot of really wonderful girls. But, I wish they could get a lot more, you know?

And what are your thoughts when a magazine, maybe like Vogue Italia, does an entire issue or spread and they include only black models?

I think it depends on how it’s done. I think I would love to see a time where these kind of things are not a phenomenon and it’s not an event, a monumental event that we have to look at. I want it to be for us to get to a place where it’s just normal, you know? I feel like it’s not there yet.

So back to the film, how is it different for you to really headline a film for the first time? I mean, you’ve been in some great films, but to really take the lead…

Yeah, it was wonderful. I mean, I loved really every minute of it. Every day getting on set was just, you know, a gift! I felt so privileged to be able to do that everyday. It was wonderful. Wonderful.

So acting is definitely something you want to continue to do? Maybe over modeling in the future?

Yes. Yes.

Desert Flower is a National Geographic Entertainment film by Sherry Hormann, also starring Sally Hawkins, Craig Parkinson and Anthony Mackie, being released March 18, 2011.

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