Liya Kebede born 1st March 1978 is an Ethiopian-born model, maternal health advocate, clothing designer, and actress. She has appeared on the cover of Vogue three times. Kebede has served as the WHO’s Ambassador for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health since 2005.
Liya was born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She is the only daughter in the family, having four brothers. A film director spotted her while she was attending Lycée Guebre-Mariam, the school in which she learned fluent French, and introduced her to a French modeling agent. After completing her studies, she moved to France to pursue work through a Parisian agency. Kebede later relocated to the US, initially to Chicago then New York City.
Her big break came when Tom Ford asked her for an exclusive contract for his Gucci Fall/Winter 2000 fashion show. Then in May 2002 she was on the cover of Paris Vogue, which dedicated the entire issue to her.
Liya has been seen on the covers of Italian, Japanese, American, French and Spanish Vogue, V, i-D and Time’s Style & Design. She has been featured in ad campaigns including those for Shiatzy Chen, Gap, Yves Saint-Laurent, Victoria’s Secret, Emanuel Ungaro, Tommy Hilfiger, Revlon, Dolce & Gabbana, Escada and Louis Vuitton. In 2003, Kebede was named the newest face of Estée Lauder cosmetics, the only Ethiopian to serve as their representative in the company’s 57-year history. Her contract was rumoured to be worth $3 million. At this time in Liya’s career, she was ranked #1 on models.com.
In July 2007, with Kebede earning $2.5 million over the previous 12 months, Forbes named her eleventh in the list of the World’s 15 Top-Earning Supermodels. The following year, casting agent James Scully likened her to “an exotic Grace Kelly”.
In 2009, Kebede starred in the film-adaption of the bestselling autobiography Desert Flower by former supermodel Waris Dirie. The film recounts Dirie’s childhood in Somalia, her rise to stardom and subsequent awareness campaign against female circumcision. It premiered at the Venice Film Festival and received a standing ovation. Kebede has also had minor roles in The Good Shepherd (2006) and Lord of War (2005). She featured as a ‘Face of the Moment’ in May 2009’s US Vogue.
In 2011, Liya was among the models featured in Lacoste’s “new look” campaign in January, with ads shot by Mert and Marcus, showing models wearing white Lacoste polo shirts worn over black eveningwear.
Liya starred with Jake Gyllenhaal in a Calvin Klein ad. She is currently on the list of “New Supers” by models.com.
She launched Lemlem, a clothing line, in 2007. Lemlem, which means “to bloom” in Amharic, features hand-spun, woven and embroidered women and children’s clothing. Kebede founded the line to help preserve the art of traditional weaving in Ethiopia, and to offer work opportunities to local artisans. The line is sold in 150 retailers.
In 2005, Kebede was appointed as WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health. She then founded the Liya Kebede Foundation, whose mission is to reduce maternal, newborn and child mortality in Ethiopia and around the world. The organization funds advocacy and awareness-raising projects as well as providing direct support for low-cost technologies, community-based education, and training and medical programs. In one health center that the foundation works with, hospital deliveries rose by over 50% in 12 months.
She has traveled to Ethiopia to support maternal health projects on multiple occasions. In 2009, she worked with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as part of their Living Proof Project. Kebede served as a High-Level adviser for the Center for Global Development’s 2009 report “Start with a Girl: A New Agenda for Global Health”.
She also writes for The Huffington Post about maternal and child health, and has been featured in Vogue and on The Daily Beast. She is also part of the Champions for an HIV-Free Generation, an organization of African leaders led by former President of Botswana Festus Mogae.
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