Reflecting on all she’s accomplished over the past 20 years—modeling, acting, raising two children—it occurs to Liya Kebede that her 17-year-old son, Suhul, will soon be the same age she was when she got her start.
“It’s crazy because it doesn’t feel so long ago to me,” says Kebede, who turns 40 this month. “I see him and think, ‘That’s what I looked like when I left home? That’s how little I was?’ ”
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Even to Kebede, it seems hard to believe how far she has come. She currently can be seen alongside a bearded Jake Gyllenhaal and an adorable toddler in an imaginary family portrait for Calvin Klein’s latest Eternity perfume campaign, and she has two film projects in postproduction (Mogadishu, Minnesota, a drama about a Somali immigrant family living in Minneapolis, and 419, which tackles human-trafficking issues in Nigeria).
She also oversees her socially conscious brand of clothing and home designs, called Lemlem, which is entering its second decade in business. And despite an ever-changing modeling industry, she still makes the fashion-week rounds, including recent appearances at Calvin Klein, Louis Vuitton, Céline, and Dries Van Noten.
Kebede never imagined any of this could happen while growing up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, playing Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat video games with her four brothers or watching karate flicks and the ’80s detective series Moonlighting on television. “That show was life,” she says. “I recorded that thing every Sunday and played it over and over again.” Kebede was a self-proclaimed tomboy then as she is today, dressed in a slouchy J.Crew pullover, faded Re/Done jeans, and Feit lace-up sneakers.
She first got a taste of modeling in her senior year at the French-sponsored Lycée Guébré-Mariam in Addis Ababa. “Throwing a fashion show to raise money for your graduation party was the coolest thing to do,” she remembers. “My interest really began with wanting to be included in the fun.
“A few other girls and I began working for local designers who were modernizing traditional African garb,” she continues. “Everything about the experience was great: wearing pretty clothes, doing our own hair and makeup, making enough extra money to buy our friends a round of cola.”
But when Kebede got a hold of some videos of the international catwalks, which in those pre-YouTube days meant scavenging recorded fashion-week broadcasts from Italy, she began to seriously consider going pro. “I was really seduced by the whole thing,” she says. “So when all my friends began heading to college, I left for Paris instead.”
What she got there was a hard reality check. “I’d go to castings, and there would be beautiful girls lined up twice around the block,” she recalls of the “rough and tough” experience of approaching the big modeling agencies in her early days. “It was my first exposure to how competitive this industry really is.”
Rather than giving up, she bought a plane ticket to Chicago, where her brothers were attending college, and found an agent willing to represent her for local commercial projects. The next several months became a blur of catalogue shoots and waitressing shifts. But her professional life snapped into focus when she took a chance at the New York Fashion Week casting calls, landing spots at the Ralph Lauren and BCBG Max Azria shows in September 1999.
The break that changed everything came just one season later, when Tom Ford, at the height of his Gucci reign, personally selected her for his fall 2000 ad campaign. As bigger offers began pouring in, Kebede spontaneously auditioned for the 2005 action thriller Lord of War. Although the role was minor, the experience proved life-changing. “I loved acting so much, I realized I had to pursue that too,” she says. And while chasing after yet another larger-than-life dream meant starting from scratch, the extra effort paid off. In 2009 she earned critical praise for her portrayal of Somali model and activist Waris Dirie in the biopic Desert Flower.
Of all her pursuits, Kebede is most passionate when discussing Lemlem, the philanthropically focused label she founded in 2007. Made in collaboration with artisans throughout Africa, the line utilizes time-honored crafts—including hand-woven cotton cloth and embroidery—to create globally appealing designs like breezy peasant dresses and striped throw pillows begging for a beach-cottage home.
“It’s all about working backward,” explains Kebede. “We start by asking what the craftsmen can do and then add our own touches through new colors and silhouettes.” She’s definitely onto something. Lemlem’s success has helped revitalize the continent’s waning textile industry and empower developing communities. Kebede has also aligned the company with a cause close to her heart: maternal health in Africa, where childbirth complications can be fatal in regions with limited medical resources. (Five percent of sales on Lemlem.com are used to improve conditions in maternity wards and to train midwives in vulnerable areas.)
“Having my children in America, I saw the difference proper care makes,” says Kebede. “It takes the conversation from ‘I might die in labor’ to ‘Will I have a girl or a boy?’ ”
While Kebede’s professional life is full of red-eye flights and red carpets, she maintains a slower pace at home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where she lives with her son and 12-year-old daughter, Raee. She spends her free time reading (she’s a Dan Brown fan and just finished Origin), taking yoga classes, and, well, just being normal—one of her favorite things is to share a big homemade breakfast with her kids.
“They are so impressed when I make French toast!” Kebede says, laughing.
As for the other two meals of the day, let’s just say this supermodel isn’t above the joys of modern takeout.
“I really wish I loved cooking, but I don’t,” she admits with a shrug. “I guess you can’t do everything!”
For more stories like this, pick up the March issue of InStyle, available on newsstands and for digital download Feb. 9.