"Some people have bad-hair days—I have bad-hijab days!” model Halima Aden says, bobby-pinning her royal blue head scarf, as the clientele at New York’s Paintbox nail salon looks on. The bubbly 20-year-old Somali-American is here to be interviewed by Katie Couric, over manicures, for the journalist’s new docuseries, America Inside Out. Just one snag: Aden’s hijab, customary among some Muslim women, keeps unraveling. “The struggle is real,” she says. “Thank God I don’t have to do my hair every morning!”
Aden, who is known to belt out Rihanna songs, has warmed quickly to the new spotlight on her. Six months before we meet, she was working as a housekeeper in St. Cloud, Minn. In 2005, Aden and her mother immigrated to Minnesota from Kakuma, a United Nations refugee camp in Kenya, where she was born. After graduating from high school in 2016, Aden entered the Miss Minnesota USA pageant. She rocked the swimsuit competition in a hijab and burkini, a first in the United States.
Media attention came quickly after the pageant—magazine covers, a Fenty Beauty ad, and runway gigs with Alberta Ferretti, Max Mara, and Yeezy. Aden embodies her generation’s individualism, says Couric, which is why she chose the model to star in one of six hour-long episodes about the polarizing issues currently shaping the national conversation. “The more we get out of our bubbles, the more we’ll be able to celebrate diversity instead of being fearful of it,” Couric says. But while Aden is glad to be a role model for young Muslim girls, she first put on the hijab for a simpler reason: She saw her mom wear one and thought it was pretty. Before their on-camera interview, Couric and Aden sit down with InStyle.
You both have public-facing careers. Have you ever felt pressured to look a certain way?
Katie Couric: Oh, yes! When I started on the Today show, one of the executives told me he wanted me to wear fuzzy sweaters and smaller earrings, and I told him to basically jump in a lake. I always said, “This is who I am,” because I think you can smell a phony a mile away.
Halima Aden: When I was a housekeeper, I wore my hijab; now that I’m modeling, I’m not going to suddenly take it off to conform. A lot of girls fall into a trap of trying to look like someone else. Beauty is working with what you have.
What’s your favorite physical feature about yourself?
HA: I really like my dimple. If I’m laughing and smiling, the dimple just gets so deep.
KC: I like my legs from my knees down—Barbara Walters told me [the calves are] the last thing to go! Also my nose. Friends used to ask if I could go with them when they were getting a nose job because they liked my nose [laughs].
HA: I used to hate my nose! Because it’s a little button. It’s funny—here it’s the opposite, but in my culture, a big nose is so damn attractive. Everyone wants a big nose. It’s so weird that you cross a border and the definition of beauty changes.
It even changes from person to person. How do you define beauty?
HA: You can be covered from head to toe and still be beautiful. There’s a beauty in what you say and how you carry yourself. That’s the kind of beauty we should strive for.
KC: What beauty means is changing before our eyes. Having Halima’s image out there, whether she’s doing an ad for Rihanna or being in a beauty pageant, changed so many hearts and minds. I may not be a huge fan of beauty pageants, but look at the doors her participation opened for others.
Halima, a lot of people see your hijab as a political statement. Do you?
HA: I don’t. It’s just what I grew up seeing. It’s my normal. But I recognize that it’s the first thing people notice about me in a country where it may be the only information you have about Muslims. I approach it from a positive standpoint: Maybe I’m the only Muslim that person is going to encounter—so my personality better be on point!
Women’s bodies are often politicized in a way that’s out of our control. Do you think beauty can be a means to reclaim that power?
KC: I’m torn about that, honestly. Sometimes I feel women should be loud and proud about their beauty; other times I think we get objectified for it. We send strong messages through our appearance. So if you look too beautiful and sexy, does it take away from people’s perception of your intelligence? But, ultimately, you should be trying to please yourself.
People say that when the economy goes down, lipstick sales go up. Is beauty a way to find joy in tough times?
KC: I find joy wherever I can these days! A good blowout can completely transform my mood.
HA: Yes. I know makeup shouldn’t be what makes you feel beautiful, but a lot of women love makeup. For me, it brings out the version of myself I like most. With a little mascara, I’m ready to tackle the day.
It’s exciting to see the fashion and beauty industries begin to embrace diversity—but do you ever feel as if their attempt at inclusion ends up being more like tokenism?
KC: I think that change has to begin with what could be interpreted as tokenism because tokenism is a sort of first. But this generation is demanding more inclusion, diversity, intersectionality, and representation, and companies are starting to understand that and are capitalizing on it in the best possible way.
HA: Somebody needs to be the first; it comes down to that. And it makes me happy to know I’m definitely not going to be the last.
America Inside Out with Katie Couric premieres April 11 on National Geographic.
For more stories like this, pick up the May issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download April 13.