Who is Liya Kebede?
In addition to being a groundbreaking Ethiopian model, Liya Kebede is an active and vocal philanthropist committed to the health of women, infants and children. Born and raised in Ethiopia, she was discovered as a child by a French film director who recommended her to modelling agencies. After finishing her education in Africa she moved to Paris and began a successful modeling career during which she has modeled for ‘Gap’, ‘Tommy Hilfiger’, ‘Yves, Saint-Laurent’, ‘Victoria's Secret’, ‘Revlon’ and many other major labels. Shortly after her arrival in America she featured in the first issue of 'Vogue' which was entirely dedicated to a single model and also signed a contract that made her the first person of color to model for ‘Estée Lauder’. In addition to modeling she has also appeared in many films in supporting and starring roles. Throughout her career she has used her wealth and celebrity status to fund many philanthropic projects that support the health and well-being of women and children around the world. She is also a fashion designer with a personal clothing line that provides jobs to traditional Ethiopian craftsmen and keeps African weaving customs alive. Today she lives with her family in New York City and continues to support health related humanitarian causes.
Childhood & Early Life
Liya Kebede was born March 1st, 1978 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. As a child attending the Franco-Ethiopian school ‘Lycee Guebre Mariam’, she was spotted by film director and recommended to a French modeling agency.
At the age of 18 after completing her studies she moved to Paris to pursue modelling, and later to New York City.
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Kebede enjoyed early success in Paris and modeled for several big labels on the catwalk including ‘Ralph Lauren’ and ‘BCBG Max Azria’. Her career really took off when she was personally selected by Tom Ford for an exclusive contract in the ‘Gucci 2000 Fall/Winter show’.
After quickly establishing herself in the competitive Paris modelling scene, she moved to New York to continue her rapid upward career arc. In May of 2002, 'Vogue' magazine made personal history when they dedicated that month's entire issue to her.
In 2003, she signed a contract with ‘Estée Lauder’ that was rumored to be worth $3 million. This was also a historical contract for ‘Estée Lauder’, making Liya their first black model in their 57 years as a company.
In 2007, 'Forbes' listed her as number 11 in their list of the world's 15 top earning supermodels. At the time she had earned an estimated $2.5 million in the previous 12 months.
Kebede officially launched her career as a fashion designer with the inception of her fashion brand ‘LemLem’ in 2008. The clothing line features traditionally made hand crafted items and was founded to preserve traditional weaving customs in Ethiopia and provide job opportunities to local artisans.
Her career as an actress has included several films, mostly featuring her in small supporting roles. In 2009, she starred in the lead role in 'Desert Flower', a biopic film adapted from the autobiographical account of Somalian former supermodel Waris Dirie.
Today, Kebede focuses on public health related philanthropic pursuits, as well as writing for various publications on subjects regarding the health of mothers and their children.
She is also currently a part of the ‘Champions for an HIV Free Generation’, an organization of African leaders who work together to support efforts for the prevention and treatment of HIV in Africa.
In 2005, the ‘World Health Organization’ appointed Liya as their ‘Goodwill Ambassador for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health’. She also used her visibility and wealth to establish the ‘Liya Kebede Foundation’, dedicated to reducing maternal, newborn and child mortality in Ethiopia and around the world.
In addition to working to support maternal health, Kebede also put her resources towards the ‘Living Proof Project’ in 2009 alongside the ‘Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’. She also served as a High-Level adviser for 'Start with a Girl: A New Agenda for Global Health', a health report conducted by the ‘Center for Global Development’.
Awards & Achievements
Although she has worked on several films, her largest acting role was in the dramatic biopic 'Desert Flower'. She was presented with the ‘Chopard Trophy’ at the 2010 ‘Cannes Film Festival’, for her stunning portrayal of a Somalian supermodel who was also an outspoken activist for women's health issues.
In 2013 'Glamour' magazine named her ‘Women of the Year’ for her philanthropic work through the ‘Liya Kebede Foundation’. This organization helps provide health resources, training, technology and more for communities in need to help improve health education and reduce mortality rates among mothers and children.
Personal Life & Legacy
Kebede married Ethiopian hedge fund manager Kassy Kebede, in 2000. The couple has one son and one daughter together and they live in New York City.
Liya Kebede has been one of the top earning models in the world throughout her career and uses her wealth to support philanthropic projects. Her current net worth is estimated at $18 million.
In 2007, she appeared in an episode of ‘Giving’, a TV series dedicated to philanthropic celebrities. This famous model was featured alongside actor Paul Newman.