Liya Kebede (born January 3, 1978) is an Ethiopian model, maternal health advocate, clothing designer and actress who has appeared third times on the cover of US Vogue . According to Forbes, Kebede was eleventh-highest-paid top model in the world in 2007. Since 2005, Kebede has served as the WHO’s Ambassador for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health.
During her acceptance of the 2005 UN Day Award she stated: “Every day we hear about the dangers of cancer, heart disease and AIDS. But how many of us realize that, in much of the world, the act of giving life to a child is still the biggest killer of women of child-bearing age? That over half a million die every year? Or that 3 million babies are stillborn? Or that another 4 million die during the first days and weeks of life?”
Kebede was born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. A film director spotted her while she was attending Lycee Guebre Mariam 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 New York City. She has remarked that the modeling industry in Ethiopia is quite different from the catwalks on which she is now ubiquitous.
Kebede’s big break came when Tom Ford asked her for an exclusive contract for his Gucci Fall/Winter 2000 fashion show. Her popularity in the fashion industry sky-rocketed when she appeared on the cover of the May 2002 edition of Paris Vogue, which dedicated the entire issue to her.
Kebede has been seen on the covers of Italian, Japanese, American, French and Spanish Vogue, V, Flair, i-D and Time’s Style & Design. Kebede 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 first Ethiopian to serve as their representative in the company’s 57-year history. Her contract was rumored to be for $3 million dollars.
Kebede is one of a very few African models featured in major fashion photo shoots and runway shows. According to Conor Kennedy, in 2003 a booker at Elite Model Management, “It’s like there’s only room for one very successful black model at a time. For the past year it’s been Kebede”.
In 2005, Kebede was appointed as WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health. She also appeared in a group montage on a rare (as of recent years) group montage of up and coming supermodels.
In summer of 2006 she was also one of the very few non-white models to have been given a cover of American Vogue, the issue highlighted her humanitarian work.
In July 2007, earning at an estimated total of $2.5 million in the past 12 months, Forbes named her eleventh in the list of the World’s 15 Top-Earning Supermodels. In 2008, Kebede was featured on one of the four covers of Vogue Italia’s all Black Issue.
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 two films: The Good Shepherd and Lord of War.
In 2011, Kebede becomes one of the models to star in Lacoste’s “new look” campaign in January, a different advertising concept for 2011 under the new tagline, “Unconventional Chic”. The ads were shot by Mert and Marcus showing models wearing the iconic white Lacoste polo shirts worn over fancy black evening wear.
In 2005, Kebede was appointed 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 Foundation funds advocacy and awareness raising projects as well as providing direct support for low-cost technologies, community-based education, and training and medical programs.
Kebede 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.”
Kebede 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 Botswana President Festus Mogae. The Champions advocate for increased HIV prevention and treatment efforts in Africa.
Kebede launched Lemlem, a clothing line, in 2008. 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 and bring sustainable economic development to Ethiopia . Lemlem is sold at Barney’s, J.Crew, Net-a-Porter.com and numerous boutique shops. Kebede says she hopes this will part a sea of change for her home country. “It’s wonderful to be able to donate and help people,” she says.
Kebede married Ethiopian hedge fund manager Kassy Kebede in 2000 and they have two children together: son Suhul, born in 2001, and daughter Raee, born in 2005. As of 2007, the family resides in New York City.