Liya Kebede (Amharic: ሊያ ከበደ; born 1 March 1978) is an Ethiopian-born model, maternal health advocate, clothing designer, and actress. Forbes identified her as the eleventh-highest-paid top model in the world in 2007, and she has appeared three times on the cover of U.S. Vogue.
Kebede was born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. A film director spotted her while she was attending Lycée 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 because in Ethiopia she had to provide her own shoes for each runway show.
Kebede's 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.
Kebede has been seen on the covers of Italian, Japanese, American, French and Spanish Vogue, V, Flair, 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 rumored to be worth $3 million. At this time in Kebede'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).
In 2011, Kebede was among the models featured in Lacoste's "new look" campaign in January, a different advertising concept for the year, 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 eveningwear.
Kebede is currently ranked on models.com icons list.
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 in Ethiopia and to offer work opportunities to local artisans. Lemlem is sold at Barney’s, J.Crew, Net-a-Porter.com and numerous boutique shops. Kebede says she hopes this will be part of a sea change for her home country, saying that "It's wonderful to be able to donate and help people".
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.
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 President of Botswana Festus Mogae.
In 2000, Kebede married Ethiopian hedge fund manager Kassy Kebede. They have two children together: son Suhul (2001) and daughter Raee (August 2005). As of 2007, the family resided in New York City. Liya and Kassy separated in 2013, and have publicly split in 2015.
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