FROM REFUGEE TO TOP MODEL, SHE’S USING HER BEAUTY AND RELIGION TO MAKE CHANGE
HALIMA ADEN: MODEL
I first interviewed Halima Aden on the red carpet during New York Fashion Week last year. She made an indelible impression. She was shining bright like a diamond with her mega watt smile, infectious energy, and wearing her most talked about accessory: her hijab. Of course, it’s much more than that - it is a symbol of her religion and not a piece of clothing she will part ways with publicly. A young woman already famous for her many “firsts,” get to know this news maker, model, and activist. Remember her name. She’s gonna be around awhile.
Your story is inspiring beyond words. I’ll never forget meeting you for the first time at fashion week in New York. You have this inexplicable light about you. I didn’t want to leave your side. And you’re a baby! Twenty years old. I’m in awe of you.
But let me ask you. After being born in a refugee camp in Kenya, you moved to the U.S. at age six. Cut to you being in the Miss USA pageant, one of the finalists, notable for wearing a hijab and refusing to do it any other way.
How did you get from Kenya to the Miss USA pageant? That’s quite a jump!
Coming from the refugee camp to the United States was really hard. I arrived speaking no English. We were first resettled in St. Louis, Missouri in a very crime-filled neighborhood. I would hear gunshots at night and the school I attended didn’t have an English emersion program. Luckily, not long after being in St. Louis, my mom heard that many Somalis were finding refuge in St. Cloud, Minnesota. So, we moved and I began to thrive in the classroom. I had teachers who were spending every minute helping me learn English. Education has always been so important to me. In high school, I became my hometown’s very first Muslim homecoming queen. Other Muslim students would come up to me and ask how they could join band or get involved in extracurricular activities. I really had no idea, but because I was the first to break the mold with homecoming queen, they were looking to me for how they could get involved in things that many Muslims at my school hadn’t before tried.
College is expensive so I began researching scholarships and came across the Miss Minnesota USA pageant online. The Miss Universe organization has been celebrating the diversity of beauty for over 65 years and it seemed like a really good fit. I knew this was unknown to my Somali and Muslim community, but I thought, “Why not?” I applied, got accepted, and then asked the organizers if I could compete in a hijab and burkini. They welcomed me to do so and the rest is history. I’ve never been afraid to be the first and because of that, a lot of opportunities have come my way. The neatest thing is, just this past November (one year after I competed for Miss Minnesota USA), there were eight Muslim girls in the state pageant. If I can just inspire one person then this journey is worth it to me and that, for me, was so incredible to see.
Shortly after the pageant, you were signed to IMG Models. Was that transition a natural one, a comfortable one? Was this your dream?
Having never seen women who looked like me in magazines or ad campaigns, I honestly never thought a woman in a hijab could be a model. The pageant opened so many doors. Right after the pageant, fashion industry icon Carine Roitfeld reached out to the pageant organizers and flew me to New York. It was my first visit to New York and my first photo shoot ever – with none other than the legendary Mario Sorrenti. Carine put me on the cover of CR Fashion Book. During that same visit to New York, the pageant organizers had arranged for me to meet with IMG Models. I remember not knowing how the meeting really went with the scouting department, but as I was leaving, IMG Models president Ivan Bart followed me out to the lobby to introduce himself and tell me how excited he was. It was at that moment that I thought, “Wow, I think they may sign me!”
You first walked for Yeezy at NYFW. What was your first impression of Kanye?
Kanye and Kim were at the fitting and were both very nice. I was a little star-struck and I think that may have freaked Kim out a bit. They were both quiet and somewhat reserved and I’m kind of the opposite. At first, the outfit selected for me to wear in the show wasn’t going to work with the wardrobe requirements I had set based on my Muslim faith. Luckily, they found something that I was comfortable wearing. It was pretty cool to walk my first NYFW exclusively for Yeezy and styled by none other than my fashion industry mama & the woman I credit a lot of my success to– Carine Roitfeld.
You are notable for a lot of firsts. First to wear a hijab in a pageant. First to walk a runway in a hijab. First to be on the cover of Vogue in a hijab. What has serving as this beautiful, Muslim model meant to you? Does it come with a certain pressure?
Being the first can definitely be scary. When something is an unknown, you will always get people questioning why you are doing what you are doing… especially with social media being a platform for people to criticize without having to say it to someone’s face. I may be the first, but I most certainly won’t be the last. I do face pressure. I’ve never claimed to be the perfect Muslim and I’m just being me, doing the best I can. I think that the majority of people appreciate that.
There must be obstacles as your religion frankly limits you in ways other models are not. Is it true you must work with a female stylist and your skin must always be covered to a certain degree? Have the teams you’ve worked with been accepting?
Everyone I have worked with has been so accepting and accommodating. I always have my female manager dress me on set. I do keep my hair covered and dress very modestly when working. At fashion shows, they set up a private dressing space for me so I’m not out in the open changing with other models in the dressing room. People go above and beyond to make sure I am comfortable and for that I am grateful. Last summer, I shot the inside cover for Glamour Magazine during Ramadan and that team even set up a private area for me to pray - we took breaks during the times there was a call to prayer. The poor nail technician had just done my nails and I had to ask her to take off the nail polish and then put it back on after prayer times.
Tell me about your mother. It seems as if she’s been a powerful, positive force in your life.
My mother fled the Somali civil war, making a several day trek to Kakuma, a refugee camp in Kenya. She then took my brother and I across the world to the United States not speaking the language or knowing anyone. Her goal has always been to give us a better life. If that is not the definition of a powerful woman, I’m not sure what is. I can only hope every day that I am making her proud of me.
We are living in a time when women are using their voices more than ever. Inclusion and the value of diversity are issues people are celebrating. Do you feel inspired by the momentum for all women right now?
Absolutely! One of the things I took away from the Miss USA state pageant is that it was an event all about women empowering other women. We have to be one another’s biggest cheerleaders and champions. We need to celebrate each other’s successes. I love seeing my fellow women do big things. It makes me so proud!
You are exceptionally compelling on paper as a glorious physical specimen but I know your brain and heart are equally aspirational. What do you hope to achieve with the platform you’ve been given?
The thing I am most proud of has been that the little bit of fame I have received has allowed me to partner with the organization UNICEF USA to bring attention to the incredible work they do globally for children. I have been given a voice and platform to help an organization that helped me as a small child in a refugee camp. The work UNICEF does to provide food, shelter, immunizations, education, and so much more for children is important and I know that first hand. They allow children to be children. I had the opportunity to go to Capitol Hill and ask my state’s lawmakers to approve appropriations for the 2019 fiscal year on behalf of UNICEF USA. Bottom line, the work they are doing is a bipartisan issue as a child in need knows no politics.
As a twenty-year-old, what do you wish young American girls your age had more of? More access to?
In my Somali-American and Muslim-American community, the topic of mental health is still somewhat taboo. I wish that more young women knew that there are options and help is available. I wish more girls (and young people in general) were comfortable with having the conversations around mental health.
What are you working on right now that you’re most excited about that we can share with the world?
You know that most work I do can’t be shared until it hits newsstands, Catt! I have a lot going on when it comes to modeling and public speaking. I am super excited to be speaking at IMG fashion camp later this summer in Bradenton, Florida. There are spots available still so if any young aspiring models are looking to learn and get a taste of the fashion industry, I’d encourage them to sign up and join me in FL.
What’s the first thing you do when you wake up?
Look at my phone
Fanny pack or dad shoe?
Sushi or tacos?
Sushi, sushi, sushi… I can’t get enough of it.
Instagram stories or Snapchat?
Night owl or morning person?
Vogue magazine or Vogue online?
Cardio or weights?
Both have been on my to-do list. Ha!
First celeb you met you’ll never forget?
Gigi Hadid & Paris Jackson – they were both on set at my first photo shoot – I then met Rihanna 2 days later shooting her make-up line, Fenty Beauty (all three women are amazing!)
Celeb you want to meet you haven’t
Cover Photo: Fadil Berisha