There's a gravitational pull toward Liya Kebede. The slight frame, the uncertain smile ... these are obvious attractions. But it's her eyes from which there is no escape. Deep, dark, and soulful, they command the attention of all in her orbit. Among her biggest supporters: Tom Ford, whom she credits with her first big break in 2000; Dolce & Gabbana; and Proenza Schouler. In 2003, the Ethiopian native became the first woman of color to represent Estée Lauder. Having walked countless runways and shot a slew of ad campaigns (and had two children), the world-famous model turns her focus toward the big screen. The film Desert Flower—based on the book of the same name—is the true story of Waris Dirie's journey from tribal Somalia to top model. In the lead role, Kebede takes on Dirie's every anguish. The most excruciating: Dirie's crude female circumcision as a child. As Dirie's confidante, Golden Globe Award winner Sally Hawkins serves as comic relief Marilyn, much needed when Kebede's eyes, welling with tears, shoot straight into your soul. It's a tale for all women—and those who love them. Here, Kebede discusses her life's story thus far.
MC: Have you always wanted to be an actress?
LK: It's something that I'd always thought about. Since I was a child, watching films has been one of the things that I enjoy the most. That, and reading books. I always found a way to live something else. Five years ago I started taking acting lessons. I enjoyed it so much that it opened up a whole new world for me.
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MC: In Desert Flower, Waris Dirie really struggles with a nude photo shoot. Can you relate?
LK: Being nude really is a problem for me, so it was actually the easiest scene for me to shoot. I definitely identified with how she was feeling—not to the same degree, but I'm not very nude-y.
MC: Understandable. Did Sally Hawkins give you any pointers?
LK: Not really. She was just delightful. She made us laugh all the time.
MC: What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about Ethiopia?
LK: It's not just Ethiopia, but Africa in general—most of the media concentrates on what's not going well. But there is so much beauty there. When you go, it changes everything. It changes you, your life, and the way you see things. The challenge is changing the image of Africa that's been anchored in people for years now.
MC: Is that why you started your clothing line, Lemlem?
LK: Lemlem was started to a) employ people in Ethiopia and help preserve the art of traditional weaving, and b) encourage others to invest and manufacture in Ethiopia and Africa. Everything is designed in the U.S. and handwoven in Ethiopia. It's a model for others to come in and do bigger and bigger things.
MC: Sounds kind of like you. What's next on the agenda?
LK: More movies. At the moment I'm filming Black Gold with Antonio Banderas and Freida Pinto.
MC: Will you continue to model?
LK: There are things that I will always shoot, but now that the modeling and acting worlds are becoming very close, you can do a little bit of one and more of the other.
MC: Who would play you in the movie version of your life?
LK: Oh, God, I really don't think there should be a movie about me. That's for sure!