Many models attempt to cross over into acting and fail in the attempt. Liya Kebede, however, has experienced no such struggle. The Ethiopian model was famously one of Tom Ford's muses during his heyday at Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent. Kebede was also the first black model to sign a lucrative cosmetics contract with Estée Lauder, among many other accomplishments from her decade-long career. In Sherry Horman's latest film, Desert Flower, the 33-year-old Kebede tells the story of Waris Dirie, a Somalian top model from the late eighties to mid nineties who went through female circumcision at age 3 and was sold into marriage at age 13. Despite this film's heavy subject matter, the top model insists that the film is "a movie about triumph." She says, "It will encourage everyone to go out and dare to try things; to put oneself out there and confront things." The film premieres this Friday in New York exclusively at the Angelika Film Center and in Los Angeles. We spoke with Kebede last week about Tom Ford's return to fashion, feminism, and taking career risks.
Who are your favorite designers?
Nicolas Ghesquiere, Proenza Schouler, Marc Jacobs, Givenchy, and Kenzo. And I love Tom Ford, obviously. I'm super excited he's back. It's really lovely to have him back in the mix.
How would you describe your personal style?
Comfortable and casual.
Any trends you're ready to be retired?
Really, really high heels. I love that we came back to chunky heels and flats.
What should every woman have in her closet?
I think everyone needs a little bit of lemlem in their lives. Whether it's a scarf or cover-up — and not just because it's mine — it's handmade, unique, and for a good cause.
What's something you never leave home without?
A book. I'm reading John le Carré's Our Kind of Traitor, and it's my first time reading a book on a Kindle. I inherited it from my husband, who has now moved on to an iPad. But I'm very much a kind of person who wants to feel a book.
Has being a model helped or hindered your crossover into acting?
It's helped me because it's given me the confidence to go into moving image. It also has taught me to be comfortable around the camera and the details, like hair, makeup, and costume.
How did you first hear about the project?
A casting director told me that there was a fantastic story that was going to be made into a film and that I should look out for it. It was actually the same person who cast The Good Shepherd. So I got the book, read it, and loved it.
What made you sign onto the role?
The story. I was moved, touched, and inspired. It's a wonderful story about being a girl, overcoming things, and getting out of your comfort zone to put yourself out there. Which we all know, especially living in New York, that we have to do that to ourselves.
We just spoke with the director, Sherry Horman, and she commented that the film deals with the idea of feminism. Do you agree?
It shows a lot about the courage of an individual. I mean, yes, it's about a girl, but really, it's about anyone ... How do you live your life? Are you stuck with what you're given and don't try to get out to see what else is out there? I think it's more about [staying strong in the face of obstacles]; living your life fearlessly as much as you can. A lot of beautiful things happen when you do.
In films you often play complex characters. Is there a reason why you play women with such emotional weight? Would you ever want to play in something more lighthearted?
I love the movies I've done, with all their complexities, and I've gravitated toward those kinds of characters. At the same time, I do want to play something fun. I would love a romantic comedy, actually.
The film was based off Waris Dirie's life. Did she give you any insight in the role before filming?
No. I didn't meet her until the last day of shooting. The director didn't want us to meet because she wanted to do a movie that could be about any girl and not necessarily a biopic of Waris. She wanted me to be influenced by the story itself.
Watch the trailer below: