Read our exclusive interview with supermodel-actress-maternal health advocate Liya Kebede, who stars as Waris Dirie, a Somalian nomad who escapes her life of poverty to become a supermodel in London, in the new National Geographic Entertainment movie ‘Desert Flower.’ The film, which is based on Dirie’s 1998 best-selling autobiography Desert Flower: The Extraordinary Journey of a Desert Nomad, chronicles her journey as she escaped Somalia at 13 to get out of an arranged marriage. After being homeless, Dirie was discovered by a photographer while working as a cleaning woman in a fast food restaurant. She now uses her fame to and her position as a UN Special ambassador for Women’s Rights in Africa to bring an end to the Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) she herself endured as a child. Kebede discusses with us, among other things, how she prepared to portray Dirie, and why her story inspires so many people.
Shockya (SY): You portrayed Waris in ‘Desert Flower.’ What convinced you to take the role?
Liya Kebede (LK): I was blown away from the story. I read the book, and I was completely in awe of this woman. I was inspired by her. I thought I really wanted to be a part of this project.
SY: How did you prepare for the role?
LK: I used the book a lot. I felt like I had an insight into her through the book. I stuck to the script as much as possible. I did a lot of research on the subject, because I really didn’t know too much about it before. We started shooting in Djibouti for all the African scenes. We had the opportunity to be in a nomadic community with nomads, and that was really insightful as well.
SY: Did your modeling experience help you as you were filming?
LK: Yeah, definitely, for all of the fashion scenes, they were kind of fun to do. Juliet Stevenson, who played the agent (Lucinda), always had a laugh trying to go through scenes, and stuff like that. So yeah, absolutely.
SY: Did you get to meet Waris before you began shooting?
LK: No, I did not, actually, I did not meet her. I met her on the last day of the shoot because in a way, the director (Sherry Hormann) did not want us to meet. She wanted me to tell the story of a young girl in that type of situation. Waris was good enough to trust us and give us the liberty to interpret her story.
SY: The book has sold over 11 million copies. Why do you think her story inspires so many people?
LK: I think the story is very compelling. I think it’s also very inspiring. I mean, we’re all people who in life encounter so many different problems and obstacles. It sort of defines us how we deal with them. I find that reading this story and seeing how this girl, who sort of blindly handles things in a very mature way, if you will, or a very stubborn way. She always knows instinctively what’s good for her and what’s not good for her and not being a victim and charting her own life. I find that a lot of people find inspiration in that. I do as well, I find her to be very inspiring as well. I think we also recognize something that’s worth the fight.
SY: What are some of the biggest misconceptions of the modeling world? For example, why do you think the public thinks models have to starve themselves in order to be successful?
LK: I don’t know. Being a model comes with requirements, you know? I think some people have difficulty with it. That’s sad when that happens.
SY: You were discovered in your native Ethiopia before you came to New York. You have been quoted as saying that modeling there is quite different there than here in America. What are some of the differences?
LK: Over there, we hang out, get together. We put on all our make-up, do our hair, bring out the shoes. It’s not a proper industry, it’s just a thing that happened. We did it twice a year, and it was hard for us. It wasn’t a professional thing when I was there, but now I think it’s changed a bit. But it’s quite simple. For me here, it’s a proper industry and a proper business. So it’s quite an awakening when you come here to a proper profession.
SY: Besides modeling and appearing in ‘Desert Flower,’ you’ve also appeared in several other movies (including ‘The Good Shepard’ and ‘Lord of War’). Is acting something you’d like to continue?
LK: Yes, it is, definitely.
SY: Besides acting and modeling, you’re also involved in philanthropic work, and are also a maternal health advocate. Why is this work important to you?
LY: Well, it’s important because it’s a cause that doesn’t really get attention. Every minute, there are women who die from childbirth complications. Almost 90 percent of those deaths are preventable. I feel like it’s necessary to talk about it and do something about it. It’s a cause that doesn’t get the money it deserves, and we are losing mothers for silly reasons. If they had access to proper medical care, it would save their lives. Me being a mother, I feel like we should do something about that.
Written by: Karen Benardello