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HALIMA ADEN photo by Fadil Berisha clothing by She
Photography Fadil Berisha, clothing Sherri Hill

How Halima Aden made history for hijabi models

We chat to the model and UNICEF ambassador about the importance of representation

Born in a refugee camp in Kenya after her mother fled the Somali Civil War, Halima Aden spent her childhood there until the age of seven, when she and her mother moved to the US and eventually settled in Minnesota. From there Halima went from strength to strength, checking off firsts as she went. Thriving at school both academically and socially (she was St. Cloud’s first Muslim Homecoming Queen), Halima went on to university where she was the first Somali member of the Student Government, before participating in the Miss Minnesota USA beauty pageant. As the first contestant to wear a hijab and burkini in the pageant, Halima was catapulted into the spotlight, leading to her being signed by modelling agency IMG - the first Hijab wearing model to sign to a major agency. From there she continued to pave the way for Hijabi models, becoming the first model to wear a hijab on the cover of a major US magazine, Allure, in 2017, becoming the first model to wear a hijab on the cover of British Vogue in 2018, and, earlier this year, becoming the first model to wear a full-body swimsuit and hijab in Sport Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue. In between all that, she has also walked for shows including Yeezy, starred in campaigns like Fenty Beauty, been shot for Carine Roitfeld’s CR Fashion Book, launched a fashion collaboration of scarves and turbans with modest retailer Modanisa, and become a UNICEF ambassador. And did we mention she’s only 21?

No big deal.

We caught up with the trailblazer to chat about how being a refugee gave her a better appreciation for beauty, reactions to her wearing a hijab in Miss Minnesota and providing the much needed representation in mainstream media for all the little girls out there who look like her.

What’s your earliest beauty memory?
Halima Aden: My earliest beauty memory was from the refugee camp.  That’s where I learned to braid hair.  Then, when I came to America, I would charge $10 to braid hair at my apartment complex.  Not a bad gig for a little kid.  

How did being a refugee shape your understanding of beauty and your relationship with self-care?
Halima Aden: I actually think being a refugee gave me a better appreciation for beauty.  I didn’t grow up with things or toys, just nature and my imagination.  I had to find the best in my surroundings.  My relationship with self-care now that could go two ways.  On one hand, I always laugh at mums chasing their kids down with hand sanitiser and worrying about everything their kids touch or put in their mouths. I grew up in a refugee camp and survived.  On the other hand, I think it gave me quite an appreciation.  Just simple things that we take for granted that are basics of self-care: clean drinking water. I am grateful for that.  My work with UNICEF also reminds me that these basic needs that children should be entitled to are still not met around the world.  I often times feel guilty using a skincare product that costs a fortune.  Most of what I use is natural as my mom always said, “If you can’t eat it, don’t put it on your skin.”  I make a lot of at-home skincare with honey, aloe vera, and turmeric.  

Do you remember the first time you were conscious of your appearance?
Halima Aden: The first time I was really conscious of my appearance was when I started to wear the hijab in Middle School in Minnesota and students were making fun of me.  I couldn’t understand why as wearing the hijab was beautiful, my mother wore it.  I wanted to be like her.  I was teased so much about it, that I started to resent wearing it.  I had been so proud.  Needless to say, I think everyone can agree that Middle School years are hard and transformative. 

How were attitudes towards beauty different in Kenya and the US?
Halima Aden: Having been back to Kenya twice in the past year – once for a Ted Talk with UNICEF at my camp and once to shoot Sports Illustrated Swimsuit – I can tell you that the locals were not impressed with me.  Ha!  I’m the model and here they are wanting to take photos with my blonde hair, fair skin manager.  They thought she was the celebrity.  All joking aside, it makes me wonder if that is what they associate beauty to be… actresses and models in the USA who have those characteristics?  

Why did you decide to get involved with beauty pageants?
Halima Aden: I received a letter to compete in the Miss Minnesota USA pageant and was so excited for the opportunity to meet other girls my age from across the state and really have a weekend all about us.  The college scholarship opportunities were a big draw for me too.  I did my research before the pageant weekend and came to learn that the Miss Universe Organization had been celebrating the diversity of women around the world for over 65 years.  It seemed like a natural fit for me.  The pageant was really my first taste of the fashion and beauty world.  I had my make-up professionally done and borrowed an evening gown from another competitor.  

What were the reactions to you wearing a hijab?
Halima Aden: The applause I received when I stepped on the Miss Minnesota USA pageant stage in my hijab and burkini still gives me chills. The crowd and my fellow competitors were so accepting and amazing.  Where I’m from, we call it “Minnesota Nice.”  When I was backstage with the other girls, my hijab never came up in conversation we were just girls having fun and enjoying ourselves. What I was most proud of is that just one year later, I came back to the pageant and there were eight girls wearing the hijab.  Sometimes it just takes one person to step outside of their comfort zone and be the first for other girls to see that they can do it too.

Beauty pageants are often criticised for the strict beauty standards they uphold.  What are your feelings about pageants?  Has your opinion changed over the years since you competed?
Halima Aden: I think people would be surprised to learn, it’s quite the contrary.  Really, often times, it’s the girls who maybe don’t stand a chance to actually win the pageant that benefit the most from the experience.  How many young girls put themselves in situations where they get to stand on a stage and be applauded.  It’s an event that is all about women’s empowerment and celebrating each other.  I can’t tell you how many of the girls I competed with who have credited the pageant to landing jobs or opportunities due to the interview experience they gained the weekend of the pageant.  The motto of the Miss Universe Organization is “Confidently Beautiful” and I felt just that when I competed.  I think people sometimes fail to recognise that with beauty, comes power.  When you have the ability to turn heads, you can do some pretty positive things.  The women who capture the crown and hold these titles are movers and shakers doing incredible charity work.  They align themselves with various causes and organisations to bring awareness and raise funds.  It’s admirable.   

How did you get into modelling?
Halima Aden: I became a model from my experience with the pageant. That’s how I was scouted. I garnered a lot of international media attention because I wore a hijab and burkini, a fully covered modest swimsuit. I was then asked to come in for a follow-up meeting with IMG where I laid out my conditions:  wearing my hijab at all times, being styled in clothes that don’t reveal skin, a private changing space, and having my female manager dress me on set. IMG agreed to it all. It’s really important to say what you are comfortable with, and I feel like it is my job to set a precedent for others who are entering the industry.

What does being a model mean to you?
Halima Aden: To me, being a model means so much more than putting on designer clothes and make-up. I’ve used my platform to combine fashion and activism, two things I feel very much go hand-in-hand.  I’m constantly thinking about how I can make the connection.  When I was back at the refugee camp last summer, many of the students there told me they wanted to become pilots.  I remember instantly asking if Etihad Airlines, who I had previously worked with on a “Runway to Runway” event would have the pilots send letters to the kids.  I feel like my brain is always trying to connect the dots and combine my two worlds of working as a model and as a UNICEF Ambassador.  I was recently in the Philippines with Vita Coco learning more about the incredible work they are doing on the ground for coconut farmers and the schools there and we did a fashion show for the kids. It’s about being a model, but also a role model as cheesy as that sounds.

When do you feel most beautiful?
Halima Aden: Honestly, I feel most beautiful with my make-up on point.  I have my go-to gal in NYC, Meg, and when she does my make-up, I feel like I can take on the world. 

Do you ever feel insecure?  How do you overcome those feelings?
Halima Aden: Who doesn’t?  Absolutely, I feel insecure.  I overcome it by reminding myself not to compare myself to others.  I need to be the best authentic version of me.  I also overcome it by surrounding myself with positive people.  I have a team and tribe of incredible women behind me.  They continue to uplift me and be my voice of reason.  I also see all of my girls on Instagram messaging me – I see you ladies and I appreciate your support always!

Where do you think the industry is in terms of visibility and diversity.  What still needs to be done?
Halima Aden: I can speak first hand that unless you see someone who looks like you in an ad or on a billboard, it’s hard to envision yourself wearing something. The truth of the matter is, mainstream fashion brands have pieces that work for the modest dresser, it may just mean layering or including a turtleneck and pants or adding a skirt. It can be done.  I think brands are recognising this and using models who their shoppers can relate to in ads.  The same goes for make-up brands; many are featuring models with a wide range of skin-tones in their campaigns. That’s important for every little girl out there.  They all deserve to see someone who looks like them or who they can in some way connect with wearing a make-up product or piece of clothing. 

How do you hope to change it personally?
Halima Aden: I’ve lived by the mantra, “Don’t change yourself, change the game.”  I think I can continue to change the industry by being present and telling my story.  There are still a lot of spaces we have yet to see a hijabi woman and whether that’s me or someone else, I want us to tackle as many of those uncharted territories as possible.  It will make it easier for the next set of girls.