Liya Kebede has managed to transition from Vogue cover model to not only actress but also humanitarian. Her latest film, Desert Flower, draws attention to the frequently overlooked issue of female genital mutilation. Liya plays Waris Dirie in the autobiographical story (adapted from the book of the same name) of her meteoric rise in the modeling industry in the late 80s. Waris, who was circumcised at a young age and later fled her clan in Somalia for the promise of freedom in London, where she was discovered mopping floors at a McDonald’s. Liya is spellbinding in the harrowing tale of a woman’s journey from nomad to model to champion of women’s rights. We caught up her after the New York premiere for a very quick Q&A…
Where did you first come across the issue of female circumcision in Africa?
The first time I read Waris’ book. I was aware of it a little bit growing up in Ethiopia, but it was never something that was very close to me. I really discovered it through her book.
Waris’ situation must be hard to relate to. How did you go about preparing for the role?
The book was really like a bible to me. I also did a lot of research while we were shooting in Djibouti, Africa. It was really amazing to have the chance to get immersed in the surroundings.
The modeling scenes must have felt very natural.
Yes, but everything was a journey and I enjoyed every minute.
Are you more focused on acting than modeling now?
Both really. I like to do a little bit of both. Modeling is still very important to me.
Any projects coming up?
Just finished filming Black Gold for next year, about the 1930s oil boom in the Middle East. It also stars Antonio Banderas and Freida Pinto. I’m thrilled to be in the film with them.