Halima Aden, the first hijab-wearing supermodel, thought a career in fashion might help her be a role model. But it left her feeling disconnected from her own image. So she's leaving it behind.



Halima Aden had everything she thought she wanted. She made the cover of Vogue and the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated. She walked the runway for Rihanna's Fenty Beauty and Kanye West's Yeezy. And she became known as the first supermodel to wear a hijab. It was a completely different life than she could have imagined when she was a child living in a refugee camp in Kenya after her family fled civil unrest in Somalia. They made their way to the U.S. - Minnesota, to be exact - and that's where she spent the last year, sequestered with her family during the pandemic. It gave her a lot of time to think, and last November, Halima decided to walk away from the fashion industry, just a few years after her modeling career began.

HALIMA ADEN: It really started in 2016 when I competed for Miss Minnesota USA. And I had just done it for the scholarship opportunity, and, you know, was just wanting to give it a try. And modeling fell from the sky and into my lap, and it was a whirlwind ever since.

MARTIN: Your family - I've read there was some mixed reactions to your pursuits.

ADEN: Yeah. You know, my mom - she lived an incredibly difficult, tough life, and for her, education, and my college education especially, was the most important thing to her. So for me to walk away from school and pursue modeling, that was a shock to her because she sacrificed so much. And so she never really was a big fan of my modeling career, but when I had decided to pair it with activism, that's when she, you know, kind of let me do me.

MARTIN: So you saw this not just as a chance to wear gorgeous clothes and to have your photo in magazines but also as a way to help people.

ADEN: Growing up in America, not seeing representation, not seeing anybody who dressed like me, looked like me - it, you know, did make me feel like, wow, what's wrong with me, you know? And I'm sure if I had - if I would have had representation growing up, I would have been so much more confident to wear my hijab, to be myself, to be authentic. But to be that person, to grow up and be on the cover of magazines - you know, I've covered everything from Vogue to Allure, some of the biggest publications in fashion, and yet I still couldn't relate personally to my own image because that's not who I really am. That's not how I really dress. That's not how my hijab really looks. And, you know, fashion - it can be a very creative field, and I completely appreciate that, but my hijab was just getting spread so thin that I knew I had to give it all away, give it up. I'm not a cover girl. I am Halima from Kakuma. You know, I want to be the reason why girls have confidence within themselves, not the reason for their insecurity.

MARTIN: When you say your hijab was being kind of styled out of existence, what different forms - what passed for hijab as you were walking down all these runways?

ADEN: Everything. Oh, my goodness, I had jeans, at one point, on my head as a hijab. I had Gucci pants styled as a turban. It just didn't - it didn't even make sense. And, you know, it just - I felt so far removed from the image itself.

MARTIN: I want to ask about your experience with UNICEF. Modeling, as you said, gave you this platform to help people in a way you hadn't before. You told the BBC that right after you were signed, your first big modeling contract, you asked the agency to put you in touch with UNICEF, and you became an ambassador for that agency, working for children's well-being around the world. Did that experience live up to your expectations?

ADEN: No, it didn't, unfortunately. You know, I was a UNICEF baby. I could spell UNICEF, each and every letter, when I couldn't even spell my own name. It was Minnesota that gave me my first book, my first backpack. It was the people on the ground. It was fellow refugees who came together, banded together to help each other survive and make it through. But I do love what UNICEF stands for, in terms of children's rights, mothers' rights. But at the same time, I think they're not doing enough because it's mostly about their personal brand and not much about the children's education. I want to see more efforts, instead of these fancy galas and red carpets and them being in these industries, like fashion and bringing celebrities to refugee camps for photo ops. I would just prefer that they spent that energy and time and resources back into the children, ensuring that the children have books and school supplies and, you know, really focusing on children's rights and not just about the image itself.

MARTIN: So like so many of us, you've been sequestered with your family during the past year.

ADEN: Yes.

MARTIN: And it's - I mean, a lot of people have had a lot of time to think about their life's path, and this was the case for you. And during this time, you decided to walk away from fashion, walk away from UNICEF, as a result. Was it a complicated decision, or did it feel pretty clear-cut?

ADEN: I'll be honest with you. The feelings that I've had towards the fashion industry and UNICEF - it was just multiplying as the years went on. So it was just festering, you know, because the fashion industry is very known to use these young girls and boys while they're young - age 14 to, you know, like, 24, I think, is the average career of a model. And then they just replace them and move on to a newer model; and same with UNICEF. They've been photographing me and using me since the time I was a baby in a refugee camp. I remember getting those headshots taken, and, you know, it didn't feel - it made me feel like - it's very dehumanizing. And so I wanted to show UNICEF, too, how does it feel to be used? It's not a good feeling, and so let's stop using people.

MARTIN: What are you going to do?

ADEN: I don't know what's next, and that's OK. That's OK because I'm young, and I have time to figure it out. And I'm grateful. I'm grateful to the people that I've met. I'm grateful to the agents that I worked with. I'm grateful for the experiences I was able to have these last four years. But at the same time, I just am also grateful that I don't have to do that anymore because it was in direct conflict with who I am as an individual, as a human being.

MARTIN: Halima Aden, thank you so much for talking with us. And we wish you all the best, not that you need it.

ADEN: Aw, thank you.

MARTIN: It sounds like you know what's what.

ADEN: Thank you so much, Rachel.

MARTIN: We reached out to UNICEF USA for comment. They told us that high-profile volunteers help promote their mission by, quote, "amplifying the voices of children to audiences around the world" and that of every dollar spent, 89 cents goes to children.

(SOUNDBITE OF AFFELAYE'S "COLD OPEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.