Halima Aden doesn’t seem like a regular 21-year-old. She's got the sort of presence you expect from someone older. She's ultra stylish, perfectly poised, witty — and she’s already been through more than the average 20-something, so her recent activities only add to her impressive cache.
As the first model to wear a hijab in Sports Illustrated, Aden made the transition from well known in fashion to known in the wider world — all within the last six months. And what a ride it’s been. From her first turn on the runway in 2016, where she walked in a hijab for Miss Minnesota USA, right up until the famous Sports Illustrated moment, Aden has been breaking records all over the place — something she admits has been rewarding.
“I might have been the first Muslim, hijab-wearing model but fast-forward to now on the runway, it's not uncommon to see a Hijabi, it's not uncommon to hear about a Hijabi model, but I had to be the first and I had to take that risk,” she tells us in Sydney, where the model is in town with IMG and Huawei as a special guest of Carla Zampatti.
“It was funny because I completed because I thought ‘Oh this is a good platform for scholarship opportunities and networking’ — and it’s really the only event that brings together women from all different backgrounds in my state. That’s originally why I competed. But then the fact that it opened the door for fashion and modelling and so much more that's just incredible…” she says.
Sharing that there’s been less hardship cracking into the ultra-competitive industry than one might think, Aden is quick to acknowledge those who came before — and has only good things to say about working as a Hijabi in fashion.
“People would expect me to have had struggles on sets or shoots, but actually since day one everybody that I’ve ever worked with has been so accommodating and so respectful, going above and beyond to ensure that I feel confident and comfortable in whatever I’m doing. It shows me that the industry has already changed, before I even stepped in it it was already going towards the right direction.”
Now, after a brief struggle with her family over what exactly modelling would mean for Aden and her future, the model shares how her mother has come around to her career. Admitting that while her mother didn’t quite understand in the beginning, she now sees the impact her daughter is having on the wider world.
“Well here's the thing for my mom, she always wanted me to be a boss woman,” she says. “She always wanted me to use every opportunity to really chase down the American dream, because she escaped the civil war in Somalia, raised us in a refugee camp... so for us to come to America, she's like, you have no excuse but to be successful in whatever you do whether that's being a teacher, a nurse, whatever.”
Now, Aden is seeing the other side. Now a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, Aden has travelled to the very same camps she once lived in and met with children who, like she was, are running from violence and war. Noting the sentimental nature of her life events, Aden remains hopefully that she’s able to make a difference — and make her family proud along the way.
“I grew up in a refugee camp in Kakuma, so early on I knew what I always aspired to be, and that was to work with Unicef or to work with the UN. Because I saw them on the ground first hand! The fact that modelling and fashion opened the doors to something that I've always valued… well, it shows you that today you don't just have to be a model, it's okay to have a voice to use your platform for other things.”