With racial diversity on the runway an ongoing issue - women of color continue to be overwhelmingly underrepresented – we’ve recently been thinking about the legacy of fashion icon Waris Dirie.
Waris Dirie has walked the runways of all important fashion houses in New York, London, Milan and Paris. She has appeared in advertisements for Chanel, and L’Oreal and has been featured in Vogue, Elle, and Harpers Bazaar – to name but a few. Most importantly, she was the first black model to be used by Oil of Ulay - Waris Dirie began her legacy by proving that beauty did not exclusively require white skin. From the beginning of her career, she has stood as a figure of powerful moral rectitude, questioning and confronting the vain and the superficial so rife in her world.
She was spotted in London by fashion photographer Terence Donovan at (allegedly) the age of 18 and became one of the world’s most famous supermodels. We say allegedly, because the truth is Waris doesn’t know exactly how old she is. As reported by The Daily Telegraph , she thinks she was about 14 when she fled her native Somalia for London. Her uncle needed to give her an age for her passport, and decided it would be 18. Waris had undergone female genital mutilation by the age of five and had been arranged to marry a 60 year man by the age of 13. A fierce determination to fight for what was right, and refute what was wrong, clearly drove her from a young age- she fled Galkayo, Somalia, wanting to escape her destiny and settled in London, where she found a job with McDonalds, taking night classes to learn English.
Unlike some, Waris Dirie never saw her luck and success with the fashion world as a be all and end all saving grace. She says of her modeling career ‘It was not my dream come true… it all just happened.’ Accepting that fashion is fun, ‘ridiculously fun’ she can’t bear the frivolity that in many aspects goes with it - she felt that as a model she was achieving nothing good for the world.
In 1996 she abandoned her modeling career to focus on her work against female circumcision. Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations appointed Waris Dirie as UN Special Ambassador for the elimination of Female Genital Mutilation. The practice has gone down in recent years, but the United Nations estimates that 30 million girls in countries across Africa and the Middle East are still at risk.
In 2002, Dirie established the Desert Flower Foundation to increase awareness, create and provide support networks for victims and organizing events. Her efforts have not gone unnoticed. She has received the “Women’s World Award” by President Mikhail Gorbachev and the “Chévalier de la Légion d’Honneur” by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Waris Dirie is an inspiration. An epitome of grace under pressure she has used the success and platform she was given as best she could to make a positive change in the world. Not satisfied with merely a personal achievement, she has in the face of huge adversity campaigned for what she believes is right. As a child, being a woman seemed, to her, to be painful and unhappy. Realizing the opposite she continues to campaign against this, encouraging young girls like her to be proud of who they are. Regardless of her achievements, the spirit and energy behind her campaign is honorable, and testament to a woman of enormous strength and integrity. And so she is a PG woman, and this Monday’s muse.
Desert Flower Foundation