Minnesota Somali model walks runways in Milan — and cleans hospital rooms in St. Cloud
Halima Aden made her way down a dark hallway at St. Cloud Hospital on a recent afternoon, her slight figure obscured by the cleaning cart she pushed.
Dressed in her housekeeping uniform, she headed to the room of a recently discharged patient. She stripped the bed, removing the bedsheets and pillowcases. Then she tackled the bathroom, bending low to scrub the toilet. She stood up briefly to admire her work — a satisfied look on her makeup-less face.
This might seem like a strange transition for someone who was last seen wearing a shimmering trench coat while strutting past a bevy of photographers at the Max Mara show for Milan Fashion Week. That came right after she dazzled the audience — packed with faces that regularly turn up in People magazine — at Kanye West’s glitzy Yeezy show during New York Fashion Week.
But no matter how incongruous the notion of a model moonlighting as a housekeeper may seem, to Aden, 19, there’s nothing at all unusual about it. Both are part of who she is.
“I’m proud of my modeling job, but I’m also proud of this job and that this was my start,” she said. “You go home and you feel good — especially if you’ve done a lot of rooms that night.”
Aden was back at her old job for the first time since she was discovered by modeling scouts last fall and swept up in the jet-setting world of high fashion. She was making a weeklong visit home before jumping on a plane to her next stop — London.
She burst on the scene in November, when she sashayed her way to history as the first contestant in the Miss Minnesota USA beauty pageant to compete wearing a hijab and burkini. Although she didn’t win the contest, the image of her megawatt smile and covered silhouette alongside women sporting swimsuits and flowing hair thrust her into a media spotlight that led to her being signed by international modeling agency IMG Models.
Since then, the number of people following her on Instagram has skyrocketed from 2,000 to 100,000. Vogue and Cosmopolitan dubbed her this season’s breakout star. Supermodel Iman, a fellow Somali Muslim, interviewed her for the cover of CR Fashion Book. And she just got word that she’s featured in a photo shoot in the Harper’s Bazaar magazine that goes on sale later this month.
No one is more stunned than Aden by her newfound fame.
“It’s absolutely mind-boggling, to be honest,” she said. “It’s something completely new, and I’m still getting used to it.”
From refugee to homecoming queen
It’s a life she could never have dreamed for herself.
Born in a Kenyan refugee camp, Aden and her family stood in long lines for water and had to barter for pots and pans and coal. Aden drank PediaSure in the camp because she was underweight. She grew accustomed to the taste and still drinks it.
When she was 7, her family joined the waves of Somali refugees resettling in the United States. Their first stop was St. Louis, where Aden struggled to acclimate. She couldn’t speak English, and there was no program at her school for students learning English as a second language.
She called it “the worst time of my life.” Every day she went to school and couldn’t understand what was going on, she said. None of the other kids talked to her, leaving her feeling isolated.
But it wasn’t long before the family was on the move again — this time to St. Cloud, where Aden found friends and support from her teachers, who pushed her to learn English. By the time she entered Apollo High School, she was turning heads and breaking barriers.
Aden — whom friends describe as independent, self-motivated and daring enough to try things no one else will — put in her name for homecoming queen. She won, becoming the school’s first Somali student to be crowned.
That same gumption led her to enter the Miss Minnesota USA pageant. She said she wanted to prove it was possible to stay true to one’s beliefs and participate in events such as a pageant.
“I did notice growing up that there are so many things, obstacles and things that people think you can’t do because you’re Muslim or because you’re wearing a hijab,” she said. “You hear a lot of no’s. That was something that I wanted to see change.”
The day after the pageant, she got a call from one of the organizers saying, “You won’t believe this, but CR Fashion Book wants to fly you to New York so you can shoot for them to be in the magazine!” The previous issue of the magazine had Rihanna in it, she was told.
“As soon as I heard Rihanna, I was like, ‘Omigod, I love Rihanna, so yeah!’ ” Aden said. “I said, ‘Yeah, I’m down.’ ”
Her contract with IMG Models — the same agency that represents Gisele Bündchen and Kate Moss — is for three years with an automatic renewal, said Denise Wallace, Aden’s manager and the executive director and manager for Future Productions in Savage.
“We’re finding that there’s a tremendous amount of intrigue in Halima,” said Ivan Bart, president of IMG Models.
She stands out from the modeling pack in ways beyond wearing a hijab. At 5 feet 5½ inches tall, she’s shorter than most models. Her smile reveals dimpled cheeks and a mouth full of braces. (Aden has worn them, off and on, for six years and said they’re coming off for good in a couple of months.)
Bart calls her an “extreme beauty,” whose fantastic skin, beautiful face and intelligence won him over. Looking forward, he sees no limits to her potential as a model.
“She started off extremely well. And she’s a quick learner,” he said. “It was a big deal to walk Milan Fashion Week and be around models who have done it many more times than she has, and I think she held up very well.”
Aden sees a chance to make the modeling industry more inclusive.
“I feel bad for my little cousins who don’t see themselves being represented, or the little girls in my community who won’t have a chance to see a Disney princess … who resembles them,” she said.
But she’s had to learn how to deal with backlash from some Muslim critics who have denounced her modeling as inappropriate. For advice, Aden turned to Iman.
“I just asked her how is it dealing with people who are in your own community and who don’t understand. She said, ‘You’re bound to have critics no matter what you do in life. So you just have to choose: Do I like what I’m doing enough to ignore the people who are hating on me?’ ”
‘I still do the things I used to do before’
Back in Minnesota, Aden fell into her old routines.
Near the top of her to-do list was to hit the nearest Taco Bell to satisfy a months-long craving. There were chores at home, and she had to get her braces tightened.
“I still do the things I used to do before,” she said. “I’m still a part of this community.”
(One thing that has changed, however, is that she’s taking a semester off from her freshman studies at St. Cloud State University because of her hectic travel schedule. But she vowed to return to college soon.)
One afternoon, a few hours before her hospital shift, Aden stopped at the CashWise in nearby Waite Park to pick up a few groceries.
She wheeled her cart through the aisles, stocking up on PediaSure and passing other shoppers who paid her no mind. She scanned the magazine covers on the rack, searching for her cover — for CR Fashion. The discount grocery did not have the magazine, which sells for $20 an issue.
She shrugged and continued shopping, recalling what it was like to meet famous models Gigi Hadid and Paris Jackson for that fashion shoot.
“You know what I should’ve done,” she said, leaning on her cart. “I should’ve asked all the models in that book to sign it. Kind of like graduation or something.”
Despite rubbing elbows with the rich and famous, she’s grounded and funny, like she was in high school, said longtime pal Shamsa (who did not want her last name used). Shamsa, 19, and another high school friend joined Aden recently for a shopping trip to Karmel Square, a popular Somali mall in Minneapolis.
Sipping fruit smoothies, they strolled through the mall, getting lost at times and laughing at themselves. A woman recognized Aden and rushed to hug her, gushing in Somali.
“I told her, ‘Keep up the good work,’ ” the woman, Amal Araye, said. “I feel so proud of her.” Aden squeezed back, and posed for a selfie with her.
Later, a middle-aged Somali man did a double take walking past Aden and her squad. “Congratulations,” he yelled to her. “I see you.”
Such moments remind Aden to enjoy this unexpected, wonderful ride she’s on. She is doing her best to take a deep breath and play it cool, like she did her first time on the catwalk.
“I was so focused on not tripping,” she said, laughing. “I tried not to make it about who was in the audience, and more about ‘I have this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, let me make the most of it, and let me have a good time.’
“Because modeling could just be a one-season thing for me, and that’s something I’m OK with,” she added. “But I’m going to make sure it’s the best season of my life.”