Just two years ago, Halima Aden competed in the Miss Minnesota USA beauty pageant as a St. Cloud teen, becoming the first to wear a hijab and burkini in the contest.
Now, the Somali-American is a UNICEF ambassador and a trailblazing supermodel, landing on magazine covers like Allure and British Vogue and walking the runways in New York and Milan.
On Tuesday, Aden will be telling stories from her life onstage at Minneapolis’ Pantages Theatre as part of an event called “Together Live.”
The brainchild of literary agent Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, who produced Oprah’s “The Life You Want” tour, “Together Live” brings high-profile women of diverse ages, backgrounds and experiences together for storytelling nights in 10 cities across the U.S. and Canada.
The tour is backed by Reese Witherspoon’s company, Hello Sunshine, which is also producing a podcast. (Witherspoon won’t be in Minneapolis.)
We talked to Aden about sharing the stage with women like author Luvvie Ajayi, “Burning House” singer Cam and comedian Sabrina Jalees, her recent efforts at “adulting,” and the impact of her popular TED Talk, which was filmed in her birthplace, the Kenyan refugee camp Kakuma.
Q: What are you most looking forward to about “Together Live”?
A: It’s really going to be a very special event. I’m excited to share my story and my journey with the audience. This is going to be more of a raw conversation, and people being their authentic self.
Q: If you could distill your message, what would it be?
A: Be the first. Don’t be scared to put yourself out there. As much as people learn from that, I think they learn just as much from things that you didn’t succeed in, or a time in your life that was difficult to get through.
Q: Do you talk about times in your life that were difficult?
A: I have so many high points to share. It really started from getting to leave Kenya to come to this great nation, America. I’ll never forget how exciting that entire experience was, to move an entire continent and to start a new life. With that came lots of ups and downs.
At first we were located in St. Louis [Missouri], where we knew nobody. I was going to a school that didn’t have an English immersion program, so every day, going to school and not learning a thing. We were also living in a crime-filled area, where it was very impoverished. I can definitely say that was a low point. But then getting to leave St. Louis, and coming to St. Cloud … I met teachers who were so dedicated to making sure that I caught up, and that I was learning. I can’t tell you what that all meant.
Q: What is your day-to-day life like now?
A: I actually moved into my first apartment, in St. Paul, downtown. It’s exciting, because I feel like I’m adulting. I’m living on my own. I moved in in the beginning of October and I think that I’ve actually been in the apartment for not even a week. So that shows you how often we are traveling.
I just got back from Colorado, I was judging the Miss Colorado USA pageant. And then, right before that, we came from Dubai. It was really exciting. I was part of [launching] a Max Mara capsule collection, exclusive to the Middle East. It was amazing.
Q: What makes you a good fit for “Together Live?”
A: Storytelling. I’m Somali. We didn’t have a written language up until, like, 60 years ago, so everything in our culture was very much oral. That’s how we communicate, that’s how we share history, family lineage. And I think I also understand the depth and just how important storytelling is. You can apply it to your life. “Oh, this is what she did. She refused to say no, and look at her today. She believed in herself, and here she is today.” Even from people’s mistakes and shortcomings, you can learn so much.
Q: Your TED talk has gotten nearly a million views. Why do people connect so strongly with your story?
A: I think what resonated for people was the idea that this girl lived in this camp, and today, look at what she’s doing. I think that part is very inspiring to people, only because how many of those stories do you get to hear, where somebody goes from a refugee camp to a cover model working in the fashion industry? It’s not something you hear every day.
I also do think being black, being Muslim, being Somali, being American on top of that, a lot of different people relate to different parts of my story.
Q: Was filming in the refugee camp where you were born significant for you?
A: It was mind-boggling. It gives me so much hope, because if we were able to bring TED into a refugee camp, and livestream it to the entire world, if we can do this, maybe one day there will be Wi-Fi in the camps, maybe one day there will be a smart board within the classrooms.
Q: Do you miss Minnesota when you’re on the road?
A: People must really think that I’m on Minnesota’s PR team, because of how often I bring up Minnesota and living here. Especially in New York, people ask, “When are you going to move here? You have to move here. What’s in Minnesota?”
Never say never, but for me, I definitely don’t want to move from Minnesota. I like that I can go to a place like New York, where it’s hectic, where it’s go, go, go, work, work, work, all about the hustle, and I can come back home, and it’s my own peaceful sanctuary.
To me, Minnesota is where I grew up, I’m an hour away from where my mom lives, my friends are all here. I don’t think there’s ever going to be a place like this — only because Minnesota is home for me.