Khadija Adam

For two decades, Khadija Adam was the subject of countless photo shoots. She strutted down the glittering runways of the world’s fashion capitals, gracing the covers of Cosmopolitan and Timemagazines; shooting into the limelight, she struck gold as a pioneer Kenyan international model. Former Miss Kenya, Khadija Adam, has rich memories of her days on the global cat – walk. This role model for a whole generation of young girls stole the limelight when she was crowned Miss Kenya in the early 1980s. She went on to participate in the Miss World con – test in 1984, reaching the semi-finals where she was crowned Miss Africa. For well over a decade, Adam featured on the covers of Cosmopolitan and Time magazines and was the subject of countless photoshoots. But intriguingly, Adam admits she never fancied the career that saw her strut international runways.

Clad in black trousers and a modest blouse, her simplicity is what strikes you first: no high heels, showy clothes, or designer handbag, quite unlike your stereotypical model. She considers herself down-to-earth, predictable, old-fashioned and a world citizen who dislikes borders. In her opinion, people should be free to go wherever they want. “I’m not into fancy things. I’ve worn the most expensive things in the world; once, I wore a dress made purely of diamonds. It could have fed half of Kenya for years,” she recalls wistfully. Adam spent her early childhood in Nyeri under the care of her grandparents. Her up – bringing was, in her words, “most wonderful.” Growing up under the tutelage of her freedom-fighter grandmother made her old-fashioned and independent. “I was trained to be a good housewife. I was taught how to cook and run a household. At the age of nine, I cooked for about 60 guests all by myself!”

In Nyeri she grew up alongside her two brothers Mohamed, Mohamud and first cousin Abdi, and as such, she became a tom – boy of sorts. She moved to Nairobi at around the of age of seven to live with her biological mother Halima Farah, her stepfather Hon. A. A. Hirsi, her sister Fatima Hirsi and her two other brothers Captain Ahmed Ali and Suleiman. In Nairobi, she had to leave her tomboy ways behind, as she now had to wear dresses. Her modeling début was quite dramatic. She was about 14 when she walked into a grocer’s shop in Hurlingham and noticed a white man trailing her. Feeling uneasy, she reported the strange man to the shop owner. “He laughed and told me not to worry. ‘That is Peter Beard, the fashion photographer who discovered the likes of Iman’,” he reassured her. “The photographer came up to me and asked if I wanted to be a model, and I said, ‘No!’ He was doing a book, he said, and would pay me just to take a picture of my face.”

It took a whole year, but she eventually went to have the photograph shot, and it changed her life. Sometime later, she received a call from the late Mildred Awiti, who informed her that she had been nominated as a contestant for Miss Kenya. Awiti who was in PR and marketing was also a fashionista who worked for African Heritage as a model. Adam was shocked. “I wondered what being nominated for Miss Kenya meant.” Awiti invited her to an event that same evening. No information was forthcoming; she was asked to just show up. It turned out that she had been entered in a competition and they had decided she was the best candidate. “It’s not like today where there is an actual competition. There were 10 or 12 women, and I was told I had won.” Her journey to becoming one of Kenya’s pioneer internationally acclaimed models began with that nomination. She was informed that she would be leaving for London to take part in the November 1984 Miss World contest; her air ticket was already paid for. She flew out with only a pair of jeans, two T-shirts and two pairs of sneakers. “At that time, we had no concept of Miss Kenya in this country,” she recalls.

On arrival, she saw that the other contestants had chaperones, make-up artists and stylists, an there she was, freezing in a T-shirt. It was the price she had to pay for leaving without parental consent. “They had refused, so I took off.” A friend called to find out how things were going, and she admitted that she was freezing. “He sent the most amazing coat. It was cashmere. I didn’t realise how expensive it was. I wore it over my jeans,” she laughs. For someone without support, Adam thinks she did pretty well. She was among the top 15 semi-finalists and might have taken the crown, but for her outspokenness. “The organisers said they couldn’t make me Miss World because I was too radical,” she says. “I questioned everything; why did I have to do this, that or the other…?” That is the philosophy the model stuck to throughout her career. “I refused to pose naked. I was offered a lot of money to appear on the cover of Playboy magazine at one time but I refused.”

Shows and lucrative contracts followed. “It was show after show,” she recalls. “You’d wake up at 3am in a different country with a camera in your face. Someone would open the door to your
room, and while you were sleeping, they’d start doing your make-up… a hundred people touching you almost every day; they don’t make much noise, they’re very quiet.” “Most pictures were taken when the light was perfect. At dawn when the sun was just coming up, or at dusk when the sun was going down,” she explains. Adam modeled for almost 20 years, yet she never quite bought into it. She says, “It was socio-economic. I had to take care of a lot of people. I did everything correctly and I was very focused.

I took any job. When someone turned down a job because she had a party to attend, I took it. I had bills to pay.” Her grandmother taught her that education was the way to go, and Adam believes in educating people. I was paying school fees for many people,” she says. During her modeling career, money and fame never went to her head. She never partied, smoked, or did drugs. For this she earned the moniker ‘the mysterious one’.

“If you were brought up by my grandmother, you were balanced in the head and you knew that back home, there were people who respected you,” she explains. Kenya and her family were at the core of everything she did. “As long as I was flying that flag and I had people who respected me, I was not going to embarrass them. I was going to be the best ambassador they ever sent out.” It wasn’t easy being the odd one out. “I was called Mother Teresa because I’d be offered everything and I’d always say no. So they’d say, ‘don’t show her that; she’s Mother Teresa.” In spite of its temptations, the fashion world also has its high points. “You meet a lot of stars.

The money is good. The travel is great, and so are the different cultures you encounter. And the friends… you’ve got friends in every country,” she says. Adam picked up many helpful lessons
along the way. “When you watch someone put on two kilos and they’re told that they’re fat yet they look like a rake, then you learn kindness.” She confesses that one of the things she hated
about fashion is the fact that one is judged, “not by what you have personally achieved, but by your looks.” Always trusting in God, she prayed whenever she was scared and whenever she had to make a decision. “You learn survival because you travel on your own. You learn how to protect yourself. You learn how to be aware of who’s behind you.” Her proudest moment was during an awards ceremony in New Jersey and Muhammad Ali came up to her in an elevator and did a magic trick behind her ear. “I didn’t realise it was him. He said, ‘I know you.’ I turned around and it was Muhammad! He continued, ‘I’ve seen your pictures and I’ve followed you, you’re a good girl; keep up what you’re doing and don’t be like every other girl…’” He later sent her a Quran he had signed. Then there was a time she was wearing a tight dress just before a show and could not bend to secure her shoe. She was forced to signal for help.

Someone walked in and fastened her shoe, and when she turned to thank the Good Samaritan, it was British actress Audrey Hepburn! “Imagine Audrey Hepburn on her knee, putting a shoe on me. It can’t get better than that, can it? That was quite amazing.” Adam’s modeling career wound down in 1997. “I thought I had done my duty, taken care of my family and I was tired of being on a plane every day. And then I’d be on the runway with 15-year-old girls.” She got married in 1995, by which time she was not working much. She did her last show after she was married to her husband Jonathan Reid. Adam intended to come back to Kenya and host an Oprah kind of show, but realised that Kenya was not ready for the genre, and the topics she would have addressed would have been too controversial. She went into mining gypsum instead, establishing a company in 2005.

She jokes about it, quipping that she went from diva to dust, because “when you are there, you leave the factory covered in dust.” It was a tough transformation in a male-dominated industry. She had to do better than the men. “When they do 50 per cent, you have to give 100 per cent.” But why didn’t she consider a modeling agency? She confesses that although girls in Kenya are very beautiful, she doesn’t like the nature of the job. Age is catching up, and Adam is now very comfortable in her own skin and enjoys a down-to-earth look. And while it is not easy to recognise her on the street, she affirms, however, that she can “transform in a flash.” Her leisure time is spent visiting friends and family or going out with her husband when he is around. She loves watching documentaries, listening to jazz music and doing a little painting. She also likes to read on her Kindle, which has hundreds of books. She absolutely loves cooking and shares that she makes a great steak as well as pilau. Adam sees potential in the fashion and beauty industry, advising that we need to be more competitive and that the Government should get involved in helping Kenyan models and designers compete internationally. “We need to support young talent in the industry from the grassroots,” she says, adding that she is developing a concept to give young models and talented designers a chance to grow.

Adam’s dream is to empower Kenyans to be self-sufficient in the fashion industry. She is now working on setting up a venture that will focus on training talent in the diverse aspects of fashion and beauty. “We can develop all we need locally without having to import.” Adam counts her mother, grandmother and sister Fatuma as her biggest role models who still continue to inspire her.

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