(KMSP) - Growing up, Halima Aden says she never dreamed of being a model—but then again, that could be because she never saw anyone on TV or in magazines that looked like her.
19-year-old Aden is Somali-American and chooses to wear traditional religious clothing—including a head scarf called a hijab.
"Growing up, I knew I had a problem with not feeling like I was represented and that's something that was a challenge for me,” she said. “But the older I got the more I started to realize I could be that image, I could be that change."
Last year, Aden became the first woman to compete in the Miss Minnesota USA competition wearing a hijab. Although she didn’t walk away with a title, the national attention she received resulted in several modeling offers.
"It's been one opportunity after the other, it's been unbelievable,” said Aden, giggling like the teenager she is. “I can’t put it into words.”
Aden was born in a refugee camp in Kenya and came to the United States when she was six years old. She has lived in St. Cloud for the majority of her young life, and is a U.S. citizen. She says she likes wearing a hijab and will not change her values.
“I’m not oppressed. I’m the opposite of oppressed—I’m telling you,” she said. “If I choose to cover up that doesn’t mean I have the right to bully or harass someone who chooses not to. And vice versa. We should all respect one another.”
This week, Aden was signed to IMG Models, one of the biggest modeling agencies in the world. Other models signed to IMG include Chrissy Teigen, Gigi Hadid, and Gisele Bundchen.
On Wednesday night, she walked in her first runway show—at New York Fashion Week, no less—for Kanye West’s Yeezy clothing line.
“It’s really beautiful for me to be different and be celebrated for being different,” she said of modeling in modest clothing while wearing a hijab.
While being the newcomer in a line-up of professionals can be intimidating, Aden says from photographers to other models, everyone has been kind. She says she even got some walking tips from fellow models backstage.
“Everybody is just so welcoming,” she said. “You can sense that I’m different, but they just want to get to know me.”
Aden has quickly landed some impressive editorial gigs as well. She was recently photographed by fashion legend Mario Sorrenti and will be featured in CR Fashion Book this spring.
"I have seen her in front of now two of the top photographers in the world and they’ve both turned to me and said, ‘you're kidding me she's never done this before’ because she's such a natural,” said Aden’s Miss Minnesota USA mentor and now manager Denise Wallace of Future Productions.
Aden says she hopes to use her public image to not only challenge norms but encourage young people to embrace those things that make them different.
"Every kid deserves to look in the media and say, okay there's somebody who looks like me somebody dressed like me someone I can relate to,” she said.