Halima Aden has had a whirlwind couple of years. Following her history-making turn as the first Miss Minnesota contestant to compete in a burkini and hijab, the 21-year-old has gone on to grace the pages of magazines and walk runways, shattering stereotypes and serving as an inspiration to people who had previously not seen themselves represented in fashion and media.
Aden celebrated another victory just this week, when she became the first Sports Illustrated model to pose in its yearly Swimsuit Issue wearing a burkini and hijab. In a glossy historically devoted to the practice of ogling women in next to no clothing, her inclusion is refreshing and new ― much like her outlook on the industry itself.
That’s what makes Aden’s next gig so exciting. This summer she will serve as an honorary counselor at IMG Fashion Camp, run by the modeling agency she works with. The weeklong program gives young people interested in fashion access to, and one-on-one time with, experts across the industry, including Aden.
Aden chatted with HuffPost about the message she wants to send to young people, how it feels to be paving the way in the fashion industry, and just what it was like to land the SI Swimsuit Issue.
You were at Fashion Camp last year. Why did you decide to go back?
To be there last year to meet the campers and see how excited they were to learn about the industry was so exciting. The kids were so amazing to be around. IMG is the first agency to sign a hijab-wearing model ― all these firsts wouldn’t be possible without them. I get messages from girls all the time about it. There’s a whole group of women being represented now who didn’t think they could find their spot in fashion.
What message do you want to send to the young people who look up to you?
I’m just excited to share my story with our future leaders. When I was young we had “America’s Next Top Model,” and boy is the industry not like that. I’m excited to share the business of fashion. Every photo shoot I’ve ever done has an article attached; it gives people the opportunity to read about a young, Muslim, hijab-wearing girl who came from a refugee camp. It’s an educational tool. It’s so much more than, “Oh, I’m a model.” Fashion is deeper than that today. People are trying to have models not just be a face but also have a message, a cause they are passionate about.
What is that cause for you?
I’m a UNICEF ambassador. All these incredible things are happening with the industry combining fashion with everything UNICEF is doing. Gigi [Hadid] and my cover for CR Fashion Book was the first time a fashion magazine had models wearing UNICEF shirts on the cover.
Speaking of being the “first,” do you experience any backlash for it? How do you handle it?
I understand the people closest to me are rooting for me. When I see people supporting me, it’s easy to see those comments and brush them off. They don’t matter. They’re coming from people who never took the time to learn about my story. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion. For me, it’s recognizing the greater picture, which is the positive comments and messages. I pay everything else no mind.
What did being the first model to pose in a burkini and hijab for Sports Illustrated feel like?
[Screams] I was so excited! I got my start wearing a burkini on the Miss Minnesota USA stage, so in a way, it was life coming full circle.
Did you ever imagine when you were standing on that stage that this would be your life today?
I don’t think there’s any way to imagine that I would get signed, have a career, shoot for SI? I could have never predicted it. I want to share with young people you don’t know where life is going to take you, you don’t know where you are going to find success, so it’s important to make the most out of every opportunity.
How have you put that into practice?
By simply making the choice that I was going to step out of my comfort zone and compete for Miss Minnesota, not conforming but wearing a burkini and my hijab. It was also important for me to stand alongside women who were wearing bikinis, because for me that’s always been the messaging. I can be covered and support the next girl and vice versa. I believe today every agency has a hijabi if not multiple on their roster. We as humans need someone to go be the first, do the unknown and then people pick up on that.
Have you see firsthand how you’ve been able to have an impact?
I just did another interview where they showed me a video they filmed with some high-school hijabi students. These girls were rooting for me. They shared how my journey has inspired them. Before I came along, there was not a single hijabi for them to relate to in mainstream media or fashion who had a positive story. So now these girls are going to do sports and all these things because they’re like, “If Halima can do it, so can I.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.