In November 2016, Denise Wallace, Executive Co-Director of the Miss Minnesota USA pageant got a phone call from 19-year-old Halima Aden, a freshman of St. Cloud State University asking if she could compete – while wearing her hijab.
It was the first time Ms Wallace spoke with the teen, pulling up her information on her computer.
“Her photo popped up. And I remember distinctly going, “Wow, she is beautiful. I mean I just remember that reaction that I had,” Ms Wallace recalled.
Now the world’s only hijab wearing super model, the Somali-American teen said that wearing the headscarf is simply a part of who she is.
“I wear the hijab every day,” Ms Aden told Reuters.
“It was a no-brainer.”
After the competition Ms Aden made headlines as the first hijab and burkini-sporting contestant in the history of the pageant, the bold move catapulting her career to new heights involving many “firsts”.
Freshly signed by IMG in February, she made her modelling debut on the catwalk of Kanye West’s Yeezy show in New York. Ms Aden as the only hijab-wearing model signed by a major modelling agency to date.
Following her success in New York, she walked on the international runways of Italian fashion houses Max Mara and Alberta Ferretti, alongside the likes of Gigi Hadid and Liu Wen.
Coinciding with Ms Aden’s success, the hijab – one of the most visible signs of Islamic culture – is going mainstream as well, with advertisers, media giants and fashion firms promoting images of the traditional headscarf in ever more ways.
Nike announced it is using its prowess in the sports and leisure market to launch a breathable mesh hijab in spring 2018, becoming the first major sports apparel maker to offer a traditional Islamic head scarf designed for competition.
American retailer American Eagle Outfitters has also created a denim hijab with Ms Aden as its main model. The youthful headscarf sold out in less than a week after it was made available online.
Beauty bible Allure magazine’s editor-in-chief Michelle Lee was also in the mix, putting Ms Aden on the front cover of the magazine’s July issue, describing her as a “normal American teenage girl”.
“She is someone who is so amazingly representative of who we are as America, as a melting pot it totally made sense for us,” Ms Lee said.
Ms Aden was born in Kakuma, a United Nations refugee camp in Kenya, and made it to the United States at the age of seven where she initially settled in St. Louis, Missouri.
She fondly recalls her time at the refugee camp, where children from different religions celebrated each other’s holidays.
“Different people different refugees from all over Africa came together in Kakuma. Yet we still found a common ground,” she said.
“And then coming here it was a little different because that wasn’t always the case.”
In America she became an A-student and homecoming queen at her high school, but always noticed that there were no Muslim-Americans in the media that she could look up to.
Her ultimate goal is to become a role model for Muslim-American youth.
For any hijab-denouncers, Ms Aden always stresses that she started wearing hers in the hopes to resemble her mom.
“Anything in life, if it’s not your choice, it’s oppressive. So I’m not going to argue against that. But for the majority it’s a choice. Like for me it was a choice,” she said.
By her side is Ms Wallace, who now travels the world as her manager, making sure that Ms Aden’s customs are respected.
Most of the time people are understanding, but even if they are not, Ms Aden said that she doesn’t pay too much attention.
“I am doing me and I have no reason to think that other people are against me. So I just I guess I’m oblivious,” she said.
For now Ms Aden is content being a champion for diversity in the modelling industry, but in time she hopes to return to Kakuma to work with refugee children to show them they all have the potential to become international stars.