When 37-year-old model Kiara Kabukuru sat down with Style.com, she was just back from a trip. No, she wasn't returning from Europe after a shoot with Steven Meisel, Paolo Roversi, Craig McDean, or Mario Testino—all of whom have photographed her in the past. Rather, she had been in South Carolina, where she mentors at-risk children with the Building Dreams Foundation. "For me to be able to help other people, the way that other people helped me, it just all makes sense," she said.
Kabukuru began modeling in the nineties, after having been discovered in an L.A. mall by a surf photographer. Soon enough, she was living in New York with Bridget Hall, landing slews of editorials—not to mention a Vogue cover—and stomping runways for everyone from Gucci (she was—and is—a Tom Ford favorite) to Chanel to Dior. It's hard to believe that, just over a decade prior, Kabukuru had fled Uganda for Los Angeles as a political refugee. What's perhaps harder to believe is that, in 2000, after finally leaving her traumatic childhood behind, Kabukuru was run over by a semi-truck in New York. Her face was mangled, her teeth knocked out, and she was forced to confront a whole new set of demons, along with the ones she thought she'd escaped.
But you wouldn't know it—any of it—by looking at her. Kabukuru, or Alice as her friends and mentees call her ("Kiara" was conceived when she started modeling), is genuinely vivacious. She laughs after every few sentences and flashes wide, bright smiles while she speaks. Perhaps that's why her comeback—which began in 2002 with a five-year-long CoverGirl campaign and a shoot for Vogue Italia's Black Issue in 2008, and is now in full swing after two recent editorials in Carine Roitfeld's CR Fashion Book and a return to Tom Ford's runway—has been such a success. Here, Kabukuru, who will be hosting Style.com's CFDA broadcast (set to air on June 4), talks about her childhood, her nineties modeling days, the accident, and the steadfast friends—like Ford and Gisele Bündchen—who've helped her get back on top.
KZ: Fleeing from Uganda and becoming a top model are two pretty significant, and dichotomous, experiences. How did you cope with that as a kid?
KK: The whole thing was drastic, moving from Uganda to L.A. It was majorly drastic. I moved when I was 6, and I didn't start modeling until I was 17, so there were quite a few years in between. I went back to Uganda a few years ago to start this documentary on my family history. I interviewed all my grandparents. One of the interesting things that I learned was that my [maternal] grandmother didn't even wear clothes before she met my grandfather. She wore hides, and then two generations later, I'm in New York modeling clothes. It's really a span of all these different worlds.
Do you remember anything of your time in Uganda, or were you too young?
I do. I remember a lot. I remember pretty intense stuff like dead bodies and pools of blood, hiding, and just always being in this bubble where I knew that people were kind of protecting me. But when you're that young, you don't understand everything.
How did you first start modeling?
I've just had so much luck in my life. I was buying a Mother's Day gift at a mall and this surf photographer—he wasn't even a fashion photographer—stopped me and said, "You really could be a model." I took his card and ended up doing test shots with him for a whole year. It was pre-Kate Moss, and I was about 5' 7" and three quarters at the time, so everybody said, "You're really small. Maybe TV, maybe commercials." But this one woman was like, "OK, we're going to sign you. We can't promise you anything." Then, when I was 17, I came to New York and got booked for a Levi's campaign with Albert Watson. I was sent out to go see Calvin Klein and Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren. They had a great reaction, and then I got booked for this huge Clinique job with Mario Testino.
What was it like coming up during the glory days of nineties supermodeldom?
It really was the glory days. The money was flowing. People would pay you to travel and there were great rates. I remember we were flying back and forth on the Concorde just to make jobs because we were that busy. I mean, there was a time obviously when I was doing all the rounds and I finally got my big break through Tom Ford, doing his charity show in London. When it hit, it was just massive. I was working with everybody and shooting the cover of American Vogue. It was pretty amazing.
Tom Ford has played a big role in your career. What is your relationship with him?
The first time I met him was at his show in London. I was backstage and he literally just walked up to me and said, "Hi, I'm Tom Ford and I think you're great." And I was like, that's amazing. It was interesting because the season before that, I was in Milan and had not booked any shows, and then he booked me exclusively for Gucci, and that was so huge because, you know, then you're special. He's just such a real, warm person.
What was going on in your career around the time of your accident?
Well, literally that week I was supposed to sign this CoverGirl contract. So it was really devastating in a lot of ways.
Can you tell me a little bit about what happened on the day of the crash?
I'm going to get emotional. I was getting groceries. My then boyfriend lived in London—that was the other thing: I was madly in love, like, three months into this relationship. So he was on his way from London, and I had bought this bike a month before the accident. I went to Chelsea Market, and I was at the corner of Ninth Avenue and 14th Street. I saw the truck and thought that he was going straight and that I had the right of way, but when I got in the middle of the street, everything went into slow motion. I looked up and tried to get this guy's attention in the truck, but it was too late, and it hit me. I went down, and I remember all this blood rushing, this hot blood and this taste of blood. And I thought, "Oh my God, this is happening. This is the end." He sped up and started dragging me underneath the truck and a voice in my head said, "You could really pass out now. What are you waiting for? This is how it's going to happen." And then this other voice was like, "Well, it's the last moments of your life. Why don't you just experience what's going to happen to you?" As soon as that voice finished, the truck was over me. It had been dragging me by the back of my head, dragged my four front teeth out. I saw my teeth on the ground.
So you were conscious through all of this?
Yes. I had been profusely bleeding, and it was almost this out-of-body experience of trying to manage it. I remembered every medical show I'd ever seen, and I went into this hyper, take-care-of-everything mode. It was Memorial Day weekend. I remember, right after it happened, I thought, "Wow, this changes everything. This is a whole other life now."
Did you ever think you'd go back to modeling?
At the time, I didn't know how long it was going to take me. It's a fast-moving business, so as soon as you're out, things happen. Things change and people fill your space. I was in contact with the agency, but my teeth were missing, so that stopped me from any kind of work. I had to heal and have all the bones [in my face] come out and have gum-grafting and bone-grafting. So I was walking around without teeth for a couple of months. I was so traumatized.
Do you feel like you've recovered from the emotional trauma?
I definitely feel really strong now. I feel like I've gone through a major healing cycle. It's just one of these things where it becomes part of your life—this trauma and this understanding of trauma and pain, and because my life before had also had so much trauma in it, all that came back up. I felt like there was nowhere to go but to face everything that had happened. Funnily enough, right before the accident, I was like, "I've survived it. I got away from my family, we survived Uganda, I'm really successful, I'm so in love, and I don't have to deal with anything." I kind of pushed it away. And then when this happened, it was like, no, you actually have to deal with it.
On a bit of a lighter note, your first job back in 2002 was CoverGirl, which is all about natural beauty. Was that empowering?
It was amazing. I think they were the best people I could've worked with in the state I was in. At that point, I had moved to L.A., and I was studying acting, but I had a lot of insecurities about my teeth because I was still going through all these reconstructions. I was having dreams where my teeth would fall out on set, so I was a bit of a spaz. I probably didn't experience it to the fullest because of everything else that was going on, but I was definitely grateful.
And what made you decide to do Vogue Italia's Black Issue, and to later pursue a full comeback?
I got a request from Steven Meisel to see my Polaroids. And even if you're in the jungle in Uganda, if Steven Meisel asks for your Polaroid, you send it! I was shell-shocked. It was such an amazing thing, to have a whole Black Issue. But it was Tom Ford again [who played a big role]. I bumped into Ivan Bart [from IMG] and he was like, "You look amazing. Why aren't you doing Tom Ford?" It kind of planted this seed in me. So then, Gisele, who's also one of my best friends, said, "What's the deal? You should do this." And she started telling all these people, like Carine Roitfeld, about me. There was all this encouragement, and I was like, I'm owning this. I'm healing, I'm healing the self-esteem issues from the trauma of my childhood and coming into all of it. I decided that I was going to give this 110 percent.
How is modeling different now from how it was in the nineties when you started?
It's a lot more serious. It's a much bigger business now, which, in a lot of ways, is a great thing. I mean, today, there's food when you go to the shows. In my day there was, like, vodka and Champagne.
What's next for you?
What I've realized is that I love expressing myself in every way, with my clothes, with my acting, with writing. I'm starting to write a book about my childhood, and my family's story. And I'll be speaking at Generation Cure, which is the younger part of amfAR.
Earlier you were saying that when your career was beginning, you felt like you were very lucky. Do you still feel lucky?
Yeah. I do. I mean, to be 37 and to be accepted back and to have survived that…I feel exceptionally lucky. And to be doing what I want to do, to be sitting here with you, I feel really grateful. There's a lot of anguish and trauma in this world and this life and I think that, when things like this happen, you can either become a victim and get destroyed, or you can say, "OK, so what can I do with this that's going to make the world a better place?"