In Costa Rica (image courtesy of Kiara)
In the mid ‘90s, Tom Ford, creative director of Gucci at the time, ushered Ugandan newcomer Kiara Kabukuru into the industry spotlight with a career-making turn as the face of the brand. Subsequently, she earned her stripes walking every show from Calvin Klein to Versace and appearing in all the top magazines which included a solo appearance on the July 1997 cover of American Vogue. She succeeded in an era of supermodel-dom, photographed by the likes of Steven Meisel, Bruce Weber and Peter Lindbergh.
But in 2000, she faced a life-altering setback. Just as her career was mounting to its peak and just as she was about to sign a CoverGirl contract, the gentle, five-foot-eight model was struck by an eighteen-wheeler in Manhattan’s West Village while riding her bike. The accident devastated her body and required extensive healing and reconstructive surgery on her jaw and teeth, bringing her career to a painfully physical halt.
After a long and arduous recovery, with the traumatic event prompting a new directive in her life, Kiara is as radiant as ever. Since 2010 she’s been back on the scene successfully modeling again, encouraged by close friend and model Gisele Bündchen. However, her driving force is now something more altruistic than posing in campaigns. Rather simply, it’s a message: beauty through wellness. These days, a bulk of her time is dedicated to speaking passionately on the subject, or championing the mantra to models and those who will listen. It’s a belief that she lives wholeheartedly and her devotion was influencing in a decision to spend time in Costa Rica. The aim of the immersion is to allow Kiara to focus on writing her memoir, develop her wellness center and just be healthy.
Ph: Bruce Weber / Barneys Better Than Ever Spring 2015 Campaign w/ Bethann Hardison, Elaine Irwin, Kiara Kabukuru, Kirsten Owen, Pat Cleveland, Veronica Webb
S: Why Costa Rica? Is that a silly question?
K: Yeah [laughs]. Well, just health. Health is the most important thing to me I’ve realized. The most important thing to me is well-being. You know, physically, spiritually, emotionally, and I feel you can really live that life there and do all the yoga you want. You’ve got all the beautiful nature and there are lots of people down there who are really into a higher consciousness and who are working on it on a daily basis. Not that people obviously aren’t doing that here in New York City. It’s just more people.
S: How long are you going there for?
K: I’ve rented out my apartment [in NYC] for a year and I’ve rented a cute little place with a terrace and a view. So I’m going to check it out for a year, and at the same time I’ll be checking out if I want to have my wellness center there. To start that up I’ve started Noble Beauty. It’s me and this other woman Eneida Soares. She does this facial that includes light, microcurrent, microdermabrasion, color and oxygen. Did I have the sound vibration machine when we met?
Covergirl (mid 2000’s)
S: That’s actually one of the notes I have that I wanted to talk about.
K: So I’ve got that, which basically drains your lymph and realigns your chakras. It’s really great. Our whole idea is beauty through wellness. And, either way you look at it, I feel the most beautiful things are the most healing. And well-making things I think are the most beautifying. To beautify from the inside out. It’s just a more sustainable way of doing two things at once really. If you can just weave wellness into your life everywhere–that’s my idea of the ideal existence.
S: Were these things you were thinking of before the accident or was the accident the inciting incident that led you to this perspective?
K: Definitely I was into beauty and wellness before and then I just got deeper into it. Obviously having all that damage to my teeth and my jaw and going through all those surgeries started to make me see things differently, and I got involved in all these healing modalities through having had that happen. I think I definitely always had a wellness appreciation, but not to the level that I am involved at this point. I think what it really showed me was that there is nothing more important to me than to be healthy and happy. I think before that I could have easily been distracted by being super busy, just doing the next thing. I definitely don’t think I would’ve had the courage to move to a whole different country. Except now, if it’s for my well-being, then I’ll do it.
S: That’s a major decision. And for a year. In New York time a year is like ten years anywhere else.
K: Exactly! Yes, I definitely love this city and you know people are just like, “But you’re going to be away!” Well, I’m actually going to go there and just gather this goodness and bring it back with me, whatever I do, whatever job I do, whoever I’m working with. The other thing is that I’ll also continue to model. I did the Barney’s campaign with Bruce Weber, which was a lot of fun. They also shot Brooke Shields, Elaine Irwin, Christie Brinkley, Veronica Webb, and Kirsten Owen.
Ph: Mario Testino / Gucci / 1997
S: How was Bruce when you were shooting with him?
K: Oh, he is just one of my favorites. He’s so magical and it’s always so much fun. Because you really do feel like you’re in a community theater and you’re just creating these scenes and these moods. You never know what you’re going to get because he sees things from such different angles and perspectives, but everyone is always trusting that it’s going to be amazing because Bruce always makes everyone looks amazing and feel fun and free.
S: And that goes back to your belief…
K: Exactly, that wellness is beauty.
Covergirl (mid 2000’s)
S: So what about the memoir? How’s that going?
K: That’s going really well, and I’m just really looking forward to having it be my main focus. And at this point I just feel like I really need to dig in. And obviously writing something about yourself and about your life, especially having gone through those kinds of traumatic experiences, it’s a lot of processing that goes on. So I’m just so happy that I’m in a place to give myself the freedom to be able to write it and process it and I think living there I won’t feel any pressure to sell it. You know what I mean? Because I really want it to be just the right thing. I just want to be in the place to do exactly what I want with it. That’s how I’m positioning myself.
“I’m just so happy that I’m in a place to give myself the freedom to be able to write it and process it and I think living there I won’t feel any pressure to sell it…I just want to be in the place to do exactly what I want with it.”
Ph: Jamil GS / i-D No.177
S: It seems like you’re really using all of that and producing something. I think that’s pretty cool.
K: The other thing that I did that was really was a lot of fun was that I talked to the young girls during a past fashion season. They had a health and beauty wellness panel (Health Initiative Panel) and I was one of five people on it.
S: Where was this at?
K: This was here at Donna Karan’s shop Downtown. She hosted it and Urban Zen. It was me and one of the leading TM teachers (Transcendental Meditation) here in New York, Bob Roth, and Colleen, who is a yoga instructor. And I was there, somebody who has been through this business and is very focused on wellness and it just went so well. The girls really appreciated it and they really understood that, as amazing as this time is in their life to be doing all this exciting work, the most important thing is to make sure they are well physically, emotionally and spiritually so that then they can also–whatever it is that they will end up doing in the future–so that it’s not so, “Oh, I’m just going to put everything into this and whatever I need to do to model. I’ll just do it.” Because there are things that can ruin the rest of your life. So we were just speaking on that. I feel like the business has really involved in the sense of taking responsibility of taking the responsibility of all these young people who come in not really knowing anything.
Covergirl (mid 2000’s)
S: So you think now there’s an emphasis on well-being within the modeling industry as opposed to in the past?
K: Yeah I think so. I think in the past you didn’t have all these options. You can really use food to fuel you, but also to watch your figure. Whereas, in the past, I think, there wasn’t as much so people could get into a situation where they were doing things that weren’t really healthy. Also, differentiating between when you feel like you’re taking care of yourself to do your job, because your body is your business and your looks are your business, and when it becomes some kind of psychological disorder or torment of perfection and having to be a certain weight–that kind of thing. There is a really big difference, the line is not that fine. Colleen was talking about how you can work your body to strengthen it and feel really good in your body, or you can work your body to punish yourself and make it really hard for yourself. And then, obviously, that’s really different than wanting to do a good job and be in the best physical condition to do it.
“You can really use food to fuel you, but also to watch your figure. Whereas, in the past, I think, there wasn’t as much so people could get into a situation where they were doing things that weren’t really healthy. Also, differentiating between when you feel like you’re taking care of yourself to do your job, because your body is your business and your looks are your business, and when it becomes some kind of psychological disorder or torment of perfection and having to be a certain weight–that kind of thing.”
S: That’s a great message.
K: I think it’s going to be something they are going to continue to do once a year in the fall. What’s your birthday? I told you your card (Cards of Destiny), right? Oh right, you’re Two of Diamonds. The Wheeler Dealer card.
Ph: Steven Meisel / Vogue July 1997
S: What does that mean?
K: A relationship is super super important to you always. Any relationship it’s always about the relating because you’ve got the two. Because two is always about the other, about relating–relationships. And then diamond is all about values. And they call the Two of Diamonds the Wheeler Dealer. In a sense, you’re always looking for how thing are going to work.
S: What is your card?
K: I’m a Ten of Hearts. And my card is called Success With Groups. And it literally means I deal in love and leadership for all. They say weddings are governed by the Ten of Hearts. A real heart-connection with a lot of different people, which would make it great for me to do public speaking. And that’s what I did find with the young women I was speaking to. They were all coming from different walks of life and had different issues, personal issues that were going on, but so many of them were so touched by what I had said. The whole room broke down in tears. It was really moving. It was quite a special moment and I think that’s my Ten of Hearts at work, an authentic sharing of love.
S: So that’s something you’re continuing doing and planning to do? More public speaking.
K: Yes. And the other stuff that I’ve been doing is I’ve started doing Kabbalah and I’ve found it really interesting, so I’ve started having like a beginner’s Kabbalah class at my house. Which was so much fun to introduce people to something that could possibly change their lives. So that was good. Yeah, the idea of just community and also doing our best and really putting what we want to see in the world in the world. Just being that person instead of looking for it, just be that, and then it will always be there.
Ph: Craig McDean / Styled by Edward Enninful – i-D No.136
S: You’re really encompassing yourself with this. Not many people can say that. They have a message, and maybe their lifestyle sort of matches here and there, but yours is one hundred percent. Your beliefs dictate your actions.
K: Yes, and that’s part of the teachings of Kabbalah and a lot of different things. Every choice creates our world the way that it is: our own personal world and the world at large. Which means by the time you get to something you’ve forgotten the hundred choices or thousand choices you made to get to that point, but if you were to just pay attention to every choice knowing that this is your way–either towards what you believe in and what you want in your life or the other way. And so it makes it less overwhelming and more: Is every choice aligned with my values? I think in our society today we’re taught to make choices that aren’t really aligned with us to get to a certain place, some place in the future, and when you retire or when everything works out for you to then start living what you believe. It could actually be a different way. And I think a lot of people are also seeing that there are some rules for some people and then there are people who break the rules and do what they want and live their passion. And we all see how happy and successful those people are.
“I think in our society today we’re taught to make choices that aren’t really aligned with us to get to a certain place, some place in the future, and when you retire or when everything works out for you to then start living what you believe. It could actually be a different way. And I think a lot of people are also seeing that there are some rules for some people and then there are people who break the rules and do what they want and live their passion. And we all see how happy and successful those people are.”
S: What other kinds of alternative remedies and things of that sort are you into these days?
K: Well, I’ve found that there are a lot of different uses for castor oil. Anywhere from settling your stomach or to, you know, female monthly issues, to growing back your eyebrows. I’ve been using it to grow back my eyebrows. It’s been amazing. It’s non-toxic and it’s really good for you. It’s better than all those brow-grower lash-grower things that are out there. And then the other thing is coconut oil, it’s called pulling. It’s so great for your sinuses and your skin and clarity. So I’ve been doing that. The other thing is food-grade hydrogen peroxide, which you can put in a bath and have a real detox bath. It’s also good for pain. Oh, and vitamin B12 reverses grey hairs. I noticed that B12 is really good for that. And then for skin: hyaluronic acid and this stuff called pycnogenol. Really good for your skin and for your blood flow.
Ph: Mario Testino / Gucci / 1997
S: When you come back are you planning on living here and the wellness center would be here too? Is that correct?
K: The Noble Beauty part would always run out of New York and then be connected to the wellness center, but I’m not sure. You know, this may be it. I may end up just living in Costa Rica or basing myself there full-time.
S: How many times have you been to Costa Rica?
K: I’ve been traveling there for the past fifteen years and it’s a place that I go back to, with all the places I’ve visited in all the world. Before Costa Rica, I would just go to a different place every summer and then it just started where I just wanted to be in Costa Rica. It was worth it for me to go back. I just liked it that much. So I’ve made friends and I know the town and I have a good idea of what life is like there. Have a look at Mal Pais and Santa Teresa. It’s at the bottom part of the Nicoya Peninsula. That’s where I’ll be. And also just the idea that we live in these places and we get attached to them for different reasons. And I know I’m in a special place because I don’t need to stay here for work and I don’t have my family here or, you know, a partner who can’t leave their job, but, the reason I live in New York, when I think about it, is because I have my apartment here. But, when I think about where I really want to live right now, Costa Rica makes so much more sense. For a lot of these people you just wouldn’t even have the thought. You just continue building you life and you wouldn’t think, “Oh, would it serve me better, or support my purpose or my involvement in life, here or somewhere else?” We’re all that busy.
S: It’s really great that you’re going for a year and maybe more… we’ll see.
K: Maybe more.