Interviewed by Laurent Altier and Ryan Yoon
Can you name a model who is also a philanthropist? How about one who began her first philanthropic initiative at the age of 16 and puts aside half of her income to further her work in third world countries? Or, one who models simply to maintain a platform for her true calling? Inwardly lit and an all-American beauty, Kyleigh Kuhn is the Mother Teresa of the fashion world. Her charitable ambitions fuel her modeling career, which she uses as a podium for her humanitarian work.
Philanthropy has been a great influence in her life and has guided her career as a model. In fact, Mimi Yapor, the model scout who first discovered her, has labeled her “The Nonprofit Model.” And although she understands the industry’s inclination to use this title, she feels it sits awkwardly on her and condenses who she is. Perhaps she’s right, because as much as we try to see her as typical, Kuhn’s work proves to be nothing of the sort. She’s paving the way for the future of fashion, while using her power and status to bridge the gap between first world and war-torn countries.
After graduating from UC Berkeley with a degree in peace and conflict studies, Kuhn signed with Next Model Management as a means to promote her nonprofit work, and she has since embraced her domain as a fashion industry spokeswoman, linking the world of nonprofit organizations with the garment industry. “I’ve never really seen myself as a model,” says Kuhn. “I kind of utilized modeling as a means to promote my nonprofit and allow myself another perspective on life in a way. I figured, why not give it a shot and have something to show my great grandkids when I’m all wrinkled up!”
Having worked with photographer Bruce Weber several times, she has observed his moments of inspiration on set. She has watched him work in between shots and likens his authenticity to her own respect for and devotion to humanitarian work.
Both, she says, are avenues of expression and lead to a certain manner of engagement and truthfulness. “I have this theory,” she begins, “that the world kind of brings you what you need, in a way. I like to work organically in that fashion… allow whoever comes into my life to be a part of how I can see them fitting into this project. My inspirations for modeling and my humanitarian work often stem from the same source – the goal to create an authentic relationship,” says Kuhn. “There are things that we can do, small projects that can improve what’s going on.” These authentic relationships she aims for originate from her tightly knit home life.
Kyleigh Kuhn was raised in California with three brothers; Brooks, now 28, Tucker, 26, and Christian, the youngest, 16. Christian will be taking command of the Penny Campaign, an initiative Kuhn started at the age of 16 with her mother and news anchor Cheryl Jennings. Kuhn’s mother is the founder of Roots of Peace. When Kyleigh was a child the family moved from California to Alaska where Mrs. Kuhn worked fulltime, raised four children and started a company called News Link international on the side.
Kyleigh attributes her hard work and strength to her mother, family, and the generations of great grandmothers and grandfathers before her, who worked hard and provided solid and stable grounding to the family. “My mom raised me in a way that was very empowering to women,” she says. Her strong belief systems no doubt come from such female empowerment and a formidable home life. “I think it’s the entrepreneurial spirit that my mom had that has really been engrained in me,” says Kuhn. “I believe in myself to a fault.”
Roots of Peace
At the age of 13, Kyleigh traveled to the Balkans for the first time, where she met children whose lives and homes were devastated by war, and on September 11, 2011, she was reminded of the way she felt while visiting. Wanting to do something to help children in war-torn areas, she began the Penny Campaign in 2003. The initiative with Roots of Peace allows her to work closely with her mother. “What we do,” says Kuhn, “is we come in and teach farmers agricultural techniques, and give them the tools to bring their mode of farming to a more modernized sustainable system.” The Penny Campaign is now $30 million under contract in Afghanistan alone, not counting private donations.
The World Garden Program
The next project Kuhn is focusing on with Roots of Peace is called The World Garden Program. Its stated purpose is to provide women and children with food by creating small farms for them to develop independently. The inequality between men and woman in Afghanistan is vast; this initiative seeks to create work for women who will be able to cultivate the food themselves and sell any excess on the market. “My work now is complimentary to the work Roots of Peace does,” says Kuhn, “I’m always going to be connected [to it] in some way, yet I feel like I need to follow a different path.”
Continuing her work in Afghanistan and bridging the gap between peace and commerce, Kuhn is taking a cue from established brands such as Pamela Love and Tom’s, which capitalize on the idea of products becoming a source of fundraising. Kuhn’s newest project called Twenty-Four Suns “allows the consumer to become a philanthropist,” she says. “It connects skilled artisans in Afghanistan with CFDA designers to create quality goods.” Rules for Afghan women are strict. Many are widowed and forced to send their young children out to work. Twenty-Four Suns will be employing women to work from their homes, mitigating the chance of child labor. Lapis jewelry, vibrant embroidery, and rich carpets have been loves of Kuhn’s since her first trip to the country at the age of 18. “In the process of creating beautiful pieces, we will be transforming the lives of these artisans by providing them with the tools and sustainable work to lift their families out of poverty,” she says.
In a land where women are repressed in many ways, Kuhn found the idea of micro financing (giving small loans to those who do not qualify for bank credit) in Afghanistan appealing. Females are responsible for the wellbeing of their entire family; therefore, 97% of the borrowers are women. “I guess this is more of the feminist coming out in me,” says Kuhn. Advocates of this trend have been steadily growing and include U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton. Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank, which gives loans to developing countries, is a huge source of inspiration for Kuhn. She says she admires anyone who takes a leap of faith outside from what they normally do.
“My great grandmother used to always say, ‘Coincidence is a miracle in which God prefers to remain anonymous’, says Kuhn. “Now, I’m not particularly religious, but I do believe in some sort of power this world has, allowing you to create the life you envision for yourself – in it’s own path, albeit.” It’s the path that can only reveal itself in time. Push too hard, and the doors to your pathway begin to shut. It is in allowing the unfolding to take place, where you begin to notice the miracles around you. This seems like a lesson Kuhn knows well. “Time gives us the gift of reflection, and from reflection we are granted insight that makes sense of our past and informs our future.” In time, we will surely see that hard work and perseverance have been, and continue to be, kind friends to Kyleigh Kuhn.
Watch an interview with Kyleigh: Kyleigh Kuhn – an American Aristocrat
THE GROUND ISSUE #2