Early life and education
Kebede was born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. A film director spotted her while she was attending Lycée Guebre-Mariam and introduced her to a French modeling agent. After completing her studies, she moved to France to pursue work through a Parisian agency. Kebede later relocated to New York City. She has remarked that the modeling industry in Ethiopia is quite different from the catwalks on which she is now ubiquitous because in Ethiopia she had to provide her own shoes for each runway show.
Kebede's big break came when Tom Ford asked her for an exclusive contract for his Gucci Fall/Winter 2000 fashion show. Then in May 2002 she was on the cover of Paris Vogue, which dedicated the entire issue to her.
Kebede has been seen on the covers of Italian, Japanese, American, French and Spanish Vogue, V, Flair, i-D and Time's Style & Design. She has been featured in ad campaigns including those for Shiatzy Chen, Gap, Yves Saint-Laurent, Victoria's Secret, Emanuel Ungaro, Tommy Hilfiger,Revlon, Dolce & Gabbana, Escada and Louis Vuitton.
In 2003, Kebede was named the newest face of Estée Lauder cosmetics, the only Ethiopian to serve as their representative in the company's 57-year history. Her contract was rumored to be worth $3 million. At this time in Kebede's career, she was ranked #1 on models.com.
In July 2007, with Kebede earning $2.5 million over the previous 12 months, Forbes named her eleventh in the list of the World's 15 Top-Earning Supermodels. The following year, casting agent James Scully likened her to "an exotic Grace Kelly".
In 2009, Kebede starred in the film-adaption of the bestselling autobiography Desert Flower by former supermodel Waris Dirie. The film recounts Dirie's childhood in Somalia, her rise to stardom and subsequent awareness campaign against female circumcision. It premiered at the Venice Film Festival and received a standing ovation. Kebede has also had minor roles in The Good Shepherd (2006) and Lord of War (2005).
In 2011, Kebede was among the models featured in Lacoste's "new look" campaign in January, a different advertising concept for the year, under the new tagline, “Unconventional Chic”. The ads were shot by Mert and Marcus, showing models wearing the iconic white Lacoste polo shirts worn over fancy black eveningwear.
Kebede is currently ranked on models.com icons list.