When a model is having a comeback, it usually means she has dyed her hair or cut it, or she has taken a season off to have a baby. Kiara Kabukuru’s story, however, is a bit more dramatic. Kabukuru had already lived through much more than your average model long before she ever stepped in front of a camera, having escaped Uganda in early childhood as a political refugee. In the late ’90s, she was one of the top names in the industry, appearing in campaigns for Gucci, Chanel, and Calvin Klein, walking the runway for Dior Couture, and landing the Pirelli calendar and the cover of Vogue. Then, in 2000, she was run over by a semitruck in New York and vanished from the glossy pages where she had made her mark. Now, more than a decade later, at 37, Kabukuru has pieced her life back together and is poised to make what can truly be called a comeback.
On a wintry day in November, Kabukuru, who is lithe and fine-boned and has an almost incandescent effect of being lit from within, was curled up in a chair in her Greenwich Village apartment in New York, wearing a bright red top, leggings, and sheepskin slippers. “You know,” she said, “my name’s not really Kiara. It’s Alice.”
When she first started modeling, she explained, her agent at Ford thought she needed to come across as more “exotic,” like Iman. Kita? Kina? She had babysat for a girl named Chiara and liked the name. Her agent decided to spell it with a K. “It really was this persona,” Kabukuru said. “And still is. It’s confusing, because I stopped modeling for so long, and since I never gave up my own name, everybody started calling me Alice again. It took Gisele”—Bündchen, one of her closest friends—“years to call me Alice, because she met me as Kiara.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone thinking that Kabukuru needed to be more exotic. She was born in 1975 in Uganda—where her father was “the Donald Trump of Kampala,” the capital city. He was also supporting antigovernment rebels and was marked for assassination. In 1980, her parents left the country, and Kabukuru and her three siblings went into hiding with their grandparents. A year later, when she was 6, Amnesty International helped reunite the family in Los Angeles, where she grew up and went to high school.
When Kabukuru was 16, she said, “everybody started telling me that I should be a model.” Everyone, that is, except her parents. “My tribe, the Banyankole, is known for its beauty. And I was skinny, I was boyish, I just didn’t have what they considered beautiful.” Still, in a familiar scenario, one afternoon she was stopped in the Northridge Fashion Center by Bill Bodwell, a commercial photographer who was known for shooting surfers. He was certain the teenager had the makings of a model. Her first booking was for a Coca-Cola commercial. “I had this short little Afro,” Kabukuru said. “The ad said they were looking for the classic all-American beauty, and I thought to myself, Hey!”