Meet Kelet Ali: Model, podcaster and the first trans woman of colour to star in a Finnish documentary

If you’re fortunate to come across Kelet Ali, it is pretty clear that she is a star in the making.

As the focus of her own critically-acclaimed documentary ‘Kelet’ directed by Finnish filmmaker Susani Mahadura, Kelet has gained recognition for her work as a model in Finland’s modelling industry, despite limited diversity, and she’s also a staple in the Finnish ballroom scene – all at the age of 23.

“It feels like a dream sometimes – Where I was three years ago to where I am now is something I couldn’t have imagined,” she says.

Life for Kelet back in 2017 was vastly different. The Somali model had just moved back to Finland where she was born, after living in Manchester, England for six years – a time which was extremely difficult for her.

“Moving to the UK at 13 years old was like a whole new world,” she recalls. “I didn’t speak the language really and I went to high school there.”

During Kelet’s time in Manchester, she found herself struggling to adjust to life in the UK and sought solace in fashion and the fantasies she created.

“When I was younger, fashion was kind of like an escape. Sometimes if you’re not necessarily happy with the circumstances you’re in, you end up daydreaming and for me, it was about these magazines with fabulous people like Naomi Campbell and Iman,” she says.

“You just embrace it to cope with whatever issue that you may be having. To imagine for one day that you are this gorgeous fabulous supermodel and I guess that fantasy kind of turned into a career path for me eventually.”

Amidst her desires to pursue a modelling career, Kelet was on a journey as she came into her own in the northern city, which would play a major role in her story so far.

Photo credit: @ta1l0

“Manchester was where I came out. That was where I first explored who I am so for that reason it will always be special to me because the first LGBTQ meetings, the first pride – all of that kind of stuff happened there,” she admits.  

“I really did a whole lot of self-reflection and I grew a lot.”

During this period of self-discovery, Kelet battled issues at home. At the age of 19, she was kicked out by her family and found herself alone and figuring out what to do.

After 6 years in the UK, Kelet decided to move back to Finland – a move which unbeknownst to her, would become a catalyst for her career.

“I knew pretty much the whole entire 6 years while I was in the UK that I’d eventually come back to Finland,” she expresses. “I made some really great memories, my family still live there, my brother and sisters who I’m really close to are there, but living there was very hard to adjust to. I felt very out of place.”

“It was difficult moving back to Finland as I was recovering from being kicked out so I didn’t really have much money. It was hard to figure out the plane tickets and where I could stay and all that stuff.”

Thankfully, the model had friends in Finland who helped her navigate through the initial months of being back.

“My friends knew how things were and they gave me a place to stay, told me what I needed to do and what I needed to get sorted out.”

One of her friends – Lola – played a key role during this time and even in her documentary.

“I had just come from the UK and Susani – the director of the documentary – called Lola to be a guest on her radio show,” she explains.

“Lola couldn’t make it and so she asked me to do it instead and I did.”

While Kelet was nervous, she went ahead and made an appearance on the show Mahadura & Özberkan, where they discussed life for people of colour in Finland and the lack of diversity for Black and brown trans women of colour.

The conversation left Susani impressed and Kelet invited her to her first Vogue Ball – a scene which Kelet is heavily involved in as a member of the House of Gucci Finland collective.

“She came, took pictures, enjoyed herself and she said ‘okay, we need to make a documentary about you and this scene ’ and that’s how it started,” she says. “It was supposed to be a 10-minute mini-documentary and it turned into an hour.”

Kelet and Susani started filming the documentary a few months after she moved back to Finland in 2017 and wrapped production in 2019 – an arduous two-year process which proved cathartic for the model and activist.

“It was really difficult to talk about those things that were still fresh in my memory, especially in the beginning,” she reveals.

“On top of that, I was scared of the type of people who would see this; what they were gonna feel or end up doing – because there are people who literally want to kill someone for speaking on the trans experience. But Susani was understanding, patient and caring with me.”

Photo credit: @_taussi

Whilst filming, Kelet struggled to open up initially, but she eventually warmed up as time went on. 

“Susani would ask me to talk about my family in the beginning and I was very guarded and she never pressured me. She would always say ‘okay, we don’t need to talk about anything you don’t want to’ and she’d move on. 

“After a while, I got more comfortable and I’d realise how useful this could be to someone else and I started to open up. That’s the reason it took so long to finish because it took a while for me to be comfortable to open up in front of a camera.”

Getting passed these issues proved to be great for Kelet’s own personal growth but also for her career. The documentary premiered January 2020, amassing rave reviews and making history as the first Finnish documentary starring a trans woman of colour.

“The documentary, it’s become its own thing – it’s really grown,” she says excitedly. “I still think about the night of the premiere – seeing the whole stadium filled and people applauding and enjoying the movie – it was like a fantasy.”

The documentary is just one of the exciting things to add to Kelet’s resume. The rising model has seen her profile build, working with brands like Zalando and appearing at Helsinki Pride, to the launch of her own podcast and providing vital representation for Black trans women in Nordic countries – and she sees no sign of stopping.

“My plans for this year was to do all the shows we were booked to do and go on a documentary tour, but COVID came in the way of all that. So I hope to transfer all my hopes from this year to next year and to keep going.”

To find out more, follow Kelet on Instagram

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