“Fatima!” screamed one girl from a passing school bus on Hyde Park Avenue.
“You go Fatima!” hollered a motorist on the same Boston street.
“Can I have a hug?” gushed a starstruck girl who posed for a photo with Fatima Siad, a finalist from the latest season of the popular reality show “America’s Next Top Model.”
Siad didn’t walk away with the wordy title (she came in third), but to her hometown fans here, she’s the next big thing.
“This is crazy!” said Siad, 22, of her brush with fame one recent afternoon.
As she strolled her Hyde Park neighborhood, Siad said she was relieved the show’s over. She wants to forge ahead with her plans: The political science major has one semester left at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. She plans to finish after moving this summer to New York with two other models from The CW reality show. Siad’s determined to pursue a career in an industry she stumbled upon last summer when a friend urged her to attend a Boston casting call.
Siad also wants to raise awareness about the dangers of female genital circumcision, a procedure she underwent when she was 7 years old in her native Somalia.
On her first episode, Siad broke down in tears before show host Tyra Banks and the other judges as she explained how the practice is a positive ritual among African women who have all or part of their external genitalia removed. The tradition is believed to promote chastity and cleanliness.
“Yes, I got circumcised. Yes, I am not sad about it. It happened to me, but I am going to try and do something to raise awareness,” Siad says.
Siad was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, to an Ethiopian father and Somali mother. As a young girl, Siad enjoyed playing with her friends on red-hued dunes that dot the shores of the Indian Ocean. But when the country erupted in civil war in 1991, violence and civil unrest gripped the capital.
“When she was 5 years old, the civil war started in my country, and she never had the opportunity to go to school,” says Halima Musse, Siad’s mother, who taught her at home. “People were fighting and killing each other. It was horrible.”
Just as Musse prepared to leave the country with Siad and her two sisters, ages 8 and 10, militiamen stormed their home and fatally shot the two younger sisters, Siad recalls.
“I love my country, but when I was living there, it was hard,” says Siad, whose mother applied for political asylum in the United States. Her father remained behind. “My mother basically wanted a better life for me.”
In 1998, mother and daughter, then 13, fled to Boston, where they had to adapt to a new culture and language. Their first year here, they lived in the YMCA on Huntington Avenue.
Siad learned English within a few months and worked hard to hide her accent. In eighth grade, she became part of the Boston Area Health Education Center, a city program designed to groom minority students for careers in health care. Siad had an interest in medicine.
“She’s always been that person who picks a goal and strives for it and succeeds,” says Keith Gross-Hill, a friend who was also in the program. At Brighton High, Siad took part in Upward Bound, a college prep program for low-income Boston high school students who take summer classes at Boston University.
After high school, Siad won a scholarship to Bryn Mawr College. She later transferred to New York University for her junior year.
Then, as she was almost done with college, she tried out for “America’s Next Top Model.” When the show’s producers told her that she would be one of the 13 women chosen to live in a New York City loft for the competition, Siad decided to drop out of school for a semester. The show was taped last November and December and began airing in February.
Immediately, Siad stood out because of her energy and her classic features, which Banks and others compared to Iman, the famous Somali supermodel. That’s a comparison Siad has mixed feelings about.
“[The other contestants] kept calling me Baby Iman,” Siad says sternly. “First of all, I don’t look anything like Iman. She is beautiful and amazing, and she is such a wonderful woman, and I wish I could be like her. But just because we are from Somalia doesn’t mean we look alike. I want to be known as Fatima.”
The show thrust Siad into the fast-paced world of high fashion. At times, photo shoots were anything but glamorous. One shoot involved contestants wearing slabs of meat as couture. Another involved colorful paint dripping down their faces.
“It was so intense,” she says of the show’s schedule. “It’s not as glamorous as it looks, not even close to it. We were working constantly. . . . The hardest part for me was taking the pictures. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
But now she does, as she strikes casual poses for a photographer and little girls who stop her in Hyde Park, where her mother lives in a triple-decker.
Between takes, Siad reflects on the competition. She doesn’t feel bad that she didn’t strut away with the $100,000 modeling contract or the coveted spread in Seventeen magazine. Siad says she won in so many other ways.
“I found the show to be so therapeutic for me,” she says. “I shared my life. I learned about modeling. It was definitely one of the most amazing journeys of my life and therefore, I don’t need someone to say ‘You’re a winner.’ This is the highlight of my life.”
Johnny Diaz, The Boston Globe