Aleya Howington’s winding path to the runway

By on September 8, 2023

The flyer from The Model Experience announcing Aleya Howington as part of the NY Fashion Week show. (Photo by Elise Quidley)

Despite obstacles, Currituck resident makes NY Fashion Week debut

In 2013, during her freshman year of college at East Carolina University, Aleya Howington walked into a gas station when an older gentleman approached her and introduced himself.

“He didn’t seem scary. Didn’t seem like he’s trying to creep on me or anything. It wasn’t a weird neighborhood. I didn’t feel threatened,” recalled Howington. “And he was just like, ‘I’m so sorry, but I have never seen anybody that has looked like you before.’”

It turned out the man was a former booking agent for the modeling industry and did photography on the side.

“I said to myself, ‘She would make a great model,’” said Donald Webster, who is friends with Howington to this day. With black and Filipino ancestry, Howington’s voluminous curly hair, big, bright smile and signature freckles caught Webster’s eye. He handed her his card and told her he would love the opportunity to work with her and have her in his portfolio.

“She smiled and was flattered and said to me, ‘That is so sweet, you should see my sister,’” says Webster. “She walked away leaving me with the thought that she will not contact me.”

Eventually, a few weeks after the chance gas station encounter, Howington did end up at a photographic session with Webster. She was amazed by the results.  

“And I look at the pictures and I’m like, ‘What? I was like, how did I do that?’” she recounted. “And he was like, ‘I tried to tell you, you were made for the camera. You’re made for this.’”

Those words proved prophetic. And a decade later, that gas station meeting has led Howington all the way to the world’s biggest runway, New York Fashion Week, to walk for Libertad NYC, this week. Libertad NYC is a luxury designer jewelry and accessory brand.

It was not an easy path. As she recounts, Howington and her older sister Jabria were raised in an abusive household in Currituck until Aleya was 12 and her sister was 13, when her sister called Child Protective Services, and they were taken into foster care. Creativity wasn’t something that was encouraged in that original household.

“And we had nobody. I mean it was just a childhood full of fear. I just wanted to create, I wanted to model or be in front of the camera. And that was just kind of shot down a lot,” said Howington. “And so I didn’t see myself here as a child. Because I didn’t know if I was going to make it out alive. I didn’t know where my life was going. Every day was scary.”

Unfortunately, after only a week in foster care, the sisters were sent back to the bad situation.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Howington, recalls that she didn’t unpack her bags because she was convinced they could find a way out.

One day not long after returning home, she and her sister had gone next door to a neighbor’s house to sell chocolates for a cheerleading fundraiser and came back to find they were locked out of their home. They were stuck outside for hours in the heat of August, when their friend’s grandmother, Ruth Howington, pulled into the driveway and was shocked to see the situation they were in.

“She said, ‘Girls, what are you doing out here?’ We were crying at this point. I mean, like, we were so dehydrated, tired, just hot,” recounted Howington.

Ruth Howington told the Voice her only thought in that moment was “getting them away from there and making them feel safe. They came to me with the clothes on their backs and Aleya’s cheerleading uniform.”

That night, Ruth and Joe Howington, owners of Tarheel Produce in Currituck, who were already legal guardians to their two grandchildren, sat Howington and her sister down at their dinner table and asked them if they’d like to be part of their family. After many hours in court, they were officially able to adopt the girls one year later.

“It was a journey, but a road filled with love,” said Ruth Howington.

Howington said that due to the trauma she experienced as a child, she still felt fear about pursuing a creative career. Her older sister was headed to Duke and was interested in pursuing medicine or law, so she decided to pursue a science degree too.

“I liked to paint, I liked to draw, I liked photography, I liked all those things that were completely the right side of my brain, not left. She was more critical thinking. And we were just completely opposite. And that was okay. But it took me a long time to realize that.”

Howington ended up flunking out of the science program at ECU not long after that. Her parents encouraged her to come home.

“My parents were just like, ‘hey, come home, do COA [College of the Albemarle], and do what you want to do. Stop trying to do science. You’re not a science girl. Stop trying to do medicine. Do what you want to do,’” Howington recalled.

She moved home to pursue an associate of arts degree at COA. But then she got pregnant, so she quit school and eventually got a job at Joe Lamb Jr. and Associates to provide for her daughter. During that time, she would dabble in modeling with different local boutiques and for fun with her photographer friends.

Elise Quidley is one of those photographers. She recalls photographing a wedding during that time and laying eyes on Howington, who was one of the bridesmaids.

“And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that girl is gorgeous and her energy just like radiated off of her, you know? So I was like, I’ve got to find out who this girl is because I want to photograph her,” said Quidley.

Photo shoot of Aleya Howington at the Elizabethan Gardens. (Photos and outfit by Elise Quidley)

That started a beautiful relationship between the two where they both grew in their crafts and experimenting with creative photoshoots. Howington kept practicing with Quidley and doing sporadic shoots with local boutiques while working at Joe Lamb. She even bought a home in Currituck after moving around to different homes on the Outer Banks.

But one day, in October of 2020, after seven years of working a desk job and moving around as a single mother making ends meet, Howington quit to pursue modeling seriously.

“I was really great at my job…but I was just like, I don’t want to do this. I wanted to prove to my daughter that I could still do it. That I could still achieve my dreams, that you don’t ever have to give up on anything,” says Howington.

To that end, she went to a modeling Expo called Discovery Spotlight Model & Talent Expo and got signed with an agency. Then she saw a contest on Instagram on a page called the Model Experience that was taking applications for models for NY Fashion Week. Aleya applied, and got accepted, and will now, at 29 years old, be making her runway debut at the Libertad NYC show this week.

Quidley, who took the photos for Howington’s application, will be by her side.

Photo shoot of Aleya Howington. (Photo by Elise Quidley)

“I’m so proud of her,” said Quidley. “She’s gone through a lot in life and never expected to get this far.”

“To watch her grow from doing photo shoots, working with designers, and now having the opportunity to walk in NYFW reminds me of a caterpillar spinning a cocoon and then waiting for her time to blossom into a beautiful butterfly,” says Webster, adding that he’s grateful to be a part of it.

Ruth Howington says it’s been incredible watching her daughter advance in modeling while raising her daughter at the same time.

“From a varied background to a beautiful, vibrant woman, she makes me so proud to be her mom.”

Although she sometimes wonders whether she should have pursued her dream sooner, Howington observes that “I am not mad at any bit of it. It all taught me something. I think that’s what it’s about, you know—the human experience. You have to experience it. I believe everybody has some form of trauma from their childhood…So I think the whole experience of it, of what I’ve been through to get this far, has been just like the art that I want to create. It’s been beautiful. The Good, The Bad. The Ugly.”

As for what’s next, she’s hoping that the right people will see her at NYFW and that more opportunities will come from it.

“I’m just so grateful for this opportunity. You really have no idea. I’m just looking at the sky right now too, and just thanking God, because it’s surreal. This is my moment.”



  • Erica Lester-Biddle

    I am SO proud of you Aleya! From watching you enter this earth to becoming an amazing mother, and knowing the trials and tribulations you’ve dealt with, to see you come this far and live your dreams is NOTHING but God!!!!! Keep on pushing and being a role model for your beautiful baby girl. The world is your oyster! ❤️‍🔥

    Saturday, Sep 9 @ 12:15 pm
  • Tim

    Well, you always said you were going to be a model and I see you are on your way. Good for you. I just sent a link to the whole office – we all miss you! Come by and say hi when your limo is in town. Tim

    Sunday, Sep 10 @ 10:25 am
  • Mary

    What an incredible story about incredible people!

    Sunday, Sep 10 @ 1:49 pm
  • Janice and Mike Farr

    Congratulations, Aleya!

    We’re so happy for you (and all of your family who is cheering you on!) for this experience and hope that you have an amazing time at fashion week and have the opportunity to meet many people that may start the seeds of more to come.
    Best wishes to you for your future plans. May you have much success, joy, and peace always!

    Wednesday, Sep 13 @ 2:46 pm