By chance, Waris was discovered by photographer Terence Donovan, who helped secure for her the cover of the 1987 Pirelli Calendar. From there, her modeling career took off, scoring advertisements for top designers such as Chanel, Levi's, L'Oréal and Revlon.
In 1987, Waris played a minor role in the James Bond movie The Living Daylights. She also appeared on the runways of London, Milan, Paris and New York City, and in fashion magazines such as Elle, Glamour and Vogue. This was followed in 1995 by a BBC documentary entitled A Nomad in New York about her modeling career.
In 1997, at the height of her modeling career, Waris spoke for the first time with Laura Ziv of the women's magazine Marie Claire about the female genital mutilation (FGM) that she had undergone as a child, an interview which received worldwide media coverage. That same year, Waris became a UN ambassador for the abolition of FGM, and later paid her mother a visit in her native Somalia.
In 1998, Waris authored her first book, Desert Flower, an autobiography which went on to become an international bestseller. She later released other successful books including Desert Dawn, Letter To My Mother, and Desert Children, the latter of which was launched in tandem with a European campaign against FGM.
In 2009, a feature-length film based on Waris' book Desert Flower was released, with the Ethiopian supermodel Liya Kebede playing her. The movie has so far been released in 20 countries including France, Spain, Israel, Greece, Poland and Brazil. In January 2010, it won the Bavarian Film Awards in Munich in the Best Movie category. It was also nominated for a Film Award in Gold in the Outstanding Feature Film category at the German Film Awards, and won the Audience Award in the Best European Film category at the San Sebastián International Film Festival.
In 2010, Waris Dirie was appointed Peace Ambassador for the Year of Peace and Security by the African Union.