At a time when blonde hair and blue eyes ruled the fashion world, Alek Wek not only stood out – she revolutionised the way the world looks at beauty. Words by Eulogi Rheeder.
‘I remember a time when I, too, felt unbeautiful. I put on the TV and only saw pale skin. I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin. As a teenager my self-hate grew worse, as you can imagine happens with adolescence. And then Alek Wek came on the international scene. A celebrated model, she was dark as night, on all the runways and in every magazine and everyone was talking about how beautiful she was. Even Oprah called her beautiful and that made it a fact. I couldn’t believe that people were embracing a woman who looked so much like me as beautiful.’ This is how Oscar-winning actor Lupita Nyong’o described the powerful effect of supermodel Alek Wek.
Despite forerunners like Iman, Grace Jones and Naomi Campbell, black models were only ever considered worthy of catwalks, commercials, cosmetic brands and magazine covers if their hair was relaxed and their complexions light. Until, that is, an 18-year-old Alek was approached by a modelling scout in London in 1995. Her striking features – the extraordinarily long limbs and height are her father’s, her enviable cheekbones and ‘little booty’ (her words) inherited from her mother; while her lush skin is all Dinka, the South Sudanese tribe she hails from – would forever redefine how we view beautiful.
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Alek might not be an ordinary model, but her authenticity and confidence make her extraordinary in a world where superficiality and self-loathing rules. ‘I was such an awkward teenager. I was teased for my big feet, for being too tall, for having bad skin,’ she told The Guardian in 2014. But she never thought she was ugly. ‘It never crossed my mind.’
Born in South Sudan in 1977, Alex is the seventh of nine children. ‘Alek means “black spotted cow”, one of the most common and best-loved types of cow in Sudan. ‘It’s also a symbol of good luck for my people, the Dinka,’ she writes in her 2008 autobiography, Alek: From Sudanese Refugee to International Supermodel. In 1985, the Sudanese civil war reached a critical state. ‘Neighbours started disappearing mysteriously. You’d go fetch water and see dead bodies along the way,’ Alek says. The Weks were forced to flee their hometown of Wau, walking 500km through forest with no food or water and with only the clothes on their backs. Her critically ill father – whose earlier hip replacement had gotten infected – was the first to finally be airlifted to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. Alek joined a few months later and the rest of her family soon afterwards.
Here, Alek’s mother – with her savings from selling salt – organised passports for the family. Alek and her mom were given asylum status in the UK, joining her sister who had moved to London before the war broke out. Sadly, her father passed away before he could flee. In 1991, speaking almost no English and with a very different appearance to her English peers, a 14-year-old Alek arrived in London. ‘It was really, really hard in the beginning,’ she told The Guardian. ‘Children at that age can be such bullies. That’s before you even factor in that I looked and sounded so different. But after going through everything, where nothing was ever sure, where I might get killed, I was free…’. Five years later, Alek’s pioneering look would make her a supermodel.
After being scouted and signing with Ford Models, she headed to New York, where Ralph Lauren booked her to open and close his catwalk show – a spot usually reserved for a big name. She appeared in music videos for Tina Turner and Janet Jackson, was named Model of the Decade by i-D magazine and included as one of People magazine’s ‘50 Most Beautiful People’ and Frank magazine’s ‘50 Most Infl uential Faces in Fashion’. She became a catwalk regular for Versace, Calvin Klein and Chanel, as well as the face of Benetton and Kenzo. Yet Alek always knew she wanted to achieve more than simply gracing catwalks and covers. ‘But let fashion not fool you. There’s a bigger world out there than our small bubble where we feel so fabulous,’ she told The Guardian. ‘The best thing that this industry has given me is a voice.’
She uses that voice as an advisor to the UN Refugee Agency and the US Committee for Refugees, to raise awareness about the ongoing conflict and humanitarian crises in Sudan and South Sudan and with a special focus on education in her home country. ‘My father instilled in me a fierce commitment to education,’ she told CNN in 2012, after her first visit to South Sudan since the country seceded from Sudan in 2011. ‘As a member of the South Sudanese diaspora, I hope to help continue his legacy.’ The model-turned-humanitarian also added designer to her title with her bag collection, Wek 1933. The collection is in memory of her father – the name references his birth year and the designs find inspiration from the brass-clasp briefcase he carried.
Alek still hopes to become a mother (she separated from her partner of 12 years, Riccardo Sala, in 2013), and to pass on her inspiring messages about beauty to the next generation: ‘I felt that girls growing up needed to see somebody different, who may have been criticised for their nose, or their hair, or anything – that they could be beautiful. It’s about telling girls from a young age that it’s OK to be quirky, it’s fine to be shy. You don’t have to go with the crowd.’