It is a chilly Friday morning in New York and I am sitting in the back of a black SUV on its way to pick up supermodel Alek Wek from her brownstone Brooklyn home. It was meant to be a glamor photo shoot in the wide open spaces of upstate New York with the supermodel-turned-businesswoman-turned-activist. The temperamental weather in New York had other ideas and simply would not let us be great outdoor Africans. A weather advisory warning of a snow blizzard had been issued. New Yorkers are overly sensitive about the weather for good reason; Hurricane Sandy had torn at the city earlier in the year. I took the cue from my New York crew and booked a studio close-to-home in Brooklyn to minimize travel and exposure to inclement weather.
Wek is as much a supermodel as she is the girl-next-door. She commands the runways in the name of fashion designers such as: Chanel, Hermes, Donna Karan, Christian Lacroix and Zac Posen. Her career has thrived in Paris, New York, Milan and London and she has also appeared on the covers of high-end fashion magazines such as Elle, Glamor, Cosmopolitan and Essence. She has also been the face of campaigns for Benetton, Kenzo and Saks Fifth Avenue.
No small feat for an African girl born in Wau, Sudan, now South Sudan, in 1977 to a family of nine. Speaking softly in her British accent, Wek talks of her life, between sips from the coffee cup clasped between her hands.
“Our careers define us to an extent, but then there’s you as a person. You are not born with that career even though you have it already in you. For most of us, and especially us African women, we have to overcome a lot of obstacles to get there. And even when you get there, however you define there for yourself, there is still more to accomplish.”
Despite the fact that she is one of Africa’s global icons, she has a pleasant disposition and we chat like old friends as the driver deftly drives us through the snowy roads to the studio.
That Wek has defied all beauty standards is obvious. Dressed in skinny jeans, layered tops, winter jacket and her trademark head scarf, she stands at 180cm tall, with short hair. Wek is from the Dinka tribe of South Sudan, with piercing, oval-shaped brown eyes, high cheek bones and teeth whiter than white. It is an understatement to say Wek’s features are striking: very model material in a nouveau kind of way.
“I came into the industry at a time when some people would say: ‘she’s odd, she’s weird, she’s bizarre.’ But I never saw myself that way and the true people, the legends, the talented, saw me.”
As Wek slips into a gown made by fellow African David Tlale, of Johannesburg, she also assumes her professional power. In front of the camera, she epitomizes the confidence of the new generation of African leaders.
Her head wrap is more than a fashion statement. It is a reminder of the place she came from, where her fragile frame survived only through incredible strength and resilience.
“I have gone through the civil war where we were barricaded in our house for three days because of the shootings and bombings. The scariest thing for me was feeling like there is nobody to protect you and nobody’s life is accounted for. I used to have nightmares when we fled to England. It took me some years to get over that.”
Wek has never forgotten these desperate days. As her fame rose, she found her voice to speak for the millions of huddled and vulnerable refugees around the world.
“I know firsthand what it feels like to walk for weeks and weeks. I know what it feels like to eat whatever you can find in the bush. I know what it is like to be voiceless,” she declares as she describes the journey she undertook as her family fled from rebel and government forces, when civil war raged in her hometown in 1985.
Wek arrived in London, aged 14, and was discovered soon after by a Models 1 scout in a South London market and has been a model ever since.
“I model in moderation now. It is not the quantity, but the quality of my work. I also want to make time and space for the next phase of my life. I would love to settle down, get married and have children.”
So much so, that Wek has scaled back her work so she can live a more grounded life. This year, she ended a five-year relationship.
“For him, it was more like a three-year relationship since I traveled a lot. I then realized that I have to live in the same country as the man in order for this marriage thing to happen!” Not one to pine for long, she is back in the dating scene and also dotes on a fox terrier by the name of Lil Bit.
Wek says her mother is a true African mother.
“Whenever I visit mom in England, and we sit down to have supper, the first question is always: ‘The babies?’ So, I get to practice with my Lil Bit,” laughs Wek.
At 36, she is a grown woman—an African woman with a strong sense of self and purpose in life.
“If anything, fashion and modeling has not only given me trips to the most exotic locations around the world, fantastic perks, stays in five-star hotels and expensive gifts. Most importantly, it has given me a platform with which to make a difference on important issues that matter to me.”
This stance earned Wek a position as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in which she travels to war-torn nations.
In 2011, South Sudan split from the Sudan, as part of a 2005 peace agreement that ended decades of protracted war in the continent’s largest country.
“Freedom is so special and so precious,” she speaks cautiously, as if she were reliving her traumatic childhood.
For the first time, since she fled from the region with her family, the Sudanese refugee-turned-supermodel went back to South Sudan.
“Going back after South Sudan became independent was very emotional for me. I never really thought that we would attain independence. It was a very surreal moment for me,” she says fighting back tears.
She is guarded when I ask her to rate the new president of South Sudan, Salva Kii.
“It would be unfair to try to rate him so soon and I will tell you why. When someone has been in the bush for decades fighting a war and now has to make a considerable switch to lead the country, you have to cut him or her some slack.”
Wek is mindful that South Sudan is a collective effort—a collaboration among stakeholders including the government and citizens.
“I truly believe that it is our generation. Us. You and I and the rest of the continent and diaspora. We are the ones we have been waiting for.” FL