Alek Wek is one of the world’s most renowned supermodels and for many, has been a symbol of celebrating who you are. She has always known that she is beautiful, and if it’s taken this long for others to see her beauty, that’s their problem. In an interview with The Guardian in 2014, when asked if she’s always found herself beautiful, she responded, “Oh yes, of course.”
Wek was born April 16, 1977 in South Sudan. She and her family fled to Britain when she was a teenager because of the civil war in Sudan. She is one of nine children. Her mother was a housewife, and her father, who died while also trying to escape the war, was an education official.
Growing up Wek’s mother played a pivotal role in nurturing her children’s self-confidence. “Our confidence came from my mother,” she tells The Guardian. “She told us it was about celebrating the beauty of being a woman – that’s what made you gorgeous. I think that any model who didn’t have the same sort of upbringing as me would find [the criticisms models face] very difficult. But I absolutely knew I was entitled. I never thought I was ugly – it never crossed my mind.”
Wek has admitted that growing up with a look that was distinct from the kids around her, she was subject to ridicule, but having experienced war first hand, the teasing was something she could easily deal with.
Early Teeny Weeny Afro
In early pictures of Wek, her signature itsy bitsy teeny tiny afro can be seen. That uber cropped cut would ultimately become a part of her signature look. Wek was discovered in Crystal Palace Park in London at the age of 18. Over the next two years she would appear in music videos, including “GoldenEye” by Tina Turner; sign with modeling agency, Ford Models; and become the first African model to appear on the cover of Elle. Discussing the importance of the Elle cover in a 2012 interview with WILD she shared, “I’ve been blessed. The opportunity has opened so many doors in my life, and that moment, in particular, will always stay with me.” She goes on to say, “I’ve always loved learning about different cultures; it still strikes me as strange that in a country so advanced, some people are viewed as more appealing than others based on skin color. We’re all beautiful, and we’re really all the same.”
Super Model Hair
With her face on the cover of a mainstream magazine, Wek’s career began to flourish. To say that Wek stood out from other models of the time would be putting it lightly. Her features, her skin color and her hair were all a sharp contrast to those of the models she strutted among. But her distinctions seemed to be what brands were drawing. High-contrast seemed to be a theme of much of the way Wek was styled or made up, whether it was her dark skin against a white background or light colors against her dark skin.
In 1998, while walking in a Betsey Johnson runway show, she threw off the blonde wig that she’d been styled in. In a recent interview with the BBC, she reflected on the moment saying, “that wig was not just about me taking it off to make a scene. It was a time that I was just starting in fashion, to work. And the one thing that I told my agents was if you are going to represent me, I’m not going to be a gimmick and be in for a couple of seasons. You’re going to take it all or leave it.” Today that moment has become a very literal symbol of rebelling against a European standard of beauty.
For the most part, the industry has seemed to have ‘taken all’ of Wek, playing upon her distinct features. When it comes to her hair, what’s not been done! Wigs, braids, mohawks, hats, turbans, flowers, scarves, headpieces. But her short cut seems to be the look the industry favors the most. Even when her hair has grown out a little, its straightened and slicked back.
A Philanthropist & Entrepreneur
In addition to being a successful model, Wek has made strides as a philanthropist and fashion entrepreneur. In 2013, she was appointed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to be a goodwill ambassador. She visited her home country, South Sudan, after its first year of independence to be of service to the citizens there. On top of that, she has her own line of handbags, Wek 1933, 1933 being the year her father was born.
Over the years, she has used her platform as a model to shed light on the experiences of refugees around the world. She appeared on the cover of Forbes Africa in 2013, and in her behind-the-scenes interview explained her appreciation for being in a position to help change the perception of Africa.
As I see Africa rising, I am very humbled and very excited at the same time especially for the younger next generation, to just help as a continent and country… And if I can help towards that rebuilding, or celebrating the wonderful richness of the continent… I’m more than happy to be a part of such an incredible moment.
Wek recently sat down with actress Lupita Nyong’o, who in a speech cited the Sudanese model as someone who taught her to embrace her own skin color. Their discussion highlighted the fact that inspiration can come from someone simply just being.