Friday, July 27, 2012

South Sudan Supermodel Returns to Her Home

7/27/2012 @ 10:12AM |298 views

South Sudanese Supermodel Alek Wek Returns to the Country She Fled as a Teenager

In 1991, 14-year-old Alek Wek and her family escaped civil war-torn Sudan and relocated to London. Six years later, Wek was on the cover of Elle.

Needless to say, her life has taken a turn or two.

Last week, however, Wek came full circle as she traveled home with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to commemorate South Sudan’s first official birthday and the return of at least 330,000 refugees who have come back to the new nation to rebuild their lives. Below, Wek shares her memories of Africa before the war, insights into her groundbreaking modeling career, and why she stood up legendary photographer Richard Avedon.

“It’s still more likely for a girl to die in childbirth than make it to the 8th grade, so there is a lot of advocacy that needs to happen throughout the country,” says Wek (on left).

1.) What was life like for you growing up in South Sudan?

My life was filled with family in South Sudan. I am the seventh of nine children and we grew up in what would be considered a middle-class family. We did not have a lot, but we did have more than a lot of other people. Still, we had neighbors who had hot running water, generators for electricity, and other comforts of life that we could not imagine having. But we never really thought about these things because we had each other and that was what mattered.

2.) How has it changed for women there today?

When I was in Wau, I met with the head of the UNHCR office who said domestic violence and rape is a big problem in the community. They shared with me that they had changed an archaic policy regarding sexual violence against women. Now women can now go straight to the hospital instead of being required to report the crime to the police first. They are also conducting sensitization training with the police as to how to deal with sexual violence against women. These steps show progress. Additionally, there are numerous women’s councils that have been formed that are addressing gender disparities and they are receiving widespread support from UNHCR the local government, so I think the future of South Sudan will be bright for women.

3.) What does beauty mean to you?

Beauty is subjective and should not be limited to only what we see on the outside. I meet and talk to women from every corner of this planet, and I can find beauty in each and every one of them. Beauty does not mean one thing, but not something else. There is no one-size-fits-all in beauty. When I first entered the fashion industry, my look was considered “exotic” largely because I’m a black African. My skin defined me, whether I liked it or not. I was darker than most, and many people seemed afraid of that. But then, one day Gilles Bensimon, then the creative director of ELLE magazine, defied the odds and put me on the cover. The year was 1997 and it changed everything for me and my career. The response was overwhelming, from thousands of women, who found that cover shot liberating. Ever since, I challenge people to prove to me that beauty is defined by only one “look.” Beauty comes in many shades, shapes, and colors. Period.

4.) What has been your favorite mistake?

I would not call it as much a mistake as it was a learning experience for me. It’s a rather funny story that goes back to the beginning of my career. I’d gotten a call that the photographer Richard Avedon wanted to shoot me in New York for the Pirelli Calendar, which is a very prestigious opportunity especially so early on in one’s career. Going to New York City sounded exciting, especially because my travels had been limited to Sudan and London. I made it to the airport in London and upon getting to the check-in point, I found out that I did not have the right paperwork – an exit visa – to be able to travel. There was not enough time to get my papers, so I missed the shoot. Then I learned that the Pirelli Calendar featured celebrities and top models and was one of the most coveted jobs in my business. And…Richard Avedon was one of the most respected fashion photographers in the world! I was devastated because this photographer and publication had decided that I was good enough and now it was a missed opportunity. I did eventually shoot the Pirelli Calendar in 1999 with Herb Ritts, but missing the shoot with the late great Richard Avedon made me always be prepared and informed about what needs to be done so that there are never any missed opportunities ever again.

5.) Who has been your greatest professional mentor and what is the most important lesson you have learned from him/her?

I’d have to say it was my agent, Mora, who helped to guide my career early on. Her enthusiasm and commitment to making sure that I had a shot in this business has inspired me from the beginning. She’s the one who made the call to Gilles Bensimon at ELLE and pushed me for to be on the cover. I appreciate her willingness to push the envelope and because of her hard work, I have had an opportunity to have a long career that continues to this day. I learned from her that when you believe in something, don’t stop until you get the results you’re seeking no matter what.

6.) If you could go back and give one piece of career advice to your 20-year-old self, what would it be?

I would say to my 20-year-old self that it’s not going to always be easy and there will be many who doubt you, but always believe in yourself and push forward no matter the obstacles. You are beautiful, you are worthy, you are fearless.

To learn more or donate to South Sudan refugees, visit

For more on Alek Wek’s journey home, visit or follow on Twitter @TheRealAlekWek.

For more on Emily Bennington, visit or follow on Twitter @EmilyBennington.
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