Alek Wek From Sudanese Refugee to International Supermodel by Lynette R. Holloway

Indeed Alek Wek leads a glamorous life. She works as one of the top runway models in the world and her features are known worldwide-radiant skin and oval face, close-cropped natural hair and a dazzling smile. Her lean physique is grace personified on the catwalk. The model-recently-turned entrepreneur has created her own line of luxury handbags.
But life has not always been so good. Wek, a member of the Dinka tribe, grew up in southern Sudan in a town called Wau, where militias invaded and clashed with rebels in the 1980’s. Wek’s family, including her parents and siblings were forced to flee their home when she was just 9 years old.
During more strife, when she was a pre-teen, the family fled by plane to London, where she lived the life of a refugee, struggling to meet ends make ends meet, cleaning toilets, and sweeping floors and learning a foreign language. She also struggled with psoriasis, a sometimes devastating skin disease that causes the skin to flake, bump or peel. At times, her mother was forced to use a sharp knife to cut flaking bits from her head to toes.
Life, however, changed instantly when she was discovered by a modeling talent scout at a street fair. Wek tells her literal rags-to-riches story in a candid memoir FROM SUDANESE REFUGEE TO INTERNATIONAL SUPERMODEL: ALEK (Amistad, $24.95). Wek, 30, who lives in Brooklyn, takes time from her busy schedule to talk to Ebony about the book.

EBONY: What made you decide to write your memoirs?

ALEK WEK: I really feel strongly about raising awareness about Sudan, especially Darfur. If anything, the fashion industry has given me a platform to use my voice. (She regularly donates money to Sudan). Modeling is not just about travelling and experiencing different cultures…also, I went back to my home town two years ago with my mom. It was intense for my mom, who hadn’t seen her family in 22 years. It really touched me and…my mother, who always showed us strength and hope. Seeing her really break down (at the reunion) was a side of her I had never seen. So, for me the memoirs represent closure.

EBONY: What was it like to be discovered as a supermodel?

ALEK WEK: At the time, it didn’t seem so surreal because you have to see it to believe it. At that time of my life, it was quite unimaginable. Of course, being discovered at the fair with my friend, I was like “Are you serious?” I thought it was my friend. It took a while for things to sink in because my mother was not really convinced it was going to happen. She was more like “Go back to college and continue that. Get your education” That’s what I did. Of course, the modeling scout was more persistent. I was like, “It’s not going to hurt to get some information at least. It could turn out to be something quite legitimate. After all, I have all of these part time jobs here and there. Why not get another part-time job that could turn out to be something that could finance my education and pay my rent?” Therefore, that’s what I did.

EBONY: Before modeling, your work was pretty unglamorous. What was that like for you?

ALEK WEK: I should have left all of the jobs, like cleaning toilets and the like out of the book, but I’d be lying if I said things were wonderful. Things aren’t always wonderful. And I thought it would be a good thing to show, especially if you’ve worked hard in your life. Life isn’t fantastic and brilliant for some of us. And because of that, I was really motivated to go after what I wanted. I tell people, if they really want something, they should go for it because, at the end of the day, they will regret (if they don’t).

EBONY: What are some of the toughest challenges facing Black models?

ALEK WEK: Fashion is an accounting business. It deals with beauty, appearance, products, perfume and clothes. At the end of the day, it’s not rocket science or heart surgery. It was not just me, a Sudanese Dinka girl, who was met by an avalanche of criticisms. We all hear “her nose is too long. She is too much of a red head. Or, oh redheads are in and you’re not a red head…not her. She’s just too pale…where did she come from?”. Everyone has something to say. If you listen to everybody, you will go crazy. You will stop accepting yourself. And when you stop accepting yourself, what else do you have? But I had to learn that. When I began, I was like, “This doesn’t make sense” it was very overwhelming. That’s when I had to break it down and bring it down to simplicity and say “Okay, Alek is this something you are comfortable with? Who are you going to work with?

Ebony Magazine
September 2007 page 32-34
COPYRIGHT 2007 Johnson Publishing Co.
COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning

Additional info:
Entrepreneurial success:
  • Wek 1933 Handbags
Give back:
  • Established W.E.K (Working to Educate Kids), which supports educational programs for youth in Sudan and New York City