Out of Africa
22 October 2007
She has been called the face of Africa. She inherited her long body from her father, her smile from her mother, and showed the fashion world that beauty could encompass more than the blonde of Claudia Schiffer or the oomph of Elle Macpherson.
Alek Wek never intended to be a model. At 19, she was approached by an agent while walking in a south London park with an English girlfriend, whom Wek considered much prettier. In her memoir, Alek, the 30-year-old Dinka woman from southern Sudan tells the story of her flight from civil war, her time as a refugee in London, and 10 years on the catwalks of Milan, Paris and New York.
Wek may not be on a first-name basis with fame - like, say, Kate - but the regal, 181-centimetre-tall model has been recognisable since 1997, the year Gilles Bensimon photographed her for the cover of American
and proved jet black could be beautiful.
It was a milestone for her and the magazine: a black woman who looked unambiguously African. Bensimon said the magazine received scores of approving letters: "One woman said, 'I never expected to see someone who looked like me on the cover of the magazine."'
Later, when Oprah Winfrey interviewed Wek on her television show, she said: "If you'd been on the cover of a magazine when I was growing up, I would have had a different concept of who I was."
Her brilliant career almost stalled early on when assistants to photographer Steven Meisel advised the agency promoting the beanpole-thin beauty that she should lose five pounds (2.26 kilograms) in preparation for an Italian
"They think you're too fat," her agent told Wek. The model, who knew what it was to starve, just scoffed.
"You're not going to nourish your body, for what? A picture? The whole weight thing is ridiculous."
Today, the model is talking from the three-storey, red-brick Brooklyn townhouse she bought for $US395,000 ($436,900) in 1998, even though it was unheard of in Dinka culture to borrow money.
Her mother Akuol, who had also made it to London with several other of her children, had taught Wek that she should never buy anything she couldn't pay for outright.
She also feared that her daughter's modelling career would lead her to take her clothes off and "put myself in bad situations". And there were times Wek wondered whether her mother's worst-case scenario had come true, as she wriggled in a leopard-print bikini to appear as an "elusive, dark, exotic creature" in a video for Tina Turner's theme song for the James Bond film
. Or when she wore black rubber and pranced about in a studio like Dracula for a shoot for
. Or took off all her clothes and sat in a giant coffee cup so that her skin could represent the espresso in a Lavazza calendar. But Wek appeared less phased by the fashion industry's racial whims than other black models.
"Fashion is an accounting business," she told black fashion magazine
. "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 criticism when I walked in the door. Everyone starting out as a model has his or her own share of criticism. We all hear, 'Her nose is too long. She is too much of a red head.' 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 say, 'OK, Alek, is this something you are comfortable with? Who are you going to work with?'."
Recently, Wek took a picture of the lifeline on the palm of her hand, had it replicated on canvas, and turned the image into the lining of one of the items in her handbag range, WEK1933, named for her father's birth year.
"I'm not really into palm-reading," she says, "but it's quite interesting actually how everyone's palm and lifeline is different."
Her inspiration for the designs - sold in Australia through Marais boutique in the Royal Arcade - came from the brass-clasp briefcase carried by her father, who never made it out of Sudan.
Art is another way to tell her story, but also makes her feel at home: "Whenever I'm in town and have down time, I like to just sit here with my cat, have a cup of tea and choose my subjects from whatever's around me, and make it abstract."
Wek was born in the village of Wau, the seventh child to father Athian, a middle-class administrator with the local board of education, and mother Akuol, an entrepreneurial woman who made liquor and raised peanut crops.
Wek was a six-year-old tomboy when the civil war broke out, and her mother urged her to stay indoors and not wander too far, in case she was caught by rogue militias who sold children into slavery.
When Wek was nine, convoys of soldiers turned the village into a military zone. The Dinka people were increasingly blamed for trouble, and Wek says that, while her family did not take sides, they probably were more inclined to support the Sudan People's Liberation Army, which included many fellow Dinka, rather than the northern Muslims.
The family fled south through the jungle, fearing they might be killed, her father hobbling because of a bad hip, while Wek and her sister Adaw suffered malaria. They crossed crocodile-infested rivers in dugout canoes and survived on stewed leaves and roots.
"I learned just how little it takes to survive," Wek says, "which is why I don't waste things - food, money, friendships or opportunities." Nor does she take anything for granted: "I had seen so much death and destruction that I could never believe that tomorrow was guaranteed."
At 10, Wek told her mother she was fleeing on her own. She posed as the daughter of another Dinka man to get on an army flight to stay with relatives in Khartoum, where her father was in hospital: he'd had a stroke.
Wek was at her father's deathbed two years later when he told her, "Alek, you must go to London. Live at peace for once. Get an education. Do well."
Two years later, aged 14, Wek and her older sister Atheng flew to London as refugees. Wek cleaned toilets and swept up hair at a salon to pay the tuition fees for art courses.
In 1995, four years after arriving, Wek was spotted by a female talent scout from a modelling agency, but she resisted the idea of having test shots taken.
"It's so strange that I grew up to make my living off my looks," she writes, "after so many years of looking like a monster." (All her life, Wek had suffered from psoriasis all over her body, including her face - her flaky, itchy, bleeding skin making her feel repulsive. It cleared up in London's cooler climate.)
Wek hasn't remained at the top of her profession by making trouble: she is circumspect on political issues and conciliatory about race. Does she see the US as a particularly racist country?
"I don't think it's just an American problem. If it only existed here then I wouldn't have accomplished the work I do. Racism was even there in Sudan. It was ridiculous. The conflict has taken people who had gotten along and appreciated the differences in culture and pitted us against each other. Racism is everywhere. Am I going to feed into it? No. Is it everyone? Absolutely not!"
Wek says she feels "really terrible" to hear that the Australian Government has banned visa applications from Africa until June 2008, and is saddened that Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews has singled out Sudanese refugees for criticism. But she declines to comment further on foreign politics. She describes US Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton as "inspiring", but won't say whether Clinton is her preferred candidate over, say, Barack Obama.
While she is cautious about saying anything overtly political, she is quick to point out the small ways that race issues affect day-to-day life. In her book, she questions the "unconscious judgements" of her boyfriend, Italian-born property developer Riccardo Sala. Wek recalls how, one day, she was choosing images of her family to frame. "These are nice," Sala remarked. "But when you put them up, you'll have nothing but black people on your wall."
How did Sala feel about her including that anecdote in the book?
"He didn't say it in a bad way," Wek says, more circumspect. "It was quite innocent. After a year or so together, he wanted to see more of me and him among the pictures, and his little nieces, whom I adore."
Wek writes about being constantly harassed and detained by US immigration officials when leaving or returning on international flights, raising suspicions even though - or perhaps because - she travels business class.
"I've been detained so many times," she says. "I've come to realise that, as a successful black woman - and a tall one at that - I represent something that triggers the hostility and suspicion of a lot of people, black and white, male and female."
Towards the end of her book, she writes of returning to Sudan in 2004 with her mother to find buildings torn down and roads pitted, neighbours and friends among the missing, and children starving. A new family was living in their old home, but the garden was dead, the fruit trees gone. Wau had become a refugee town.
Still, Wek sounds a note of hope: "These people weren't begging for hand-outs," she says. "They wanted tools and the possibility of doing something. Anything. They would find it."
Alek by Alek Wek is published by Virago, $35, and released on November 1.