Born into the southern Sudanese Dinka tribe in 1977, Alek Wek started her career in modelling at just 18 and since then has been hailed as “Model of the Decade” by i-D magazine. Currently with IMG, Wek’s career is unlike any other models of her era because she wasn’t just a pretty face.
Alek Wek subverted all Eurocentric beauty ideals in a time that the fashion industry was nowhere near as open to diversity in beauty as it is today. She surpassed all previous ideals and made a name (and a face) for herself as one of the hottest editorial models on the scene.
Outside of being a modelling superstar, Alek uses her own experience as a refugee to raise awareness about other refugees. She is a member of the US Committee For Refugees’ Advisory Council, and campaigns to raise the profile of the humanitarian disaster in the Sudan.
A Tough Beginning
Raised in a large but close-knit family in the small village of Wau, Wek’s family life was changed forever as they fled the Sudanese Civil war in 1982 and on their return, found the village in shreds. Wek and her family went to Khartoum, the capital, but when her father died from complications of a hip replacement, Alek Wek left for Britain with her sister while her other siblings and mother were given refuge in Australia and Canada.
While living with her sister in England, Alek sent money to her mother from the odd jobs she did to keep herself. She went on to study at London College of Fashion, reading fashion technology and business.
A Breakthrough Star
According to IMG, Alek first broke onto the scene with a cameo in Tina Turner’s “Golden Eye” music video for James Bond in 1995.
“I was just a little girl, and one day after school–this was after my family fled South Sudan and moved to London–a scout asked me if I wanted to model. I thought, “ME…model? No way!” I kind of brushed her off because I was focused on school at London College of Fashion.
Anyway, I gave her my number on a whim, and she actually called. This Tina Turner video was one of my very first jobs and I thought it was pretty fabulous!” In 1996, Wek made another cameo in Janet Jackson’s “Got Til It’s Gone” music video featuring Q-Tip. This was the second music video she’d filmed in two years.
Alek came to New York from London in 1996 and went on seventeen appointments a day for about six weeks. The outcome of all those appointments? An editorial shoot with Steven Meisel for Vogue Italia.
“I have no problem with whatever the next big look is,” says model Alek Wek. “Just don’t try and tell me that only one look is beautiful.”
Appropriate words from the striking Sudanese model whose beautiful appearance has taken her to the very peak of her profession, challenged the traditional definition of beauty and paved the way for aspiring models wishing to follow in her footsteps.