Alek Wek – a revolutionary for change
From refugee to supermodel, tireless humanitarian and global icon. Alek Wek tells H&M Magazine about being scouted at 18, why she felt obliged to shed light on big world problems – and what her beauty secrets are.
“I’m not going to be a one-hit-wonder, this is not going to be short-term. This will be long-term.”
Alek Wek’s mind was set and her vision of the future was clear when she decided to pursue a career in modelling in the mid-90s. She’s a woman with willpower and pathos that can move mountains and, when given a platform, she knew what she was going to do with it. Today, she works for several different organisations and is an ambassador for H&M Foundation.
“Modelling wasn’t about money or fame for me, it was about utilising the space to shed light on important issues. It was in 1996 that I told my agent ‘you’re going to help me shed light on this. I got out and my family got out – but so many didn’t make it out of South Sudan.’ The world had to know.”
She has been a refugee herself and knows exactly how it feels to be forced to leave home and relatives behind to search for safety far away. Born in South Sudan in 1977, Alek Wek fled her hometown together with her family shortly after the civil war broke out in 1983. At 14, they made their way to the safe haven that is the United Kingdom where she, five years after arriving, was discovered by a model scout in London’s Crystal Palace Park.
Modelling wasn’t about money or fame for me, it was about utilising the space to shed light on important issues.
“I didn’t know there was such a thing as modelling when I was growing up. When I was discovered, I was five years out of South Sudan and was just getting used to living in London, to the new culture and to the language. The scout got my home phone number, called me and kept insisting that I should come in.”
When Alek Wek’s career launched, the fashion industry was, in many ways, very different from what it is today. To begin with, there was a group of models named Cindy, Naomi, Linda, Claudia and Christy, who were on the top of every designer and label’s wish list. To make it into that exclusive group and be on those lists, the industry demanded something extra, something special and something new. That was Alek Wek – a model of colour, whose gorgeous Dinka features were far from the conventional beauty ideals at the time.
“Fashion draws inspiration from all over the place, and therefore it’s natural that it should celebrate all cultures and colours. I’ve always been told that beauty isn’t the clothes or makeup you wear; that those are only things that can enhance the natural beauty of a woman. Which is within. I remember when Steven Meisel said ‘Alek, take that wig off. What kind of music do you want? I just want you to be you,’” she says and continues: “Having walked for thousands of miles looking for safety, I thought: this is it. This is my chance and fashion should represent all the different beauties of women.”
When reading about Alek Wek on model directory MODELS.com, she’s credited as the woman who revolutionised the industry and changed its concept of beauty. That happened two decades ago and now she says she only models in moderation. She devotes most of her time to activism, philanthropy and working to make the world a better place.
OUT OF ALL THE CAUSES YOU WORK FOR, WHICH ONE DO YOU KEEP CLOSEST TO YOUR HEART?
“I’ve always advocated for the importance of education, especially for girls. If you educate a girl, you educate a family, a community and a society. My father told me that you can lose everything, but you can never lose your knowledge.”
This holiday season, H&M Foundation and H&M have created The Gift Card That Gives Back to raise money for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. For every card sold, a donation will be made to help UNHCR provide school supplies for refugee children in countries around the world.
A LOT OF US WANT TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE AND WORK FOR POSITIVE CHANGE IN THE WORLD. WHAT CONTRIBUTION CAN EVERYBODY MAKE?
“Educate yourself! Go online and look for information and you can find something that will fit your schedule and curiosity.”
This interview was first published on H&M Magazine in February 2016.
LIVES IN: Brooklyn, New York
OCCUPATION: Model, author, activist. She has been an ambassador for H&M Foundation since 2014
BEAUTY SECRET: Sleep, drinking juices and eating foods rich in iron
KEEPS IN SHAPE WITH: Lots of yoga and cardio with her dog
The H&M Foundation is a non-profit global foundation, privately funded by the Stefan Persson family, founders and main owners of H&M. Its mission is to drive long-lasting positive change and improve living conditions by investing in people, communities and innovative ideas.