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Wek, Alek

Alek Wek

1977—

Model, author, humanitarian

Sudanese model Alek Wek represents a fresh, 21st-century attitude from within the fashion industry and the images it sends out into the world about who or what is beautiful. Wek, possessing far darker skin than her African-heritage supermodel predecessors, was called "the hottest face in fashion" by Newsweek, and her late 1997 appearance on the cover of one of the world's leading fashion magazines was a virtual media event in itself. Like other top models, the Sudanese Wek is statuesque, but as a writer for People magazine enthused, "few have her smile, and none have Wek's dramatically cropped hair, cherubic cheeks and flawless coal-black skin that has set the modeling world abuzz." A keen businesswoman, Wek used her singular fame on the catwalk and magazine covers to launch her own accessories and handbag company, and to call for humanitarian aid for her homeland.

Fled War-Town Hometown

A writer for the New York Times, Constance C. R. White, interviewed Wek shortly after her appearance on the November 1997 cover of Elle and found that "the only thing more startling than her 5-foot-11-inch ebony beauty is her erudite humor and self-assuredness." A less-than-storybook life may account for some of that poise. Wek was born in Wau, Sudan, on April 16, 1977, one of nine children born to a southern Sudan family of Dinka heritage. A civil war that erupted in the mid-1980s interrupted their relatively placid lives in their hometown, and as a result of the conflict, Wek's father, a teacher, was injured and went to the Sudanese capital of Khartoum for medical treatment. When the fighting near their home worsened, Wek talked her way onto a military plane that was taking refugees out of the area and to Khartoum. She was just ten, had nothing on her except the clothes she was wearing—and left her mother and brothers and sisters behind. "We couldn't all go together," Wek recalled in an interview with People, "so I decided I had to go on my own."

Fortunately, the rest of the family were able to join her in Khartoum soon afterward, and they grieved together when their father died. At that point, an older sister of Wek's living in London launched a complicated process to get her siblings out of the country. Only Alek, her mother, and one other sister made it to England as refugees; the other siblings landed elsewhere in Europe. Since leaving Khartoum, Wek and her family have never been reunited all at once because all possess various travel restrictions on their visas.

From Street Fair to Catwalk

Wek's transition from the Sudan to parochial school in London as an immigrant was not an easy one in the early 1990s. Classmates teased her because of her looks. "It was painful to be called names," she remembered in the interview with People, but pointed out that she refused to become discouraged, and that after just being herself for a while, "they got used to me." By 1995, Wek was a college student enjoying a street fair in London one day when someone approached her and asked if she was interested in modeling; Wek refused to take the stranger seriously at first, but the woman was with Models One, a top London agency. Intrigued, Wek then had some professional photos taken, and suddenly saw herself in an entirely new light: as she told People, her first reaction to the images was, "Oh, my God, this is me!" Her only obstacle to launching a modeling career was convincing her mother to let her abandon her college studies.

Wek was quickly offered plum assignments, assuaging any worries her mother might have had. She appeared in some British and Spanish fashion magazines, and arrived in New York City in June of 1996. Her long legs, dark skin, and clipped hair adorning a near-sculptural head excited interest there as well, but she has been adamant about not being barricaded into the "tribal" category. Initially signed with Ford Models, Wek grew unhappy with the way management "sold" her to clients. When her agent decamped to IMG Models, Wek followed. "Some people at said I would never sell, I was too dark," Wek told the New York Times's White. Some also predicted she would never win any cosmetics advertising jobs, but then Wek landed an assignment to represent makeup artist Francois Nars's new product line.

Soon international cosmetics giant Clinique was courting Wek as well, as were designers Isaac Mizrahi and Moschino. She appeared on runways in New York, Paris, and Milan throughout the rest of the year and into 1997, and also had cameos in videos from Janet Jackson and Busta Rhymes. But it was her appearance on the November 1997 cover of Elle magazine that made Wek one of the hottest models in the industry: despite gains made by all women of color against lingering beauty stereotypes, black models still landed on the covers of top magazines only infrequently. Furthermore, the ones that did were more likely lighter-skinned women such as Naomi Campbell or Tyra Banks.

Started Media Stir

Elle's editor, Gilles Bensimon, shot the cover himself, putting Wek in white on a white background. With the starkly contrasting colors, Bensimon was trying to project the idea "‘Nobody is out, everybody is in,’" as he told the New York Times's White. "I thought, if I was African-American, I never would see myself in magazines," Bensimon reflected. Yet the fact that Wek is not actually African-American has caused somewhat of a stir, and though the Elle cover incited an onslaught of extremely positive reader mail at the magazine, her agent at IMG does receive some negative letters. Some find fault with Wek's look, seeing her rise as evidence of a new form of stereotype from the other end of the spectrum, the "primitive" or "exotic" tag. Wek, who refuses to appear at model calls that ask for black models, is perplexed that her rise to the upper echelons of the fashion industry has generated controversy. "I can't understand the fuss," Wek told Newsweek's Allison Samuels. "In my village there is no problem because we all look the same. Here there is so much difference in skin—so much is thought about it, and that's sad." Yet the controversy paled in comparison to her growing fame. Wek "really opened up the way for anyone to come after," explained Candace Matthews, president of ethnic hair care company SoftSheen-Carson, to Megan Scott of the Seattle Times. Indeed, Wek landed such mainstream recognition as an MTV honor as Model of the Year in 1997 and a listing among People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People in 1999.

At a Glance …

Born on April 16, 1977, in Wau, Sudan; daughter of Athian (a teacher) and Akoul (a social worker) Parak. Education: Attended college in London, England, mid-1990s.

Career : Ford Models, New York City, model, 1996; IMG Models, New York City, model, 1997-; Alek Wek 1933 Ltd., founder, 2001; W.E.K., Working to Educate Kids, non-profit organization, founder 2006.

Awards: MTV, Model of the Year, 1997; i-D Magazine, Model of the Decade, 1997.

Addresses: Agent—IMG Models, 304 Park Ave S, New York, NY 10010. Web—www.alekwek1933.com.

After a decade of "turning the fashion industry's idea of marketable beauty on its head," as Denise Campbell of Black Enterprise put it, Wek broadened her own horizons. She started AlekWek1933 Ltd in 2001 to offer her own line of fashion accessories and handbags. The 1933 in her company's name honors the year her father, Athian, was born. "My father passed away when I was 12," Wek explained to Marc Karimzadeh of WWD. "I didn't want to remember him how he died—[1933] is more a celebration of life. It would have been amazing for him to see me and the opportunities I have had." A great honor to her father, Wek also formed her company to express her own deep interest in design, which she'd nurtured for years. "I wanted to have a medium that would allow the artist in my heart to evolve," Wek told Campbell. She involved herself in all aspects of design and production, creating bags—made of find Italian leathers, alligator, lamb, and even canvas—that ran the gamut in style from chic and formal to casual and sporty. Wek also appeared in her first film, Four Feathers, in 2002.

Wek did not take her growing celebrity lightly. She understood the great distance she had come from her time as a refugee. After her first return trip to Sudan in 1998, Wek offered a steady stream of support to her homeland. Witnessing tremendous devastation in Sudan on a trip in 2004, Wek set herself on a mission. "[S]eeing what the war destruction has done to the country and to the people triggered a call in my head that I've got to come back and do something," Wek recalled to Lauren Johnston of Newsday.com. She launched a non-profit organization called W.E.K. (Working to Educate Kids) in 2006 to provide educational opportunities to children in New York City and Sudan. She also determined to share her own story to inspire others. Her autobiography Alek: From Sudanese Refugee to International Supermodel was published in 2007. "Let fashion not fool you," Wek said to People contributor Charlotte Triggs. "There's a bigger world out there than our small bubble where we feel so fabulous. The best thing that this industry has given me is a voice. So in a way, it's my responsibility to give back and shed light on a place where the people are voiceless."

Selected works

Books

Alek: From Sudanese Refugee to International Supermodel, Amistad/HarperCollins, 2007.

Films

Four Feathers, 2002.

Sources

Periodicals

Black Enterprise, September 2006, p. 170.

Ebony, September 2007, p. 32.

Newsweek, November 24, 1997, p. 68.

New York Times, November 16, 1997, sec. 9, p. 2.

People, February 2, 1998; September 3, 2007, p. 101.

Seattle Times, May 3, 2006, p. F5.

WWD, July 23, 2001, p. 7.

On-line

"Alek Wek: From Refugee to Supermodel," Newsday.com,www.newsday.com/entertainment/nyalek0912,0,5585408.story (September 12, 2007).

"Fashion: Alek Wek: Model Profile," New York Magazine,http://nymag.com/fashion/models/awek/alekwek/ (September 12, 2007).

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"Wek, Alek." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 11 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Wek, Alek." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved December 11, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/wek-alek

Wek, Alek 1977–

Alek Wek 1977

Fashion model

Sources

Sudanese model Alek Wek represents a fresh, 21st-century attitude from within the fashion industry and the images it sends out into the world about who or what is beautiful. Wek, possessing far darker skin than her African-heritage supermodel predecessors, has been called the hottest face in fashion by Newsweek, and her late 1997 appearance on the cover of one of the worlds leading fashion magazines was a virtual media event in itself. Like other top models, the twenty-year-old transplanted Londoner is statuesque, but as a writer for People magazine enthused, few have her smile, and none have Weks dramatically cropped hair, cherubic cheeks and flawless coal-black skin that has set the modeling world abuzz.

A writer for the New York Times, Constance C. R. White, interviewed Wek shortly after her appearance on the November 1997 cover of Elle and found that the only thing more startling than her 5-foot-l 1-inch ebony beauty is her erudite humor and self-assuredness. A less-than-storybook life may account for some of that poise. Wek was one of nine children born to a southern Sudan family of Dinka heritage. A civil war that erupted in the mid-1980s interrupted their relatively placid lives, and as a result of the conflict, Weks father, a teacher, was injured and went to the Sudanese capital of Khartoum for medical treatment. When the fighting near their home worsened, Wek talked her way onto a military plane that was taking refugees out of the area and to Khartoum. She was just ten, had nothing on her except the clothes she was wearingand left her mother and brothers and sisters behind. We couldnt all go together, Wek recalled in an interview with People, so I decided I had to go on my own.

Fortunately, the rest of the family were able to join her in Khartoum soon afterward, and they grieved together when their father died. At that point, an older sister of Weks living in London launched a complicated process to get her siblings out of the country. Only Alek, her mother, and one other sister made it to England as refugees; the other siblings landed elsewhere in Europe. Since leaving Khartoum, Wek and her family have never been reunited all at once because all possess various travel restrictions on their visas.

Weks transition from the Sudan to parochial school in

At a Glance

Born c. 1977, in Sudan; daughter of a teacher and Akoul (a social worker) Parak, Education : Attended College in London, England, mid-1990s.

Career: With Ford Models, New York City, 1996; with IMG Models, New York City, 1997.

Addresses: Home Hew York, NY. Officec/o IMG Models, 304 Park Ave. South, 12th floor, New York, NY 10003.

London as an immigrant was not an easy one in the early 1990s. Classmates teased her because of her looks. It was painful to be called names, she remembered in the interview with People, but pointed out that she refused to become discouraged, and that after just being herself for a while, they got used to me. By 1995, Wek was a college student enjoying a street fair in London one day when someone approached her and asked if she was interested in modeling; Wek refused to take the stranger seriously at first, but the woman was with Models One, a top London agency. Intrigued, Wek then had some professional photos taken, and suddenly saw herself in an entirely new light: as she told People, her first reaction to the images was, Oh, my God, this is me! Her only obstacle to launching a modeling career was convincing her mother to let her abandon her college studies.

Wek was quickly offered plum assignments, assuaging any worries her mother might have had. She appeared in some British and Spanish fashion magazines, and arrived in New York City in June of 1996. Her long legs, dark skin, and clipped hair adorning a near-sculptural head excited interest there as well, but she has been adamant about not being barricaded into the tribal category. Initially signed with Ford Models, Wek grew unhappy with the way management sold her to clients. When her agent decamped to IMG Models, Wek followed. Some people at [Ford] said I would never sell, I was too dark, Wek told the New York Timess White. Some also predicted she would never win any cosmetics advertising jobs, but then Wek landed an assignment to represent makeup artist Francois Narss new product line.

Soon international cosmetics giant Clinique was courting Wek as well, as were designers Isaac Mizrahi and Moschino. She appeared on runways in New York, Paris, and Milan throughout the rest of the year and into 1997, and also had cameos in videos from Janet Jackson and Busta Rhymes. But it was her appearance on the November 1997 cover of Elle magazine that made Wek one of the hottest models in the industry: despite gains made by all women of color against lingering beauty stereotypes, black models still landed on the covers of top magazines only infrequently. Furthermore, the ones that did were more likely lighter-skinned women such as Naomi Campbell or Tyra Banks.

Ell s editor, Gilles Bensimon, shot the cover himself, putting Wek in white on a white background. With the starkly contrasting colors, Bensimon was trying to project the idea Nobodyisout, everybody is in, ashetoldthe New York Times White. I thought, if I was African-American, I never would see myself in magazines, Bensimon reflected. Yet the fact that Wek is not actually African-American has caused somewhat of a stir, and though the Elle cover incited an onslaught of extremely positive reader mail at the magazine, her agent at IMG does receive some negative letters. Some find fault with Weks look, seeing her rise as evidence of a new form of stereotype from the other end of the spectrum, the primitive or exotic tag. Wek, who refuses to appear at model calls that ask for black models, is perplexed that her rise to the upper echelons of the fashion industry has generated controversy. I cant understand the fuss, Wek told NeLustueeks Allison Samuels. In my village there is no problem because we all look the same. Here there is so much difference in skinso much is thought about it, and thats sad.

When not jetting back and forth across the Atlantic on modeling assignments, Wek makes herself at home in Manhattan. She likes to in-line skate in the cityher fans now call out her name on the streetand entertains her friends by cooking traditional Sudanese food in her kitchen. She also phones her mother in London often. I love having friends around, Wek told the New York Times. Youve got to make yourself happy. Im a happy person naturally.

Sources

Newsweek, November 24, 1997, p. 68.

New York Times, November 16, 1997, sec. 9, p. 2.

People, February 2, 1998.

Carol Brennan

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Wek, Alek 1977–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 11 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Wek, Alek 1977–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 11, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/wek-alek-1977

"Wek, Alek 1977–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved December 11, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/wek-alek-1977