Giving thanks to Alek Wek: The importance of a supermodel.
I never tire of reading Alek Wek interviews. Her presence in the modelling world did wonders for my often down-trodden self-esteem whilst growing up. It still does.
Wek, often the sole black face amidst a sea of the many white visages I’d see in the pages of the fashion magazines I became obsessed with was always greatly outnumbered. Few other black faces accompanied her on the runway and in print. Similarly, I constantly found myself in social settings comprised of the same demographics.
Before high school, most of the schools I attended were majority white. At one particular school, I was the only black student in my year for an entire semester, and the only black girl between grades 4 and 8 for that same period of time. You can imagine what this sort of alienation did for myself esteem being in my highly impressionable and formative pre-teen and teenage years. To my non-white friends with flowing hair and skin that was either much paler than mine or at least a ‘nice kind of brown’, I represented all that was undesired in the world of beauty. I was not white, I was not mixed or exotic by any means. I was black, another synonym for plain. My skin? Too dark. My hair? Too stiff when natural. Relaxed? Not even close to what they had. And so the list went on.
Oddly enough, you’d think I’d be somewhat relieved to see someone like Alek Wek receive the kind of seemingly positive attention she did from the fashion world. Au contraire, mon frere - at least at first. At the time, I couldn’t understand why they’d chosen her. She seemed to represent all the things that seemed wrong with blackness in the eyes of my non-black peers. Her skin? Much too dark. Her hair? Much too stiff (if she weren’t bald). And so the list went on. How, in any way, could I look to this woman as a source of inspiration when nothing about her seemed to comfortably fit the standards of beauty defined, and often confined by, whiteness? After all, these standards plagued not just my personal life, but that of the world I lived in. Why had fashion chosen her, or at least someone that looked the way she did? Was Wek chosen because she represented an anomaly in the world of beauty? Or because despite all the notions of beauty that seemed to stand against her, she defiantly refused to accept them and in doing so, redefined how we see and construct beauty and what we consider beautiful?
Being of Dinka descent, Wek stood out physically not only from the white models that overpopulated the fashion industry, but also from the small number of black models the West had heralded both before her and during her time. Her looks seemed to make a statement, whether she liked it or not, in a world that, rather oddly, both embraced and rejected her at the same time. Where she was hired by top Haute Couture designers and graced the covers of numerous high fashion magazines, she was often a token in the fashion world and seen as exotic by the very people that claimed to celebrate her beauty.
In all of this, I found it extremely difficult to interpret, at the time, that Alek Wek’s presence was important primarily because she was there. Not that there hadn’t been black models before her, but her particular beauty had never been celebrated in such a manner before. Whether or not the world approved of her beauty was something that didn’t matter to Alek Wek. She was visible - highly so, and she was not going anywhere. Whether I was aware of it or not, Alek Wek’s visibility was important for the reasons that made me reject not only her but myself during that time. Alek Wek was important because her presence assured people like myself that we deserved all the things we were made to believe we were not worthy of, and needed no one’s permission as proof.
This recent Guardian interview of Alek Wek highlights so much of why Alek Wek is truly one of the most important women in the world of fashion - ever. Here’s an except that demonstrates why she’s so incredibly important and inspirational.
Wek was born in South Sudan, arriving in London when she was 14, and was acutely aware of how different she was from the other big models of the day, women such as Kate Moss, Claudia Schiffer and Eva Herzigova; while growing up, she had no knowledge of trailblazers such as Iman and Grace Jones.
“There was no concept of fashion and catwalk shows where I came from,” Wek says. “There were no magazines. I never saw women in makeup, or with different hairstyles. Absolutely not.” Now, she says, there are so many South Sudanese girls working as models it is not a big deal; in the late 1990s, she was one of very few successful African models. “There were black models, but no one as dark-skinned, and none with Dinka features, that’s for sure.” Even so, she was regularly mistaken for Naomi Campbell, an entirely different-looking model from Streatham with a Jamaican-born mother. She laughs at the ridiculousness: “A black woman is not ‘a type’. I never had any interest in those jobs that asked for only black girls. What the hell is that? Would you be comfortable saying you wanted only white girls, or Latin? Are you kidding me? It’s baffling.”
At a time when black models were considered commercially more viable if their hair was relaxed, their complexions light, Wek (very dark skin, cropped natural hair) was confident of her value. I have interviewed many models and, without fail, when asked if they always knew they were beautiful, each of them has given me a look of mock horror before going on to list their unsightly features as a child: big feet, too tall, gawky features. But when I ask Wek, she immediately replies, “Oh yes, of course.”
(Read more of the original article ‘Alek Wek: ‘You don’t have to go with the Crowd’)
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