THE EDITORS of American Elle decided to put Alek Wek
on the cover of their November 1997 issue, it was as if it were
the second coming of Christ. Literally. The editors and publishers
of American fashion magazines like to perpetrate the myth that having
a non-white, blue-eyed blonde model on their covers is tantamount
to a disaster the world hasn’t seen since the Titanic was
hit by that iceberg.
The party line is that advertisers will rebel
and cancel ads, readers will cancel their subscribers, and that
the issue will not sell at the newsstands, with the end of the month
returns higher than usual. Of course, intellectually, we all knew
that it’s all hogwash. The reality is that beauty comes in many
shades and sizes and we must embrace them all. Alek Wek, throughout
her brilliantly handled career, has been sure-fire proof of that.
The responses to that cover from men and women of all races were
monumental. The issue sold out at the newsstands long before the
month was out. The naysayers got it wrong.
Her striking beauty and innate grace (sometimes
under pressure of the moment) deservedly won her even more ardent
new fans. When she later appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show,
Ms Winfrey, no slouch herself in the accomplishments’ department,
saluted her by remarking, ‘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.’ And she ought to know.
But as Alek herself so eloquently stated in an
interview (‘Sisters in Arms’) with Iman Addulmajid, the great supermodel
of the ’70s and early ’80s, for Scene magazine, ‘I believe
that true beauty comes from inside you and that always shows through.
I have no problem with whatever the next big look [in fashion] is,
whether it's big blonde hair and blue eyes or green hair and dark
eyes. That’s fine so long as there isn’t just one ideal image. Don’t
try and tell me that only one look is beautiful!’
Alek Wek is an intelligent,
assured woman of many talents and accomplishments, and it would be
a very grave mistake indeed to underestimate her
and her drive to
succeed. She has been a trendsetter throughout her modelling career,
having been named Model of the Decade by the iconoclastic i-D magazine,
picked as one of People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People
and one of the 50 Most Influential Faces in Fashion by both i-D
and Frank. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
says Wek, ‘has always been a part
of my life and with [any] luck, it will continue to be a contributing
force in my future. If the opportunity is right, I would love
to have my work showcased in a gallery’
Born into the Sudanese Dinka tribe in 1977, Ms
Wek was raised in a large but loving close-knit family (of nine
brothers and sisters) in the small village of Wau. She remembers
the early years of her childhood before the outbreak of civil war
as being peaceful and some of the best memories she carries with
her throughout her daily life. ‘My mother would wake up early every
morning and go out to the markets for fruits and vegetables. When she came back,
I’d go through the basket to see what she’s got. It was such a nice
household and a beautiful town. But once war broke out, everything
The civil unrest was just the start. The family
was forced to leave their village and moved to Khartoum, where her
father, an education administrator, unexpectedly died from post-op
complications after a routine hip replacement operation. Soon after
the family split up with Alek and a younger sister going to Britain
to live with her older sister in London. The remaining family members
were eventually allowed to leave Sudan and given refuge by Australia
and Canada. The years in London were spent with the sisters working
at odd jobs to support themselves and her mother, as well as studying
fashion technology and business at the prestigious London College
of Fashion where she further developed her love of art and painting.
‘Painting,’ she says, ‘has always been a part of
my life and with [any] luck, it will continue to be a contributing
force in my future. If the opportunity is right, I would love to have
my work showcased in a gallery.’
INSET: Alek Wek.
TOP: Its not hard to see why
shes one of Peoples 50 most beautiful: Wek at
the Chado Ralph Rucci fall 2003 collection. ABOVE:
Items from the Alek Wek 1933 Limited Akua collection.