10 Questions for Alek Wek
Supermodel discusses her South Sudan homeland, and how she defines beauty
In 1991, when Alek Wek was just a teen, she was forced to flee Sudan to escape the country’s civil war. This summer, the supermodel returned to South Sudan with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to visit refugee camps and to celebrate the nation’s first year of independence. Wek spoke with Loop 21 about the emotional trip, her hopes for South Sudan, and how growing up there helped shape her definition of beauty.
Loop 21: What made you return home to Sudan?
Alek Wek: For me, it wasn’t a question of whether I should or shouldn’t go. Having been born in Wau and growing up there, my fondest memories are from being there at age 6, 7, 8. When you leave a place, you get to appreciate where you come from, and after we finally sought refuge in London, it was always in the back of my mind. I just always wanted to be able to go back. This is where my roots are. Once I got into fashion, and being blessed with a voice, I felt it was very important to shed light on important issues by going into the field with UNHCR.
Loop 21: What was it like going back?
A.W.: It just brought back memories all over, not just horrible memories of the war, but I saw the fondest memories. I saw myself in the kids’ eyes, and how much can be done now with this town. It was all very hopeful, and it made me want to get involved even more and follow through with sitting down with UNHCR to see how we can provide an education and a future for these children.
Loop 21: What was life like growing up in Wau?
A.W.: For me, the thing about growing up in Wau was the small things. It’s the smallest things, the things we don’t really think about it until we see how others live, and then you realize how amazing it is. Like going to milk the cow. And we didn’t go to supermarket, we would go to the market, where everything was fresh—vegetables, fish caught that day. Yes, these sound like chores, but they are who I was, who I am. It wasn’t like something I hated, it was something I celebrated in a way.
Loop 21: What was it like getting out of Sudan as a child? How did you manage, and how did you end up in the U.K.?
A.W.: When I left Wau for Khartoum, there were no [commercial] flights. It was only the fighting planes that were operating. We would see the plane or hear it, and we would pack up and start walking to the plane in the hopes of getting on. To get out of Wau, there was a lot of bribing going on.
On this day, there were a lot of soldiers around, keeping their eye on everyone. I said to my mother, "Mom, we need to start dispersing. It would help more if were not all together. I will leave, then somebody else will leave.” I saw my neighbor, and asked my mother, “Do you trust him?” She said, "Yes." So, I go up to him, he is nervous, but I ask him to say that I am his kid, so that I could go with him on the plane. My mom looks at him and I see the sadness in her eyes. I was sad too, but I had to leave.
When I was leaving, my mom was so much more emotional than I was. I have always loved my family, but I always knew that even if we are apart we really care about each other and will be together again.
Loop 21: Tell us a little about your family.
A.W.: In the Wek family, there are nine of us, and my mother managed us all! I am forever so grateful my mother taught five of us girls, and four boys what makes you beautiful, and she lived that and I try to do anything as close as possible to the way she has done things, because she is so beautiful, inside and out.
Loop 21: What did your mother teach you about beauty, and being beautiful?
A.W.: Beauty is how you carry yourself and how you treat yourself. Beauty is not because you go out with makeup and a frock and Manolo shoes, with the latest bag and “look at my bling!” It is much deeper. And when I was younger, though I didn’t understand it, I had my head up and I could be proud of who I was, in part because of what my mother showed me, just by being herself.
Loop 21: But you’re in an industry that focuses on outer beauty; do you still think beauty is about what’s inside?
A.W.: Everybody has their own standard of beauty. When I got into modeling, I thought it would be good to be myself and to speak up, so that a young person growing up, a young black girl, can look at herself and will know she is gorgeous, she can be herself. You don’t have to be cool and with the in crowd. I would have been very discouraged when I started if I’d defined my beauty by saying, “Well, there is no one who has features like Alek, there is no one who has hair like Alek, so who am I going to try to be like?” I truly believe beauty is beyond just putting on makeup and looking like someone else. We are all beautiful and unique.
Loop 21: What did your family think when you started modeling?
A.W.: My parents always stressed education. When I was discovered that Sunday afternoon, at the Crystal Palace Fair, when the woman approached me, education was still number one. I came home to tell my mom, and she looked at me like, “What is this modeling rubbish? You are going to school!” Of course, I went back to school, but my mother and sister checked it out and we saw it was legit. I got into fashion, and it didn’t just give me a wonderful career, it gave me a voice be able to stress what’s important.
Loop 21: How have you remained so grounded throughout your career?
A.W.: It was good, once I realized that I can just be Alek. I don’t want to just make a lot of money. I earn money because this is what I want to do, but it is not who I am. I’ve had my mom to keep me grounded, my agents have been with me 14 years. These are the people who have looked out for me.
Loop 21: The images we see of Sudan, and of Africa in general, often show poverty and suffering. What do you want readers to know about South Sudan?
A.W.: There is so much more joy, so much more hope. I am passionate to do whatever I can and be a part of rebuilding the community. Going home, I saw why I love this community so much, why I love coming here. Where I come from, we coexist and we love and celebrate it. I saw kids at the youth center, and they did the different dances of the different tribes. I didn’t see anything disparaging. If anything, I saw all that needs to be done, and it can be done.
Click here to help Alek Wek support refugees and rebuilding in South Sudan.
[READ MORE: 10 QUESTIONS FOR T.J. HOLMES]