Alek Wek (1977- ) is a supermodel from Sudan. She is known for being dark-skinned with very short hair. She was at her height from 1997 to 2004, though she models even now in her early 30s.
She is a Dinka from southern Sudan, near the middle of Africa. Her father was a schoolteacher; she was the seventh of nine children. Growing up she did not know she was poor and black. Her family was together and she was happy. She did, however, have a skin disease, psoriasis, and thought she was ugly. The doctors could find no cure.
Then the war came. She saw bodies on the way to the well. When soldiers shot out their front door one night, they knew they had to leave. Her father got hurt and went to Khartoum, the capital, for an operation.
At age ten she talked her way onto a military plane leaving for Khartoum, where her father lay. As she got on board she turned to look and saw the sadness in her mother’s eyes. Soon the rest of her family got to Khatoum, but then her father died of the operation.
Her mother just wanted her children to wake up every morning safe and be able to go to school. So she got Alek to London where one of her older daughters lived. Alek arrived in London in 1991 at age 14.
Soon after she got to London her psoriasis went away.
Four years later while shopping in south London she was discovered by Fiona Ellis, a scout for Model One. She did not take it seriously and, besides, her mother said she should complete her schooling first. She was going to the London College of Fashion at the time.
But Model One kept calling and Wek saw that they were serious. She had some pictures taken and then offers started coming in. It changed her idea about herself. She talked her mother into it.
She signed with Ford in 1996 and became a fashion model. Whenever someone asked for black models she never went. She found that sort of thinking backwards and disrespectful.
Her big break came when she appeared on the cover of Elle in November 1997. The rest is history. That year MTV named her model of the year. I-D magazine went further and named her model of the decade.
Oprah said of Alek Wek:
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.
Although I am glad she is out there helping to stretch people’s idea of beauty, I do not think she is beautiful myself. She is striking and hard to forget, has a great smile and looks like a work of art, but I would not call her beautiful: No, I honestly do not think it is her dark skin, but her eyes. They seem too squinty or something and for me eyes makes the difference between pretty and beautiful.