Alek Wek may have appeared in Vogue, been photographed by top fashion photographers Steven Meisel, Herb Ritts and Irving Penn and in 1997 been the first black woman to appear on the cover of American Elle magazine, but she can’t forget the war-torn country, South Sudan, that she had to leave as a refugee.
On a recent trip to South Africa, the 35-year-old model talks to me about her work for the UN refugee agency UNHCR, and how she travelled with the organisation to her home country to visit refugee camps and to mark the first anniversary of South Sudan’s independence on July 9 after a long protracted civil war.
“For me it was very personal. I went through the same thing with my family as a refugee. My family was displaced and had to leave our small town where I was born and raised. And then when the war got worse, we had to leave and find safety and refuge,” she says wearing what she calls a very chic Clive Rundle outfit.
With her sister, the 14-year-old Wek made her way to London where she was noticed by a modelling agency in a park one Sunday afternoon in 1995.
“I have been in fashion for 15 years or so. And I try to lend my voice, which fashion has given me, to shed the light on important and fundamental issues. I’ve always done so. I have a tremendous amount of respect for UNHCR.”
She never imagined that “this moment of independence would come. My trip last month brought back so many memories.”
“My mother wants us to all move back, she wants me to marry a man from our Dinka culture.
But she is older and still has friends there. For me it is a good time to go back and forth to play as much of a role as I can to make a difference.”
For now Wek is happy to live in Brooklyn, New York, where she shares her home with a four-legged animal.
“Seriously it’s very sad,” she says laughing.
“My mother is always on about me getting married. I’m modelling in moderation now, so maybe it will happen soon. I start with a four-legged companion and then it will be a two-legged one.”
Wek was in South Africa as the face for Amarula Cream’s new advertising campaign. She’s travelled to a secret location in Limpopo where she did a shoot with local director Ian Gabriel.