In this day and age, modelling is a very competitive career and if you don’t ‘have what it takes’ both physically and mentally, you will be left behind by the agency or the competition. The turn of the century has spawned a more accepting approach of the less traditional models; where plus sized, short haired, male, or Black models are walking the catwalk.
Dark-skinned models especially were unheard of in high end fashion as they didn’t “conform” to the White aesthetics. However, the minority models who fall ‘out of the norm’ have had to rise to the occasion with more adversity and obstacles in their way.
Defying all odds, many of these models have made it to the top of their modelling careers with confidence and class. Supermodels Alek Wek, Ajuma Nasenyana, and now upcoming Khoudia Diop have defined what it means to be a ‘melanin goddess’ with their unique and captivating complexion, talent, and extraordinary stories.
“If [Wek] had been on the cover of a magazine when I was growing up, I would have had a different concept of who I was.” – Oprah Winfrey.
From gun warfare in Sudan to major fashion runways is the phenomenal journey Alek Wek has made in just six years in the industry. Her spectacular rise to success was no small feat —she moved from some of the toughest living conditions—Wek was able to overcome all hardships and become one of the top black models in the world.
“My mom and dad raised all nine, every one of us and it was such a happy childhood and then a war came into it…when I sit down and thinking about it and for me to have gotten out of it and I’m sitting here and I’m nice and healthy, I thank God for that.” – Alek Wek with CNN Style
The Saharan beauty was born in Wau, South Sudan on April 16th 1977 to Akuol and Athian; she was the seventh of nine children. Her family lived in poor circumstances; a two-bedroom house without the basic necessities like water or electricity. When the civil war launched in 1985, when Alek was fourteen, her family fled to London. Although she had to learn a new language and adjust to the culture, she overcame all obstacles and reformed successfully.
“My mother has always instilled in us that we should carry ourselves with dignity despite the horror that came with the civil war. She also taught us that where you come from is very important because that’s what makes you who you are. So for me, whatever I’ve gone through had profoundly shaped me; it has given me strength and unwavering faith.” – Alek Wek in an interview with Forbes.
In London she enrolled in the Fashion Business and Technology programme and the London College of Fashion, following her father’s advice to all his children to educate themselves – which she did. A Model scout later discovered her in 1995 in Crystal Palace, London; she was seen as new and exotic.
“I was walking on the street with a friend of mine and a lady came up to me and asked me ‘Have you ever thought of doing modelling?’ and I was like ‘Yeah right.’ I thought she was just joking. I’ve seen magazines but never saw myself doing that type of thing, but it’s great.” – Alek Wek
While she got steady work in London, it wasn’t until she moved to New York at seventeen, when her career as a model really took off. She first appeared in Tina Turner’s ‘Golden Eye’ music video which launched her modelling career; she was then signed to Ford Models in 1996. She was the first African model to land the cover of Elle Magazine and dubbed MTV’s ‘Model of the Year’ in 1997. Since then she has been cover model for Forbes Magazine Africa and Ebony, American, German, South African, Brazilian and French Elle, i-D, Glamour and Cosmopolitan. She has also been in editorials for British and American Vogue and was Joanne Gair’s first ‘retrospective’ body painting photoshoot.
Although acting isn’t her main focus, in 2002 she played Aquol, a Sudanese princess in The Four Feathers. She has guest judged on America’s, Britain’s, and Ireland’s Next Top Model.
The impressive list of runways and fashion shows she has walked has allowed her to express herself and also bring greater awareness to the reality that the world is accepting the black image.
Wek’sCareer to date
Fashion houses like: Fendi, Ralph Lauren, Gucci, Michael Kors, Dries Van Noten, Tommy Hilfiger, Dolce & Gabbana, Bottega Veneta, Valentino, Emporio Armani, Givenchy, Roberto Cavalli, Christian Dior, Chanel, Oscar De La Renta, Dries Van Noten, DKNY, Viktor & Rolf, Diane Von Furstenberg, Chloé, Giorgio Armani, Sonia Rykiel, Vivienne Westwood, Emporio Armani, Marc Jacobs, Lanvin, , Zac Posen, Céline, Donna Karan, Yves Saint Laurent, Louis Vuitton, Hermès, John Galliano, Karl Lagerfeld, Christian Lacroix, and Jean Paul Gaultier.
Not to mention her appearance in various advertising campaigns including: Banana Republic, Moshino, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nars, Issey Miyake, Ann Taylor, H&M, Isabel Marant, Clinique and GAP to name a few.
She has documented her journey in an autobiography-Alek:From Sudanese Refugee to International Supermodel.
Wek, also a designer, has designed handbags in honour of her father. The line is called ‘Wek 1933’, they are available at Selfridges department stores.
When she is not designing or modeling, she is engaged in various campaigning initiatives. She campaigns for the awareness of the Sudan situation and refugees worldwide through the U.S. Committee for Refugees Advisory Council. She is a missionary for World Vision and ambassador for Doctors Without Borders, UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, and UNICEF. Bracelet of Life is a campaign she spearheaded alongside Doctors Without Borders. She is also a part of AIDS Awareness organizations, non-profits dedicated to breast cancer awareness and children’s charities.
“I think it’s all to do with how you feel, not really making a strong image about it but just being confident.” – Alek Wek
“Growing up as a child is really difficult, you get teased, it’s quite traumatic, you grow up with low self-esteem. The thing here is that dark is ugly, and if that is put in your head as a child it sticks in the back of your mind, always.” – Ajuma Nasenyana.
Ajuma landed on the modelling scene through Ford Models who signed her in Paris; she started from the top with the top modelling agency and her career took off. She was an upcoming model in the 2003 New York Fashion Week for some of Ford’s top clients that year. She won a spot in the model industry on the international fashion platform with her stark physique – high cheekbones, short hair, full lips and her beautiful dark skin.
“I’m happy there are certain qualities you learnt in my upbringing that you can’t break and this has really stayed with me throughout my fashion industry and it’s why I stay humble, level headed and grounded throughout all the trial and tribulations in the fashion industry.” – Ajuma Nasenyana in an interview with Capital Talk.
Born in January 14, 1984 in Lodwar, Turkana, Kenya, she attended Green States High where she was very active in track and field, becoming the captain and leader of all her athletic groups.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m hiding behind the media saying that I’m beautiful but me inside I don’t feel what they are saying.“ – Ajuma Nasenyana.
People kept encouraging her to model but she never thought she would be a model since she was such a tomboy. Ajuma entered the Miss Tourism Kenya Competition and was crowned Miss Nairobi.
“We should be proud of ourselves, we shouldn’t try to alter our image because we are beautiful just the way we are.” – Ajuma Nasenyana.
She was on her way to Virginia University on an athletic scholarship when she was spotted by Surazuri Models’ very own Lyndsey McIntyre who was so captivated by Ajuma’s unique look that she couldn’t let her go without a fight.
Soon enough McIntyre convinced her to come to Paris and model for three weeks, where the transformation of the ‘Tomboy Ajuma’ to ‘Ajuma The Lady’ transpired. She posed for covers and magazine and McIntyre sponsored the then 19-year old to enter the 2003 Ford Models Supermodel of the World Search. She stood out as the first black model to be a finalist and winner of the competition when the focus of the competition was not to promote Black models.
“I have never attempted to change my skin. I am natural. People in Europe and America love my dark skin. But here in Kenya, in my home country, some consider it not attractive.” – Ajuma Nasenyana .
She travelled to Europe and built an impressive portfolio and was able to sign with agencies in Italy, Spain, Austria, Ireland, London, Sweden, and Canada.
She has modelled for various fashion houses like Alessandro De Benedetti, Ackermann, Abaete, B Rude, Baby Phat, Brioni, Carlos Miele, Victoria’s Secret, Odio Mimonet, Nathan Jenden, Unconditional, L’or d’Afrique by Auditions, Mekdi, Alexander McQueen, Amanda Wakeley, Fendi, Gaspard Yurkievich, Chado Ralph Rucci Didier Angelo, Diane von Furstenberg, Jason Wu, Issey Miyake, Akris, Basso & Brooke, Antonio Marras, Bebenoir, Paul Herve Elisabeth, Tiffany Amber, Jeremy Scott, Diane von Furstenberg, Rick Owens, Just Cavalli, Jasmin Shokrian, Diesel StyleLab, Ituen Basi, Jewel by Lisa, Kluk CGDT, Laura Biagiotti, David Tlale, Catherine Malandrino, Vivienne Westwood, Dirk Bikkernbergs, Ines Valentinitsch, Haider, Martin Grant, Viktor & Rolf, Rick Owens, Le Flesh, Aimee McWilliams, Hexa by Cuho, Blaak, Lanre Da Silva, Boudicca, ISSA, Catherine Malandrino, Nicolas Andreas Taralis, Gloria Wavamunno, Yellow, VPL, Carlos Mienes, Ungaro and Salvatore Ferragamo.
Ajuma is a Goodwill Ambassador of the Afya Kenya Foundation which brings aid to those in rural areas and offer the opportunity to receive health care in the rural areas so that many of the unnecessary deaths and child pregnancies can be prevented.
She makes conscious attempts to raise the awareness of citizens in her country to be more accepting of the black image of not only its people but everyone who looks different than what the media and magazine covers portray. She plans to launch a natural and cosmetic skincare line for women of colour and hopes the products will inspire others to love their colour and not to consider skin bleaching.
“I thought this was the right time to do this because at least I have something credible to present. Now, I have a way of helping the girls get out of the country and also promote talent locally,” – Ajuma Nasenyana
Standing at 5 ft 10 in, she also looks to live by example and launch her own modelling agency where she can scout the new ‘Ajuma Nasenyana’ so to speak. While she still lands modelling jobs in her late twenties, she desires to continue making difference not just in front of the camera but to be a part of the development and management of African models.
“I’m a role model for a lot of young girls and I feel like I’m in a position to make a difference. Just trying to tell the girls in Africa that we come in different skin shapes so just accept yourself and know that you’re beautiful.” – Ajuma Nasenyana.
She dreams of having her own modelling academy where she will teach young girls how to develop a captivating walk, good posture, and professional photos as these are essential requisites for a successful modelling career.
“Stay true to yourselves, for this industry it’s very artificial. Nothing is real, it’s just for magazines and television it’s very commercial…its nothing real it’s not who you are so you have to know the difference between your job and who you really are so you don’t get lost in it.” – Ajuma Nasenyana
“In my country, they see the lighter you are the more beautiful they find you. I think they should forget about that because I think that every woman is beautiful and different in their own way.” – Khoudia Diop in an Interview with T.D. Jakes.
Bullied when she was younger because of her skin-tone, the nineteen year old Senegal born beauty is now a social media sensation. With over three-hundred thousand followers and growing, she hopes to be the face of beauty and change the media’s perception that only White, skinny females are beautiful.
Victory of the Coloured Girl Movement , found Khoudia Diop who was later featured in the Colored Girl: The Rebirth. She is now managed by The Colored Girl Inc. but is still pursuing a full-time degree in Paris as a student.
The Colored Girl Movement aims to present the image of the colored girl in the media (where they would not usually be represented) that Black is beautiful.
She has inspired thousands of persons with her matchless physique and inner strength to overcome their obstacles.
“One of my goals is to make all my dark-skinned sisters out there laugh at those with their “beauty standards” they’re nobody to tell you how you should look. Start glowing queen.” – Khoudia Diop on Facebook
Diop moved to France when she was fifteen and started modelling when she was seventeen. She has high hopes for the future and intends to grow her brand and image as she develops as a model and gains exposure as a model.
“I want to inspire young girls and let them know that we are all goddesses inside and out” – Khoudia Diop in an interview with DailyMail.
By Alexandra Daley