The grit behind the glamour
Alek Wek is exhausted. She's just returned to her adopted hometown of New York from Europe - Amsterdam, Munich, and Milan to publicise her bold and richly inspiring autobiography, Alek: From Sudanese Refugee to International Supermodel, and Hamburg, where she featured in St Emile's spring/summer campaign. 'A lot for one week,' says the woman whose name means 'black spotted cow' in her native Dinka.
Wek, whose first name is stressed on the second syllable, was born in Wau, Sudan, in 1977. At 14, she fled to her sister's flat in London and at 18, was discovered by an agent at a street fair ('I was asked if I wanted to be a model; I just thought they were daft.'). She's since graced international magazine covers, was named 'Model of the Decade' by i-D magazine, voted one of People magazine's '50 Most Beautiful People' in 1999, and appeared in The Four Feathers (2002) with Kate Hudson and Heath Ledger.
'There were not many mirrors around when I was growing up so it wasn't about looking in the mirror each day and seeing what looked gorgeous physically,' she says. 'To my people, beauty is very much about how a woman carries herself, how much you respect yourself, what kind of family raised you, and if others want to marry into it. Beauty is complicated, never just external. There are a lot of elements.'
Her accent, an oxygenated surge of street London and generic American with an African thud, is an easy music. 'I mean, modelling is all about clear skin and beauty, but I never lost touch with my roots. As a child, I had the most terrible, incapacitating psoriasis. I didn't have clear, healthy skin where I could just function and do the simplest things that are rarely appreciated,' she says.
'I couldn't play, I couldn't wash my own clothes, my mother had to spend so much more time with me than with the other children because she didn't want to see me go through that agony. The psoriasis made my skin itchy, it was bloody, there were cracks ... it was painful.
I could never forget that.
'So when my skin cleared after being relocated to London, it was like a dream come true.'
In Alek, she documents the trauma of her affliction. The open sores on the soles of her feet sometimes made it virtually impossible to walk. There were times she could see 'the meaty part of [her] flesh' through the cracks. Her skin oozed pus. There were scabs on her legs, arms, chest, face.
'So you see, there's no way I could go home to London with a fat head!' she says, laughing. 'If I was all, Sweetie! Darling!, my family would look at me as if I were daft. And I would feel really stupid - that level of affectation is just so irrelevant, you know? My mother sees all nine of us flourish in our fields, but for her, it's all about making sure we're okay, we're taking care of ourselves, we're evolving ... in the end, she's like any other mother: she just wants to see us happy with children, because that's what life is.'
Her father, who died before she left Sudan, was also a huge influence in her life. A visionary in many respects, he ignored tribal customs such as facial scarring in order that his children have the opportunity to prosper in the world. 'What did you learn today?' he asked her every night. 'Did you learn how to rule the world?'
The intimacy of Wek's family - in the book, she repeatedly refers to it as the 'Wek army' - gave her the sense of self that enabled her to survive the trauma of war: the discovery of rotting corpses, confrontations with rebels, visiting friends who lay in pools of their own blood after infibulation (female circumcision) performed by their own mothers.
'Sucking in my stomach and flattening my shoulders to the cold concrete floor made me as thin as a board,' she reports. 'The bullets, if they came, would whiz right over me. it's the same thing I do now on the runway - throw my shoulders back and lengthen my body. In 10 years I went from dodging bullets in a scarred and frightened little town to strutting for fashion editors while wearing elaborate couture.'
The elasticity of Wek's emotional body preserved her equilibrium; few could survive the extremes of her existence and remain balanced. In Alek, Wek writes: 'I awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of gunfire. I jumped out of bed and grabbed my clothes. The militia was outside. I was terrified. Then I noticed the glow of light coming under the hotel room door. I realised where I was: a luxury hotel room in Milan. I heard the gunfire again: it was a truck collecting rubbish in the piazza below my window.'
'At times I sit back and think: Wow! I can't believe it!' she exclaims. 'I never take anything for granted. Not once did the sense of privilege escape me. So I've never been able to go, Oh, I'm a supermodel!, go to all the parties, and wear all the fabulous clothes. I've always focused on the work - to get a dress out, or a campaign, or a new line, or a new designer - we all work to make it look glamorous. You just can't believe that the glamour is real - that's like believing a dream is real life.'
Aware of her industry's limitations, Wek now focuses on her spiritual evolution. She spoke at the International Black Caucus Foreign Affairs with Hillary Clinton, as well as serving on the US Committee for Refugees advisory board. She addresses schools on the Sudanese famine and the importance of nourishment. She's worked with Medecins Sans Frontieres and has also been deeply involved with Aids and children's charities, and breast cancer research.
Wek shares her Brooklyn house with 40-year-old Italian property developer Riccardo Sala, her partner of four years. 'You know what I love about Italians?' she says. 'Their honesty and sense of family comes through very strong.'
Marriage, she muses, was never an issue before. 'However, I've really started to think strongly about family. His family, whenever they see me, it's the first thing they ask. My mother, too, really wants to see us married with children.'
Her voice softens. 'And it's true; as time goes by, you start to think about what's important.'