Afrobella of the Week — Alek Wek

I’m a sucker for a great biography. Give me any kind. I love the sex-drugs-rock-n-roll kind, (Anthony Kiedis’ Scar Tissue is enjoyable, I’m thumbing my way through Motley Crue’s The Dirt, and Lesley Arfin’s Dear Diary was one of the quickest, craziest, most addicting reads I’ve enjoyed in a while). My favorite kinds of biographies are inspirational. They can make you see history from a fresh perspective. The best biographies have a unique voice. They hiss with anger, or speak in staccato fragments or mumble raunchy tales from a life rich with experience. Currently, I’m reading John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.

Next up will be Alek: From Sudanese Refugee to International Supermodel. I couldn’t be more excited to read about the marvelous life of the beautiful Alek Wek.

I look like any other Dinka girl from the Sudan,” she told Hello magazine. “I never imagined that somebody would ever look at me and recognise me and think I’m beautiful.” Drinking in her luminous skin and stunning, bright eyes, it’s amazing to think that there was a time when people may not have done so.

She was born in Wau, in the southern Sudan. In 1991, her family fled to escape the roiling civil war. That story is told on the WCPRC website, and it reads almost like the dark beginning of a fairytale: “When the civil war began and the soldiers came to her village, Alek was a little girl. Her mother told her: ’Alek, you can’t stay here. The soldiers have killed many of our neighbours, and they are kidnapping children.’ The next day, Alek’s uncle came and fetched her. She took with her some clothing and a little bag of maize… Alek cried when she said goodbye to her mother.” Alek’s father became sick and died before he could join the family abroad, in the safety that England provided.

To hear Alek tell it to Tavis Smiley, even the story of her discovery is out of a fairytale — life in England was completely devoted to learning how to read and write. Then she was discovered by model agents while she was at a street market in London. And just like that, a supermodel was born.

Alek made her first splash on the scene in Tina Turner’s video for Goldeneye. She’s eye candy, lounging in atmospheric shadows. But that video helped to launch her to international stardom. Later that very year, she was lovingly showcased in Janet Jackson’s Got Til It’s Gone video. (that could quite possibly be my favorite Janet vid. Just gorgeous and different and so refreshing).

On the runway, Alek proved her star power. Her pure, striking ebony complexion and short no-nonsense hairstyle made her stand out from among her peers, and she ushered in a new era of black beauty in the fashion industry. Embraced by the most notable designers, Alek Wek has been the star of runway shows for the likes of John Galliano, Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, and Diane Von Furstenberg.

Wek recognizes her place as groundbreaker in an industry that still marginalizes and stereotypes women of color, and now that her place in fashion is assured, she’s in a great position to point out fashion’s flaws and to possibly make strides towards change. She speaks about that in her book, part of which is excerpted in this AOL Black Voices blog. “Whether I like it or not, my skin defines me. The first thing many people notice about me is how dark my skin is. Not just in America and Europe but also, to a lesser extent, in Sudan. In Khartoum, my skin marked me as a southerner, probably a Dinka, and many lighter-skinned residents of the city looked down on me. Racism exists everywhere.” “I’ve noticed that journalists often liked to say that I’d been discovered in “the bush,” in Africa. As if I had been a primeval innocent afoot in the forest when the great model agent plucked me from the muck and tamed me, without destroying my savage beauty.”

The very feature that helped propel her to stardom — the rich and stunning hue of her skin — has also led to her being regarded as “exotic” and consequently depicted in stereotypical images. Alek spoke out against Italian coffee company Lavazza. From Page Six: “In “Alek,” just out from HarperCollins’ Amistad imprint, Wek writes how she posed nude inside a “gigantic white espresso cup bigger than a car . . . My skin was to be the espresso.” While she calls the images “beautiful,” Wek adds: “I can’t help but compare them to all the images of black people that have been used in marketing over the decades. There was the big-lipped jungle-dweller on the blackamoor ceramic mugs sold in the ’40s; the golliwog badges given away with jam; Little Black Sambo, who decorated the walls of an American restaurant chain in the 1960s; and Uncle Ben, whose apparently benign image still sells rice.” I want her to keep pointing that kind of thing out to the world, the slow progress of the depiction of all shades of beauty. Through highlighting the lack of change, here’s hoping that companies like that will be forced to think outside of the box of typical, done-to-death imagery.

At age 30, Alek Wek is a designer — I absolutely adore her Alek Wek 1933 purses (and the MUSIC she uses on her site! Love the drumming. That’s totally my kind of thing). She is a member of the U.S. Committee for Refugees’ Advisory Council and raises awareness about the plight of her countrymen, and now, she’s an author. She talks about the inspiration for her autobiography in this Showbuzz interview. And in this next video, she sets the scene for her return home.

Alek Wek has overcome her tribulations and made her dreams come true. Now she’s using her stardom to provide for her homeland. She says of her return home, “It was very emotional. But it was a closure, and also in a way, an open book. That’s why I’m starting a foundation, that’s gonna be Wek foundation, Working to Educate Kids. Which I would never have thought about before, but it all makes sense now.” I can’t wait to see what she does next. Congrats, Alek! You’re Afrobella of the Week. Keep on doing your thing. You make us very proud!

And back to the topic of books — I already have another memoir lined up for after this one. Edwidge Danticat’s Brother I’m Dying looks like the kind of book that I know will hurt, and haunt me with images. I can’t wait to dive in.

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Comments

  1. I can’t wait to read this book! I think she’s admirable, and her bags are hot. I’m getting this book! Personally, I like her dark skin. We black folks look GOOD in all colors: white, orange, purple, black…We all should be proud of our dark skin, no matter if you’re the color of high yellow, all the way to the color of espresso. Please, let’s stop worrying about the color of our skin and embrace the benefits and beauty of being blessed with dark skin.

  2. WildMagnolia says:

    Alek Wek is absolutely stunning. The first time I saw her was on the cover of ELLE magazine in a beautiful white suit. Her skin is gorgeous. I can’t wait to get her book. She has certainly done a lot for the image of women of color in this country.

    Great pick!

  3. Great choice, bella. She is so smart and savvy, in addition to being lovely.

  4. HaitianRoots says:

    Bella,

    If you haven’t already read Left to Tell, or A Long Way Gone, you should pick them up. Great and powerful reads.

  5. I love her smile. It kills me every time. She seems so nice and very humble. It makes me love her even more.

  6. I can’t wait to read this book either! I’ve admired her stunning looks since she first came on the fashion scene.
    OK…I know in spite of myself my next few statements will be controversial! I recently read an article that People Magazine wrote on Alek. One of the pictures featured Alek at home with her VERY FINE Italian boyfriend. I told my twin sis later that it’s so pathetic that most black men I know would think she was unattractive.
    Have any you other bellas and/or fellas ever wondered why white men (particularly European men) tend to appreciate ALL facets of black beauty while we frequently don’t get the same love from the “home-grown” brothers?
    Also, for the record, I’ve date all types of men and I seem to have the “acceptable skin tone and features” (meant to be sarcastic!)that black men seem to rave over BUT I DO NOT like that any man might find me more attractive than Alek because my black and American Indian features somehow makes me “prettier” than someone with a pure African background…PLEASE!!! She’s gorgeous!

  7. I’ve always admired Alek. She is positively stunning. Look forward to reading her book. Thanks Bella for the heads up about Edwidge Danticat’s latest.

  8. Bella,

    As I read about Alex Wek I was overcome with gratitude… for you Bella! I really appreciate all the work you do to keep us informed about what’s going on in our community and our world. I am a faithful reader (I log on every single day just to read your blog) and this is the first time I’ve posted on your blog.

    Alex Wek is an exquisite and inspiring woman. Thanks again Bella!

  9. I didn’t know about this book. Looks like this will be my next read too Bella. I love her poignant and straight forward critiques of the racist continuities in that live in the industry. Thanks for highlighting this.

  10. Alek is absolutely fresh-faced and gorgeous; she has made great strides in the modeling business and in life. I will definitely read her book. I did not know she had a bag line! I’m a bag-a-holic. I will have to check that out as well….thanks for keeping us informed.

  11. Bella!!
    I love you even more for this! I LOVE LOVE LOVE Alek Wek. She’s so poised…..so elegant! And I love how she quietly tears down those stereotypes. she’s a true representation of African women…..quiet dignity.

    Thanks for this! I planned on adding this to my already long list of to-buy books :)

  12. It’s funny how as I was growing up some of my friends wanted to look “less black” and I was trying to figure out how to make myself darker. I come from a long line of dark-skinned men and women with distinctly African features (like Alek’s)and so it makes me so happy and proud to see Alek on the runways and in magazines representing a completely unadulterated black beauty that’s often hard to find. Thanks for making her Afrobella for the week…what took you so long? (just kidding) Great feature and very well written too! Love your blog!

  13. Good question, Teri! There are some people who are just such obvious choices for Afrobella of the Week, I wait until they’ve done something new before I write about them. So when the photos of Alek Wek’s book launch came out, I knew the timing was perfect. She’s incredible. There are a few other obvious choices still lingering in the back of my head, but she’s one of the most perfect examples of what Afrobella of the Week is all about — beauty, brains, and a sense of purpose. Love her!

  14. I am a huge fan of hers. I remember there was some controvesial Newsweek article where many African-Americans said she was not pretty. sigh. Why can’t we just appreciate all types of beauty?

    Mochasiren – I should write a post on that topic! lol.

  15. NYC,

    Yes, you should. I was reluctant to bring it up here because I didn’t wanted to get too off topic. But as I read that People article about Alek those questions popped into my head.

  16. TheBeautifulOne says:

    I’m so proud of Alek. She is so intelligent, so gracious. When you meet her you remember how people should carry themselves: with dignity, humility and respect. She’s still a breath of fresh air.

  17. I just finished reading it and you will not be disappointed. What she went through to get this far is truly remarkable!

  18. She is absolutely adorable and so so pretty. My mom thinks I’m crazy because I find her beautiful. She kept talking about how big her nose was and how she looks like a man, just ugh. I love my mom but I don’t understand her perspective. Alek is amazing. It’s sad that she can’t appreciate this Sudanese beauty.

  19. Alek Wek is a stunner and her smile is infectious. As with her and other black models I am glad to see that they are on top of their entreprenuerial skill set. I likes! A bag company, a biography, and a foundation to help children…Alek Wek can inspire black women and dark women in particular; to appreciate their own particular brand of beauty.

  20. TheBeautifulOne says:

    To answer MochaSiren:

    You wanted a rersponse about why European men appreciate Black Beauty more than even Black men do and I think that the answer is rooted in their education.
    Most Europeans are well-educated in art, in history in the cultures of the world. Therefore they learn at a very early age about African history, heck, France as well as other countries colonized most of Africa. So by living there and having large populations of Africans in their own countries makes them even more aware and appreciative of African beauty. I will never forget the first time I left the States (age 21) to live in Sweden and later, France. The men were stumbling over themselves to look at me. I, of course, thought they were weird until a good friend of mine told me that my skin was luminous, hair was gorgeous, the way I walked, etc. I had never heard that from any man, especially a Black man in the US! Then lo and behold I was practically a star in France and Italy!! They made and still make me feel like a queen when I visit. I think that they just appreciate other forms of beauty and have a special place in their hearts for Black women, African women. It’s the same no matter where I travel and I think it’s due to their education.
    I now live in Asia and it’s the same thing here. A lot of Americans tend to think of the U.S. as an island unto itself, so the mainstream culture is the one that’s going to get shoved down your throat, which leads to only one type of beauty being loved.
    Travel more (and not just to the islands, no offense Afrobella!), let’s read more, then there will be a change in the U.S. Not saying that Black men do not love the way I look but they tend to “holla” at me. Whereas a European man will come up to me, want to get to know me and spend time. Just my observation.

  21. I am finding it very hard to feel Alex’s pain. Yes the story was that she was discovered in a bush in Africa but it appears that she did nothing to correct this misrepresentation. If she was so unhappy about the Lavazza ad why did she go ahead and pose nude in it? Considering that a lot Italians see Black women, particularly those who originate from Africa as some sort of exotic product then this really should not be a surprise. Frankly speaking, Alex made a lot of money being portrayed in the derogatory way she is moaning about and now she is complaining? Talk about biting the hand that feeds you. I do not find her at all inspiring.

  22. Hey Ondo Lady, I dunno…I think AW is just putting historical perspective on work that she’s done in the past. I didn’t think she was doing anything as petty as complaining. Maybe she didn’t see it at the time but now, older and well read–and from a comfortable position, she can say what she wants and needs to say. And I also think she fairly recognizes the twist — the images are beautiful but they are linked to a historical fetishization of black skin in a world were the darker your skin is the poorer you are and the more catastrophic your hold on citizenship is in whatever country you call home.

    About Sudan — Dave Eggers has written a novel/biography based on the life of a Sudanese refugee called What is the What. It vividly recounts the trek from Sundan to the refugee camps and touched me with the way the narrator NEEDED to tell his story – how much we all need to talk it out.

    And I can’t wait to read Wek’s bio. I wonder whether she wrote it herself or had a co-author. Either way, it’s a transformative move to go from a face or a hanger for clothing to a designer and author.

  23. Subway ticket- $2.50
    Cup of Starbucks coffee- $1.75
    Vogue Magazine Fall Edition- $$6.00
    TheBeautifulOne’s comment on afrobella.com- PRICELESS!

  24. This is in response to TheBeautifulOne’s comment above. Everyone is absolutely entitled to their opinion but I just feel compelled to point out that saying French people like African women coz they colonized Africa is like saying the kkk liked the black boys who they lynched.

  25. I agree Simone. I don’t think AW was complaining, just making an observation from a different perspective. It’s like when you’re the token black at your company or whatever…it doesn’t mean that you’re not qualified, just that there’s a bitter aftertaste to the whole thing, knowing that they can’t just see you without all the undertones. Same with Alek. She is beautiful, and the contrast was gorgeous, actually, but it can’t just be that…there’s always that undertone, and she recognizes it and acknowledges it. It’s just to let them know — she’s not stupid, she’s got their number. It reminded me of when Denzel accepted his Oscar. He did not fall all over himself, he subtly let them know with his “two birds with one stone” comment that he knew what was what, but he accepted his Oscar (which he deserved way before then, and for other films) and went on about his business. Same with Alek. It was a beautiful picture, she accepted her chips, stacked them up, and has gone about her business, trying to make things better for other people. At the same time, she is acknowledging that there is a whole kaleidoscope of factors behind her success.

  26. I doubt that she, having been a refugee from a war-torn country, would characterize her feelings about the Lavazza photo shoot as “pain.” I really do think she was making an observation more than a complaint.

  27. The Beautiful One:

    I know that we are two totally different people and would, without a doubt, have two totally different experiences but I do want to share my European story which is quite different from yours.

    I spent two years studying in France–first at the Sorbonne and then in a tiny French language school in Aix-en-Provence. Although men did “fall all over me”, I felt it to be really insincere, fake, and insulting–most for the very reasons you state. They loved my skin, my hair, and my accent (i’m from the deep south and have a killer southern accent) but there was an overtly sexual tone to all of my encounters. Although I do buy your agrument that they are more open about vocalizing black beauty, the fact that Africa IS a part of their history (including hottentot and the such), I am surprised that they were so intrigued/fascinated by my blackness. You’d think they’d be used to it or accustomed to being around it. Simply put, I felt like a canvas hanging in the Louvre and nothing more.

    Italy? Forget about that. Those men were gross and never thought twice about sexually harassing me–as if I enjoyed having my butt pinched or being solicited for sex. Now, not all of my experiences were like this but MOST were.

    I think it’s a myth that European men fall head over hills for black women. Seriously, in france and italy, how many interracial couples did you encounter? What about Korea? I know I did not encounter many while I was there–both france, italy, south korea (i’ve been to pusan), india, thailand, iceland, holland, norway, finland,… I’d say the ratio is about the same as it is here in the US.

  28. let’s ask venus hottentot if france has a “special place in its heart for her”, what about the huge ethiopian/somolian sex industry workers in italy let’s see if they hold a special place in their hearts for them as well.

    Don’t discount the US people. My economics professor said it best. He said that most people think that the US is light years behind when it comes to racial relations but when you think about it, we’re actually light years ahead. Think about it, although horrible racial injustices happen here, there is a system that you can work your way through and demand some form of justice. France, Italy, not so much. If you are called the n-word at your job in France, who do you complain to? Where do you press charges? Who’s going to hear you out? I can only imagine that Imus situation happening in France–they’d write it off as freedom of expression.

    And as a black woman, I found it really hard to ignore the glaring racism towards northern africans in Europe. It’s awful, really awful.

    Having said that, I stil love me some Alek Wek.

  29. TheBeautifulOne says:

    @Edesse

    I am so sorry that you had the experiences that you had. I ran into a couple of those but 90 percent of the time, it was all respectful and genuine admiration from the men and women that I did meet. I never felt like some piece of meat, thank goodness. During my five years of living in Paris, France, I had three serious and long term relationships, all three were were with French men, and later I dated, off and on, an Italian.
    I’ve only been in Korea (Seoul) for three months now and have had a couple of dates, but I”m not interested in starting a relationship as I am trying to get my business up and running here. Men stare so hard here at ALL women that if looks could kill, girl we’d all need a stretcher! Ha! They just don’t have anyone looking like me walking around their city. Number one, I’m 6 ft. tall, number two, I have a big curly afro’ and number three they just think it’s courageous of me to travel so far away from home. I get compliments everywhere I go as I’m sure that you did, but here, I feel like an exotic. Best believe, I’m using that as a tool to get noticed for my business as well as my being published for other work I have going on right now. Tell me more about your experience in Pusan, please! you can write to me at http://www.nearandfar.wordpress.com. This is my blog about my experience in Seoul. You’ve been to some Asian countries that I plan to visit and perhaps work in and I’d like your opinion if and when you have the time. Thank you so much.

  30. @Afrobella- Good choice and post as always! Danticat’s book Breath, Eyes, Memory slightly reminded me of growing up in Port of Spain.

  31. Bella if you ever get the opportunity to interview her all I wanna know is what AW’s beauty routine is!!! Beyond her being hella fine, her skin is flawless!!!

  32. TheBeautifulOne says:

    Also as a sidenote to Edesse:
    Out of 13% of American students who study abroad only 3% are African Americans. This is a dismal number and the main reason for this is that most African Americans buy into the myth that outside the U.S. they will encounter a racism that our parents and grandparents experienced in this country. This is not true by any means. I am working with several influential people in changing this number so that Black students will NOT be left behind as countries become more and more interdependant on each other. We need to stop thinking that America is only place in the world that Blacks will be accepted and respected. Those of us who have gotten on board are doing extraordinary things in Europe, Asia and Africa and anywhere else we please. I love my country, I do, but I love making history elsewhere as well. Let’s focus on being pioneers in the world and not just consumers of foreign and domestic products.

  33. berrybrowne says:

    LOVE this post! a group of friends and i were just discussing how beautiful alek wek is, but also how she still shows how marginalized dark skin as a beauty feature is. and how her skin is further “exoticized” by always making her skin super shiny and unreal looking. i am so impressed by the depth of her analysis of her image and am headed straight to amazon to put her book in my cart!

  34. Thanks for sharing the beautiful one! Don’t agree that I am as close minded as you would suggest, i’m just a realist. I agree with many of your points though. Traveling is THE best way to open yourself up to the world–which is more accepting than we think.

    I’m headed to Japan for my thanksgiving vacation and iceland for christmas. I can’t wait to learn even more about the fascinating world.

  35. The Beautiful One says:

    Glad that you said “the world is more accepting than we think” because it really is. I feel more at home in other countries, France especially, than in my native Virginia. People think more openly, globally overseas. I think that Virginia is one of the most beautiful states but when you’ve been exposed to the world at a very young age (Mom always exposed us to art, music, etc.)you think of yourself as a world citizen and you actually become a world citizen. Sounds like you’re expanding your horizons as well and I hope that you have a lovely time in Japan. I may be there this weekend, just for a change of scenery. Iceland? Wow! Take plenty of pictures!

  36. As a black woman who was brutally teased for her dark skin color as a child, it does my heart good to see sisters like Alek Wek on the runways. I wish someone had told me then that someday people of all races and sexes will frequently compliment my smooth, dark, and (mostly) wrinkle-free skin. Both Alek and Grace Jones (a former Afrobella of the Week, I believe, and I’m definitely dating myself here!) are truly inspirational.
    As for European responses to black women: I think the truth lies in between the two poles described above. When I was in Spain I was complimented left and right by Spanish men, but I also saw blackface twice during my stay (one in print, one live). It’s a weird dynamic but it’s one that’s worth experiencing, which speaks to that 3% statistic mentioned above…that’s appalling that so few AA students are studying abroad.
    I find myself saying more often these days, “The slavemasters have won” (a la “The terrorists have won”)…

  37. TheBeautifulOne says:

    @LBellatrix, “the slavemasters” win only if you DO NOT believe in your abilities, your gifts, your God-given talent. Have faith sister. Believe in yourself and your people. The world is a beautiful and friendly place. I find that more people are rooting for me than against me. I hope that you believe this one day as well.
    Peace.

  38. BeautifulOne, I’m COMPLETELY (!!!!) in agreement with you. I was talking about some of my sisters and brothers who are still living in these tiny little boxes that they call “life.” These are the people who are still wondering what the hell I was doing in Spain (and France before that, and England after that) and who asked, fearfully, how “those white folks” treated me.
    Here it is 2000 and 7 and I come across too many of my own people who cling to a very narrow view of what life can offer them…and it’s only partially because of money. (Seeing middle-class black kids thinking this way infuriates me.) Mostly it’s because too many of us have been TRAINED not to expect much from this world because of our race (but to seek our treasure in heaven, etc., etc.). That’s what I mean when I say that the slavemasters have won.

  39. TheBeautifulOne says:

    @LBellatrix

    You are speaking the TRUTH!!!! Every word that you wrote!!!! “little boxes that they call “life” “! “those white folks”! “seek our treasure in heaven” let’s not forget the ones who ask whether or not we are in the military just because we happen to live in Europe or Asia, etc. OMG!! If one more of my people ask me that darn question, I swear! Thanks for setting me straight on what you meant.

    YOU ROCK!!!

  40. Hey Rockers – Just turned the last page on Danticat’s Brother, I’m Dying. It is so perfect, so beautiful. Her family’s story is so heartbreaking because of what happens but also she writes about it with such lucidity and love. And she helps us see the degrees between traveler, tourist, refugee, immigrant, cosmopolitan much more clearly than I think we’re inclined to otherwise. I’m so gratefull that Bella mentioned it on her post. I also read Alek. Also moving and important and also about these categories I mentioned with Danticat’s book, including memory, ethnicity and to a degree ideas about skin, color and beauty. (Psoriasis and glamour come up in both books.) Wek is not a great writer but she is so clever and her story is engrossing. Now I know what’s behind those gorgeous eyes–in fact why she is so compelling. She is coming from far and deep!! I appreciated them both very much and I read about them here at afrobella.com!! Thank you bella!!

  41. Hi,

    The front edges of my hair are thining badly I beleive its due to over processing and braids. I also have thin hair in general. I was wondering if you had any ideas on products that may help. I’m not sure if I need rogaine. Let me know any other suggestions.

    Thanks,
    Miss T

  42. i have to agree with eddesse.
    the ratio of interracial marraiges involving, especially, black women is pretty low. I live in Poland and i must say that they so fall head over heels and it even gives me the notion that i look different me eg changed my hairstyle, makeup etc.
    They fall head over heels for your looks… your colour… u on the outside even before they get to know you. That’s like looking at a leonardo da vinci painting cos u saw it on tv. And eddesse is right… it gets old and kind of insulting, especially when i’m going shopping or out at night

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