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: â€™Alek, you canâ€™t stay here. The soldiers have killed many of our neighbours, and they are kidnapping children.â€™ The next day, Alekâ€™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.