Alek Wek’s name means “Spotted Cow” back in the Sudanese village where she was born to a family of eight siblings. As a child, she watched the destruction of her village and country firsthand as a civil war broke out. Some of her earliest memories included her home being hit with gunfire and the kidnapping of other children who lived nearby. These events and the poor war-time conditions that villagers had been dealt all left a lasting impact on her. Besides the war outside, Alek Wek had physical issues of her own. She was afflicted with psoriasis, a condition that harmed both her skin and her self-esteem. The untimely death of her father from surgical complications didn’t make things any easier, but she finally earned a way out of Sudan when she joined her sister in England as a refugee in 1991.
The move to London provided a notable change in climate that cleared up Alek Wek’s skin, but her dark features made her a target of bullying and harassment when she began school. Nevertheless, she stayed the course, working on the side, and eventually enrolling in London’s College of Fashion with a concentration in the business and technology sides of the industry. Then, in 1995, she went to London’s Crystal Palace quarter for a shopping trip with a friend when Fiona Ellis from Models One approached her. Initially hesitant to give up school for modeling, the talent scout’s persistence paid off when Alek Wek signed on. She would later sign deals with Ford Models and IMG Models.
Now a fresh model with a look that transcended “the norm,” Alek Wek burst onto the scene by appearing in music videos for two of the world’s most recognized balck performers. In 1995, she crawled in a bikini covered with leopard prints in “GoldenEye,” Tina Turner’s ballad to James Bond. She followed it up with an appearance in Janet Jackson’s ode to Joni Mitchell, “Got ‘Til It’s Gone,” but took the industry by storm in 1997 with a cover shot for Elle. Arguably the darkest cover model in the magazine’s history, Alek Wek wore white against an already clear-white background and created an unforgettable image. As a result, MTV named her 1997’s Model of the Year and i-D brandished Alek Wek with the label of Model of the Decade.
After she was named by the Venus de la Mode Fashion Awards as the Best New Model, Alek Wek continued her climb up the industry pole by tacking a variety of print and runway projects, all of which flaunted her slender physique in different ways. Calendar shoots for Joanne Gair and Lavazza found her body painted in the former and posing as human espresso in a giant coffee cup for the second. Where print campaigns were concerned, Alek Wek dressed down for Victoria’s Secret and dressed up in cosmetics for Clinique, and she also became a runway specialist for ready-to-wear fashions. Alexander McQueen, Givenchy, Armani, DKNY, and Fendi all sought out the services of Alek Wek and she also would become a favorite of Donna Karan, Calvin Klein and Christian Dior. Besides the promise of supermodel dollars, these projects showed that Alek Wek had broken long-standing color barriers in the industry and to become one of the industry’s hottest commodities.
As she inched closer to her 30s, an elderly age for supermodels, Alek Wek turned her attention to other causes both inside the fashion industry and away from it. She founded ALEK WEK1933 Ltd. in 2001, a line devoted exclusively to Italian-made leather handbags and accessories. Not one to start a business venture without seeing it through to completion, Alek Wek took a hands-on approach by picking her own colors, interacting face-to-face with industry clients at trade shows, and going so far as to create a replica of her palm as the lining for one of her handbags.
Some of Alek Wek’s biggest strides in recent years have come from her association with humanitarian causes. To increase international awareness of Sudanese citizens and other people living in poverty, she joined the U.S. Committee for Refugees Advisory Council and Doctors Without Borders. In addition, she also devoted time to World Vision and UNICEF. In 2007, Alek Wek published Alek: From Sudanese Refugee to International Supermodel, an autobiography that shed light on her childhood experiences and contrasted them with day-to-day life as an international supermodel. While she has removed herself from most modeling work, Alek Wek does show up as a model intermittently and when she does, it’s still big news. She nabbed the cover of Cosmopolitan in 2004, and four years later, she modeled collections on the runway for Diane Von Furstenberg and Christian Dior.