Empowering Every Woman to be Beautiful

Why I Heart Alek Wek

Back when Douglas Hannant was first making his mark on the fashion scene, I was still an assistant makeup artist. Hannant’s show was my introduction to Fashion Week. And it was there that I first saw Alek Wek, the Sudanese model extraordinaire. I remember staring at her dark skin and her exotic features and thinking, She’s so intense.

Later, over an outdoor lunch at a chic little cafe, I mentioned her to a friend who also works in the industry.

Me: Have you seen the new model that’s generating buzz? Her name’s Alek Wek.

Friend: (Horrified) Oh, I can’t believe that girl’s a model.

Me: Why?

Friend: She’s not at all pretty. Her features are just awful. They are too rounded. She needs an angular nose and higher cheek bones.

Me: Why does she need those things?

Friend: Because that’s beauty. They could have found a pretty black girl to represent us. She was chosen to make fun of black people.

Me (holding my fork, mouth open in utter shock): What???

This particular friend and I have disagreed many times on the concept of beauty. She blatantly states her dismay at certain models whose eyes are not perfectly spaced. Or those with hair that is not relaxed an inch of its life so that it “swings.”

My unprocessed, curly hair probably horrifies her. As did my previous dread locs. But we’re good friends. I don’t believe friendship requires identical points of view.

But I have to say, it bothers me to hear others dismiss exotic or interesting looking women. And the myriad features, colors and hair textures that make up our world. I am equally annoyed when someone says, “It doesn’t matter. We’re all the same.”

Um, no. We’re not. And that’s good. God did that on purpose.

Whenever I’ve traveled abroad, it’s usually been to places like Iceland, Korea and the Philippines. I love it when people stop to stare at me. Or come up and talk to me because I don’t look like anyone else in the vicinity.

In Iceland, a country of mostly blond, blue eyed people, I was walking down the main strip during rush hour. I, literally, caused a traffic jam. I was with a crew from Elle Magazine. And at first, we were all confused by the traffic back up and the staring people. Finally, the photographer turned to me and said, “I think they’re staring at you.”

We burst out laughing. I waved at the crowd. It was great. I felt like a movie star.

In the Philippines, women stopped me in grocery stores to ask if I’d hang out with them. They wanted to know all sorts of things about me and my experiences.

“Where are you from?”

“Why did you visit our country?”

“Would you sing for us?”

Funny how often I get that last one, no matter what country I’m visiting. To clear the record, not all black people can sing. Sorry.

But that’s what’s great about international travel. Or Sudanese models. We get to see someone completely different from ourselves.

A few years after first seeing Alek, I was in Miami working on an MTV beach show (local models were hired to wear red pleather bikinis – it was so tasteless). As the supermodels hired for the event (who were NOT dressed like that) filed into the room, Alek was among the elite.

I smiled to myself. No matter how many people didn’t get her beauty, designers did. And the girl was strutting her round face and lean body down runways for the likes of Karl Lagerfeld and posing for the covers of fashion magazines around the world.

But even more incredible, before her rise to fame, Alek's family had to flee their country (with young Alek) on foot to avoid a civil war that left more than two million people dead. The mere fact that this beautiful young woman is alive is a miracle.

For her to rise to the ranks of the world’s most noted models is nothing short of inspiring. Alek, I salute your success!