She’s the pioneering supermodel whose confidence paved the way for women all over the world, especially for one fellow model. Young pretender Poppy Okotcha meets her hero
It’s been 20 years since South Sudanese-British supermodel Alek Wek first appeared on the cover of ELLE. Wearing a cream jacket and a beaming smile, she’d only just been discovered when she graced the US edition in 1997. Her story was, and still is, like no other: born in Wau, South Sudan, Alek was six years old when civil war broke out in 1983. At the age of 14, after fleeing both the government and rebel forces, she came to London with her family as a refugee. It was here that, while walking through a park with her friend, Alek was scouted by a model agent, and in less than a year she was ruling the runways, from Chanel and Dior to Kenzo and Calvin Klein, racking up campaign after campaign, cover after cover. Still, Alek never forgot her journey – she’s written a book about her story and has worked with the United Nations to help refugees. Celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Lupita Nyong’o cite her as an inspiration. Today, in a north London studio, decades after it all began, Alek, 40, is grinning for the cameras and dancing around the room to Beyoncé, her piercing eyes and radiant smile still every bit as captivating.
Waiting excitedly for her is 21-year-old model Poppy Okotcha. Doe-eyed and natural-haired, she’s been making waves in the fashion industry, too, walking for Chloé, Vivienne Westwood and Alberta Ferretti. Success isn’t all she shares with our cover star; these two models are forces to be reckoned with, they’re agents of change, passionate about the future – and, when they meet, the energy is electric.
POPPY OKOTCHA: It’s great to be interviewing you. When I was little, I ripped out a tiny picture of you from a magazine. You looked like you were painted black and you had amazing things attached to you. I love that image.
ALEK WEK: Yes! It was black latex and they were little pieces of vegetables, stuck on my head and all down my back.
PO: I remember finding it and thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is such an amazing picture.’
AW: That was when I’d just started modelling. PO: Really? I had it on my ‘wall of inspiration’. I didn’t know it was you at first, or who it was shot by, until I started studying art and my teacher told me it was Herb Ritts.
AW: Wow, isn’t that something? I’m honoured. That photograph was for the 1999 Pirelli calendar. I almost didn’t do it because I was so shy. My agent said to me, ‘Listen, you don’t have to worry. He’s not going to take advantage of you.’ When I got there, he was just amazing. He gave me a signed copy of Africa, his incredible book, which is full of beautiful blackand-white pictures. There’s one of a woman in Kenya breastfeeding her child and it brought back memories of my mum working in the field with my younger brother. I thought, ‘This is an incredible human being – Herb doesn’t just want to photograph me because I’m different, he really appreciates women.’ It was the December image, and they called it Future, 2000. That was a great tone to set because, at the time, there wasn’t much diversity in fashion. That was a real moment for me.
You’ve been a big influence on me. You’re a strong, black model and, like you said, that wasn’t always common. I didn’t see enough pictures like that one when I was growing up.
Thank you. I was 14 when I came to London. So much had happened
Feel “empowered – quirks are what make you unique “ALEK WEK by POPPY OKOTCHA
with the civil war, then suddenly I was going to school in Hackney. The kids weren’t always nice; they made fun of my dark skin, how skinny I was and my big butt! It’s so nice to hear that from you, a young person, because I’ve always said I never want young people to feel like they’re weird. I want them to feel empowered – your quirks are what make you unique.
PO: I can relate to that. I grew up a bit in South Africa and came to England when I was 12. I was living in a predominantly white area… AW: …there are a lot of different challenges.
PO: Yes, trying to fit into a new culture can be hard.
AW: Early on in my career, I encountered people who were so mean. They would say things like, ‘You’re never going to last in this business.’ The same people come up to me now and say: ‘I absolutely adore you!’ I think, ‘Wow, you’re a great actor, you belong on the stage!’ Ultimately, if you are able to persevere, you can do anything.
PO: And you have. Your career is incredible. What is your highlight? AW: Early on, I was working with people like Herb [Ritts] and Irving Penn, both legendary photographers, and I didn’t even know who they were because we didn’t really have fashion magazines in South Sudan. I’m glad I wasn’t exposed to the fashion industry until later, because I got to be myself. I recently got some old pictures developed; me hanging out with designers such as Yves Saint Laurent, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Karl Lagerfeld, and it just felt so natural. I remember photographer Steven Meisel shooting me in Versace and saying, ‘You know what? Take that wig off. It doesn’t work. Let’s put on music and you just do you.’ US ELLE was one of the first to put me on a cover at a time when people would say, ‘Black girls on the cover means the magazine’s not going to sell’ – the whole thing practically sold out!
PO: What was it like starting out in the late Nineties?
AW: It was the supermodel time, but it was also the punk time and I loved that. During the transition into the Noughties, when the Brazilian girls [Gisele Bündchen, Alessandra Ambrosio] started to come through, you could feel fashion slowly branching out. I got to play around and do interesting, expressive shoots. While I was at college, I loved walking around in ripped jeans and Dr. Martens – that was my uniform. I wear what makes me feel comfortable on the inside.
PO: People say there are more models now. Back in the Nineties, did it feel more like a family? When I go to castings, I rarely see the same face twice.
AW: Yes, definitely. Today, it’s all about ‘new faces’. You guys have to work so damn hard. Before, we looked forward to seeing the same people. We grew up together. Now, with social media, things move fast. But the industry is also coming back to those authentic values; people want photography shoots with substance, and social media also gives you a platform to hold designers and casting directors accountable if they’re not representing a diverse group of people. It’s a lot harder to sweep bad behaviour under the rug.
PO: It feels like there has been a shift towards diversity in fashion. Now, you don’t have to go to an agency and get approved, you can just put [your own pictures] out there. I have friends who don’t look like standard models…
AW: …and I bet they have loads of followers! To me, beauty is universal. It doesn’t matter what colour someone is, because we all cry the same, we all bleed the same, we celebrate family and friendships in the same way. If a brand is doing something because it’s tokenistic or a gimmick, it always comes out. If models try to have instant gratification and climb over others, I say, ‘Well, time tells.’
PO: What have you learned from the past 20 years in the industry?
AW: I get to learn every time I do a story; I’m always discovering what works, and that keeps me active. I practice yoga to keep me mindful, rather than feel like I have to be this way or dress that way to fit in. There’s a feeling you have when you’re young and you can’t wait to grow up: I’ve still got that feeling. I’ve matured a bit, but I still have that joy of youth.
The industry is coming back to authentic values – people want photography shoots with substance
Black and cream wool jacket, £1,735, RALPH LAUREN COLLECTION. Black cotton-mix bodysuit, £145, WOLFORD at NET-A-PORTER. Gold-plated sterling-silver earrings (just seen), £140, SALLY LANE JEWELLERY
Denim jacket, £59, TOPSHOP UNIQUE. Wool sweater, £2,995, leather belt, £865, and leather trousers, £6,090, all CHANEL. Leather shoes, £345, MAX MARA. Crystal, black diamond and palladium-plated metal earrings, £249, ATELIER SWAROVSKI by IRIS APFEL