Model Alek Wek celebrated the release of her memoir, Alek: From the Streets of the Sudan to the Runways of Milan and New York, last night at Socialista. (Tonight she reads at Barnes & Noble.) We asked her about launching her career, returning home to Sudan, and America’s Next Top Model.
You’ve said the modeling world isn’t easy on a black woman.
At the beginning it wasn’t good. But just like every model, there is nothing that is ever good enough. I wanted to be able to evolve.
America’s Next Top Model brings in girls from varied ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds to try the modeling world but hasn’t turned any of the winners into supermodels. Why not?
I pounded the streets of New York with fifteen, sixteen appointments a day, not knowing the city. I would be like “Where am I?” and do a collect call to my agent and she would hang up on me and say, “Don’t you collect-call me. This is an agency.” So I realized I had to get a cell phone then. You really have to educate yourself.
You’ve experienced such extremes, from growing up poor in Sudan to walking down runways. How have you coped with that?
For me first it is work. I don’t take it as fun and play and think that things are just going to come to me.
Have you personally been involved with the issue of Darfur?
I think it is great that there are people with such strong voices there talking about it. That’s a start. When there wasn’t a peace agreement, it was difficult. I couldn’t have had the chance to go back three years ago, which really struck a chord and let me know I have to put these memories into writing.
How was it to go back home?
First it was really emotional because my father passed in that period when I was living in England and I didn’t get to see where he was buried. I had not seen my mother’s family for over 22 years. She was a strong woman who had never shown vulnerability.
Are people aware of your life and career back west?
They don’t know I’m a model and that I live in the West. I was touched by how eager the kids were to study. I came back and formed an organization to work with kids and education. My father had always stressed that to us. —Shira Levine