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Serving as a Model

When she's not on a catwalk, Sudanese- born Alek Wek is an advocate for refugees.

April 16, 2002|ANNE BRATSKEIR | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — It is a grim, rainy day at the Chelsea Piers, where the fashion staff of Allure magazine awaits the arrival of models for a 10-page photo shoot. Alek (pronounced uh-LEK) Wek blows into the dark studio like a crackling electrical storm. The 24-year-old model transcends the stereotype of her trade. Tall, yes. She is 5 feet 11. Beautiful, yes. But far from the average cover girl.

Dressed in a baseball shirt and a long skirt, the model is clearly at home in these surroundings. She slips a white lab coat over her clothes and briefly catches up with another model, Kiara, before plunking down in the makeup chair. It takes makeup artist Christian McCullough only a short time to apply Wek's game face--moisturizer and neon slabs of blue swiped across her eyelids.

Born in southern Sudan and raised as part of the Dinka tribe, Wek conjures up visions of an ancient African goddess. Yet she is so streamlined and modern-looking that she could be cast in a movie as a woman of the future.

She appears to be carved from ebony. "She is," McCullough said, "one of the blackest girls around." Her body is powerful, graceful, statuesque and, against the trend, not surgically enhanced. Her hair, which she said is unruly this day, is just a bit longer than a crew cut. "I don't look good in hair," she said. With her round, baby face and her blazing white, slightly gap-toothed smile, she defies traditional standards of beauty.

Wek is considered to be among the top fashion models in the world, earning, according to several industry sources, millions of dollars a year. In 2000 she was named Model of the Decade by the trend-setting i-D magazine; she was MTV Model of the Year in 1997, and one of People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People" in 1999. But ask her to define herself, and "model" might not be the first word Wek would use. Daughter, sister, refugee, painter, social activist and designer seem closer to her core than modeling. And though the glitzy job more than pays for the pristine, three-story Brooklyn brownstone where she has lived for two years with Cocoa, a pit bull, and her cats, Onyx and Seema, there is not an obvious shred of evidence of a model's lair here. Not an award, magazine cover or photo spread in sight. The white plaster walls are covered, instead, with huge canvases painted by Wek. In her upstairs office, one side of the room is a montage of sketches, bits of materials and drawings of pocketbooks that reflect her latest project, a handbag line.

Dressed in a thin, dark shirt, Diesel jeans and a chunky turquoise-studded belt, Wek sinks into a cushy dark suede couch (a gift from Coach, the leather company that included her in its Most Influential People campaign). She transports herself back to childhood in Sudan where her earliest memories are happy. Her world collapsed when the civil war broke out in 1982. Soldiers fired guns randomly into her house, schools were closed, electricity turned off. On more than one occasion, her parents gathered their nine children (Wek is the seventh) to move to another temporary location, literally running for their lives. "We would just take a necessity--a bowl, some food, a little bit of clothing. I can remember walking miles and crossing the river on foot and walking through the bush," she said.

The death of her father because of poor medical care in the war-torn country was a pivotal point in Wek's life. "We couldn't be there without him," she said. At 14, she fled. A family friend helped get Wek and her younger sister on a plane to London, where she went to stay with an older sister who had established residence several years before.

"I was terrified and didn't speak a word of English." Wek worked odd jobs, everything from cleaning to supermarket cashiering to assisting in a hair salon.

By 18, Wek found her avocation while attending the London Institute, where she studied painting and design. "I loved to paint, and that's what satisfied my soul," she said. "It was like everything is OK. I feel right." A British modeling agency representative discovered Wek at 19 in a London market. "She asked me if I would like to be a model. I thought she was joking or making fun of me, the way people are always asking me why I don't play basketball. I thought this cannot be for real, but it was."

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