If I were her, I would be so annoyed right now. That’s what I think, watching Adut Akech as preparations for her Allure cover shoot get underway very early one morning inside a sprawling studio space in New York City. She sits in the hair and makeup area, wearing a white bathrobe; the manicurist is filing her nails while the hairstylist is busy shaping her Afro into a Grace Jones–inspired fade. The clippers are buzzing, and onlookers are hovering nearby. I’m standing in front of Akech, but I can’t see her face because it’s covered by a sheet mask. But that spectacularly sculpted face is animated, and she’s chatting with me as if this were a perfectly normal way to have an intimate conversation. She’s only just begun an 11-hour day of shooting, but complaining isn’t Akech’s thing, even when she has every right to gripe. A bit of stress on set and a reporter grilling her during every break isn’t enough to faze her. Her marathon schedule can be rough, but she’s had harder days than this.
Akech has the kind of origin story that’s just begging to be turned into a made-for-Netflix biopic. She was born in South Sudan, but she spent her early years in a refugee camp in Kenya, where she lived until she was eight years old with her mother and her siblings. Although she was young, she remembers a lot about what was going on around her — the hunger, the fear, and the constant moving to escape the threat of violence. Despite the difficult circumstances, life in the camp taught Akech the power of gratitude.
“When you live in that type of condition, you just try to make the most of life because you know that tomorrow is not promised,” she says. “I always felt like I had to be grateful for whatever little food I ate that day or that I had somewhere to sleep because I knew that there were kids who didn’t.” She’s 19 now and speaks with an Australian accent because that’s where she and her family ended up after they got out of the camp. They moved to Adelaide, where they have several extended family members.
After they left Kenya, one of Akech’s first big dreams came true: to get an education. She spent a year learning English at a special school filled with refugee children from all over the world. She loved the experience. After mastering English, she switched schools multiple times as her family moved around to different suburbs. Not all of the lessons she learned were the stuff of dreams. “I was bullied by the popular girls about my skin tone, my hair, and especially my gap [teeth], which I’ve grown to love,” says Akech. “I’m not gonna lie — that made me feel a little insecure, then an ‘I don’t care’ mindset kind of kicked in for me, and I told myself I was beautiful.” She makes it sound simple, but it’s no easy feat, especially at an impressionable age, to figure out how to appreciate your own beauty in a society filled with messages that say you fall way outside the standards. She didn’t know it at the time, but the cruel children she encountered at school helped her cultivate exactly what she needed to make it in the modeling world: an unshakable belief in herself.
Akech says that a light bulb went off when, at 12 years old, she walked in a fashion show put on by her auntie, a former model and a clothing designer. “From the minute I stepped onto the runway, I was like, ‘This is what I want to do,’” she says. The only problem: Her mother, Mary, wasn’t having it. Eventually, Mary gave her persistent daughter the green light to pursue modeling when she was 14. “She didn’t think it was going to turn into anything, so she let me do it,” says Akech.
In three short years, Akech has already graced the covers of Korean, Australian, and British Vogues, she’s walked the runways for big fashion houses like Prada, Versace, and Chanel (including Karl Lagerfeld’s last show this past season), and she has landed fashion campaigns for designers like Valentino and Fendi. “Now I just sit back and smile. I love proving people wrong so much,” she says. Not that she’s in this for revenge; Akech loves her work. “I get excitement and joy from modeling. It doesn’t feel like a job. It just makes me happy.”
And the fashion world seems quite happy to have her in it, as is evident from her jam-packed work schedule and the coveted Model of the Year title (an award bestowed by an elite group of industry insiders polled by models.com) she nabbed in December. The modeling business is more competitive than ever, but there’s clearly something special about Akech that sets her apart. As British Vogue editor Edward Enninful (who put Akech on the May 2018 cover) told CNN: “No one looks like Adut. Not only is she extraordinarily beautiful; she also has a sweetness that comes through in her pictures. If Naomi Campbell and Alek Wek had a love child, it would be Adut.”
As captivating as Akech is in photos (those eyes! that skin! those lips!) and on the runway (those legs!), the depth and humility she projects are as important to her appeal as her looks. In February, Akech had a chance to show a different facet of her personality when she was tapped as a guest editor for cnn.com’s style section. She oversaw a series of stories about the evolving definition of family. The theme was inspired by the close bond she shares with her mother and five siblings as well as the familial-like relationships she’s developed with the staff at her modeling agency, supporters in the industry, and her friends in New York City.
Family is everything to Akech, who speaks to her mother twice a day. “When I wake up after I’ve only had one hour of sleep and I have to go to a show, I remind myself why I’m doing this, and that’s definitely to help my family. Everything I do is mainly for their future,” she says. That’s a lot of weight on the shoulders of a teenager, but Akech always tries to get through her crazy-busy schedule with a big smile on her face.
It seemed as though this strategy was working — until New Year’s Day, when she revealed on her Instagram account that she had been hiding depression and anxiety behind those smiles. Her followers never would have suspected that she spent most days in 2018 crying before and after work. “It was so draining mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I don’t know how I’m still here today,” she wrote. The somber caption cut through Akech’s feed like a record scratch because prior to that, her posts conveyed nothing but gratitude and excitement about all of her accomplishments, with plenty of heart and fire emojis mixed in. Although she says opening up about her mental health was difficult, she has no regrets. “After I [posted] that, so many people messaged me saying that I saved their lives,” she says. “Now I have this open door where I feel like I’m able to speak about anything.”
Another topic Akech is outspoken about: diversity in beauty and fashion. She is often compared to fellow South Sudanese model Alek Wek, one of the few dark-skinned women to rise to super-model status in the mid-1990s. Wek was held up as a symbol of shifting perceptions of black beauty, which she was, but it’s frustrating that two decades later, we’re still talking about the need for broader representation of black beauty, with Akech as Wek’s heir apparent. Not that things haven’t progressed at all. Fenty Beauty’s 2017 launch of 40 foundation shades deserves a lot of credit for making women with the deepest skin tones feel seen and valued. Rihanna’s bold move, and the conversations that followed, caused a ripple effect that has made its way to the runway.
Last March, Akech told The New York Times that she felt like “part of a great moment” due to the “big increase in the number of really dark-skinned girls being cast.” And now? “I feel like the moment is even better. I haven’t been modeling that long, but a lot has changed, and I hope it continues. There’s still a long way to go,” she says.
Although the right makeup colors and hair products are much easier to find now, Akech says artists don’t always come prepared. She often brings her own foundation shades to set and has had to deal with uncomfortable situations regarding her hair. “I have Afro hair, and you can’t use the same products or put the same amount of heat on my hair as you would with a Caucasian girl’s hair, but a lot of [hairstylists] fail to understand that. Last season, I let [the hairstylists] do what they wanted to do, and my hair got so heat-damaged. This season I didn’t let anyone touch my hair with heat at all, and a lot of people were offended, but if a model is not feeling OK [with a style], they should understand,” she says, proving that she still stands up for herself just like she did as a little girl.
So much has changed in Akech’s life, but her core remains the same. She knows who she is and what she wants. Sleep and food are usually on that list, alongside a few goals that have nothing to do with modeling. Akech wants to study business or journalism, she’d love to do more work with the U.N. to help refugees at her former camp, and one day she wants to build a school, a hospital, or a modeling agency in South Sudan. “I don’t want to just be known as Adut Akech the model. I want to build a legacy,” she says. “I don’t feel like I only represent black girls; I want to represent anyone who started from nothing and had to work their way up. I want to inspire.” That’s one mission that she’s already accomplished.