Neophyte model Alek Wek walked into the Ford Models' New York office for an interview clad in oversized ribbed sweater and tights. Perhaps walked isn't quite the right word, because her carriage then was as regal, as upright, dignified even, as it was a few weeks ago when she raised the beauty bar on the high-fashion runways.
There is about her, in the words of Katie Ford, an "aura," a spirit that makes even the simple act of entering a room a demonstration of powerful presence.
"There is a really strong aura about her that one moment is warm and endearing and at another moment is very regal and elegant. That type of diversity is what makes a great model," said Ford, who oversees the daily operations of the legendary New York agency founded by her parents, Eileen and Jerry Ford.
But Wek, the tall, exotic, 19-year-old refugee from civil war in the Sudan, is more than just a rising star in the modeling world. Her appearance in the recent shows of Donna Karan, Isaac Mizrahi, Anna Sui, Matsuda -- and her quick accord with fashion photographers Steven Meisel, Matthew Rolston and Herb Ritts -- has been hailed as a breakthrough.
Even Ralph Lauren, purveyor of WASPy chic, embraced Wek.
She of jet-black skin, strong ethnically African features and wide hips immediately ascended to the high plane previously occupied almost exclusively by women with Western features. Wek was walking proof that, however slowly, the industry is expanding its concept of beauty.
"It's revolutionary," said Monique A. Greenwood, style director of Essence magazine. "She is everything that stereotypically you don't think of when it comes to runway models; her dark coal skin, her short hair, her very round behind. She defies what most people think of as beauty. It, in fact, extends the definition of beauty that we at Essence have long known, a definition that the mass-market fashion world has not acknowledged."
Wek doesn't feel like a trailblazer; neither does she quite understand the complex racial issues of America. She thinks of herself as a young woman lucky enough to be born tall with a face that people want to hire.
"I don't think that because I'm black or African that should be a reason for people who may be black to say, yeah, she's beautiful. Whether a white girl or a black girl, people should be able to just see beauty that's what I was taught and that's what I believe," she said.
Her agency says her race is not and has not been an issue.
"We don't see her as a 'black' model. We see her as a model, a beautiful model who we send out to everyone just like we sent out white models. I'm glad that black people are excited to see her, but we are not pigeonholing her," said Mora Rowe, her chief booking agent at Ford.
All of this is so far removed from Wek's background as to be astounding. She is the third youngest of nine children. She was born in the largest country in Africa; her father was TC schoolteacher; her mother, a social services worker. They belong to the Dinka tribe of southern Sudan.
When civil war broke out in 1983, Wek and her family suddenly found themselves scared to leave their home. She remembers bullets and rockets raining in the streets, sounds of terror, cries of the hurt and dying. "It would be shooting going on for three days, day and night. It was so frightening because you never knew what was going to happen."
Uncles, relatives and friends were among the 1 million people who died in a war that continues to this day. Her father fell ill in 1989, dying, she said, because the war made adequate medical care impossible.
She and a younger sister fled the war, the famine, the hopelessness in 1991. Unlike millions of displaced Sudan refugees who live in camps in neighboring countries, they were able to leave because an older sister had married a foreigner, moved to England and got immigration papers for her siblings. The two reached England, where they gained refugee status. Two years later, the rest of the family followed. Most still live there.
"I had to learn a whole other language and go to school," said Wek, who spoke Arabic and her tribal dialect but now speaks fluent English with a British accent.
Wek attended high school in London, graduating in 1994. She decided to study fashion and textile design at the London College of Fashion.
Her modeling career had the same fairy-tale beginning as the discoveries of Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer and a few other supermodels. She was spotted at a street fair last year by an agent for London's Models One agency. The agent, seeing this 5-foot-11 teen-ager who seemed carved of dark marble, immediately snapped a Polaroid and took her telephone number.
The next thing Wek knew, she was sent to visit photographers and magazines. The thriving London fashion scene, so quick to accept the odd, the quirky, the different, swept her immediately into its folds. She was in the "Goldeneye" music video, and was the funky presence in wild spreads in True, Dazed, the Face and other edgy underground magazines.