Adut Akech: ‘I was just this shy kid’
All the best supermodels have fairytale origin stories. They are bullied at school: too tall, too flat-chested, too strange-looking. Boys prefer their more comely peers. They grow up believing themselves to be unlovable, even social outcasts. And then an outsider swoops in – perhaps at an airport (Kate Moss), in Primark (Jourdan Dunn), or McDonald’s (Gisele Bündchen). The scout plucks them from obscurity and drops them into a life of international travel, money and acclaim. Their self-doubt is sloughed away like dead skin. Bullies stand chastened. The supermodel triumphs.
Moss and co don’t have anything on Adut Akech’s origin story. Their childhoods are the Pixar remakes of her Grimms’ fairytale. Akech was born as her mother fled civil war in South Sudan and raised in a refugee camp in Kenya. At seven, she moved with her family to Australia. When she arrived, she didn’t speak any English, “I was this tall, super-shy, awkward kid,” she says. “I had a weird name, and a gap tooth.”
She began modelling in 2016, while still at school. Now 20, she has already bagged 16 Vogue covers internationally, including five September issues; fronted advertising campaigns for Marc Jacobs and Moschino; been named Model of the Year by the British Fashion Council; and closed shows for Saint Laurent and Valentino (in a glorious purple gown that resembled almost exactly an enormous Quality Street). Hers is the classic supermodel origin story, on steroids: a tale of war, displacement, emigration and triumph against the odds. But Akech herself downplays her remarkable journey. “I’m very proud of myself,” she says, modestly. “And my mum is happy, which is the main thing.”
Akech is swaddled in a thick blanket that protects her against the cold of an unheated studio. We are here to discuss, among other things, a recent comedy sketch she made for Mercedes-Benz, a social media spot whose underlining message is to “spark positive reflection at the end of a challenging year”. In it, Adut is a beacon of hope. When we talk she is poised and positive. And, as befits a woman born and raised in three countries, who began travelling the world in her teens, her accent wanders across different continents. “I’m a citizen of the world,” she says, with a faintly Australian accent, “but my identity is South Sudanese before anything.”
Of her early years in a refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, Akech recalls an ordinary childhood interspersed with occasional moments of terror. “I remember just being a kid,” she says, “trying to make the most of life. We didn’t have much. But I knew something was off; that even though we were at home, we weren’t at home. There would be nights where there were people coming who wanted to take us from our parents, or kill all of us. The whole camp would be so fearful. Everyone would pack their things, and wait for the heads-up to leave.”
She doesn’t remember life before the camp. She was born on Christmas Day 1999, as her mother made the perilous journey out of South Sudan. “I was born on the way to Kenya,” she says, “and I haven’t been to Sudan since.” (She hopes to return one day, to set up a social enterprise and reconnect with her extended family.) When all you’ve known is a refugee camp, life in corrugated-iron shelters feels normal. “I didn’t know I was in a refugee camp,” she says. “It was just a community of South Sudanese people – one big family.” Eventually, Akech’s mother was able to secure asylum in Australia, where she had relatives. They moved to Adelaide when Akech was seven.
The early years in Australia were not always easy. Anxious to fit in, she let her classmates call her by her Christian name, Mary, rather than Adut, her legal name, by which she was known among her family. “For some reason,” she says, drily, “it was so hard to say my name, or they would say it in funny ways, and it just made me feel insecure I suppose, or bad.” She decided to go back to her own name as her modelling career took off. “I decided if I was going to do this modelling thing I was going to go with my own name,” she says. “Adut. I wasn’t insecure about it any more. Since then, I’ve always been Adut. No one calls me Mary.” After a pause, she adds: “Also, my name is actually very, very sick! There’s no other Adut in this industry that I have met yet. It’s unique. It’s a beautiful name, and it’s the name my family gave me, and people are going to have to learn how to say it properly.”
When Akech moved to Australia, she made her mother a promise: that she’d finish school and buy her a car and a house. Fitting schooling around the demands of modelling was exhausting. “I’d do my homework on flights and not sleep,” she says. At her debut fashion week, in Melbourne in 2016, she walked in 16 shows. Within a month she was being flown to Paris by Saint Laurent. It was a stratospheric rise, and yet Akech had promised her mother she’d keep up with her schoolwork.
“Dropping out of school for modelling was not an option,” she says, shaking her head. The next year was a blur of exhaustion. “On shoots, I’d be doing my homework during breaks. I’d stay up late to make sure I was getting good grades, even though I would be jet lagged.” She finished school in 2017 and flew to Paris to close the Saint Laurent spring/summer 2018 show almost immediately.
Akech credits her indefatigable work ethic to her mother. After arriving in Australia as a refugee, Akech’s mother worked in a laundry, as a supervisor. “She’d wake up at 4am and come home at 10pm.” Last November, after years of nagging, Akech finally persuaded her mother to take some time off. “It’s weird for her,” she says, “because she’s always worked. But I said, ‘No, Mum! You need to give yourself a break.’” She talks about her mother often; her face lights up as she does. “I’m like a mini version of my mum,” she explains. “Everything I am is exactly who she is.”
Akech’s modelling career almost ended in her teens, after her mother came under sustained pressure from their extended family in 2016. “They’d say, ‘She’s going to fail at it like all the other girls, and if she drops out of school, it’s your fault.’ Uncles and aunties and cousins and everyone were telling me not to do it.” The perception, says Akech, “was that all models do is walk around in front of people naked – that it was not an actual career.” Eventually, to save her mother from the criticism, Akech offered to quit. “I could see how it was affecting her,” she explains, “and I wanted them to shut up and leave her alone.” But her mum said no. “She told me, ‘I know you’ll regret it later,’” Akech remembers, “‘and what kind of mother would I be if I let you give up on something I know you can do, and you love doing?’”
2020 was a comparatively quiet year for her – Covid-19 put the fashion industry on hiatus, and it is only recently that she has returned to full-time work. After a relentless three years, the enforced calm of the pandemic was an opportunity to spend four months in Australia. As Akech is close to her large family – she has five siblings; her father died – it was a silver lining. “It was so nice,” Akech exclaims. “I missed my mum’s home cooking so bad. I really feel like I made up for so much lost time with my family in those four months.”
Last year, Akech completed the trio of promises she made her mother as a child, buying her a new house in an Adelaide suburb. (Akech bought her mother her dream car, a Nissan, in 2018.) “It’s one of my proudest achievements,” she says. “For the longest time, my mum worked nonstop for us, so being able to buy her the dream house meant everything to me.” During lockdown, Akech turned her skills to DIY. “My other siblings would go to school during the day,” she says, “so my mum, my sister and I would go to her new house and spend most of our day there, renovating it, before picking up my other brothers and sisters from school. My siblings are going to grow up in that house, so I wanted to make it amazing.”
During the summer, Akech travelled to the UK and spent two months staying at the home of her friend, mentor, and so-called “fashion dad”, British Vogue editor Edward Enninful. “I don’t know many people in London,” she explains, “but he’s my family here.” Akech would walk Enniful’s Boston terrier, Ru, near his London home. “Ru!” Akech exclaims. “I spent so much time with Ru. We were always in the house. I’d go on walks with him sometimes, when the weather was nice.”
If Enninful is her fashion father, Naomi Campbell is her fashion mother. “She’s like a second mum to me,” Akech says. The two women first met on the set of a Pirelli calendar in April 2017 – afterwards, Campbell made it her business to look out for Akech, often seeking her out backstage. She goes on, with a trace of incredulity in her voice: “I used to idolise these people. Then I met Edward and Naomi, and not only were they nice, but they became my family.” Campbell doesn’t give Akech modelling advice – they talk about normal stuff. “We don’t even talk about fashion much,” she says. “We just talk about life.”
When Akech is on the catwalk, she blocks out everyone, apart from Enninful. “I get stage fright when I see people,” she explains. “The only person I notice on the runway is Edward. If I look around and get nervous it’s going to show. So I just think about what I’m going to eat after the show, when I’m going to go to bed, to distract my mind from freaking out that I’m going to fall over.” She references Campbell’s 1993 fall on the Vivienne Westwood catwalk. “Although, of course, if I fall, I want it to be as iconic as Naomi’s.”
In 2019, Akech was included on the cover of British Vogue’s “Forces for Change” issue, guest-edited by the Duchess of Sussex. Megan called Akech at her home in Australia. “She was so sweet,” Akech says. “I remember her saying that I was inspirational… I was like, ‘Wow, OK, I’m doing good. If people like her find me inspirational, I’m doing something correct.’”
Akech is a longtime diversity campaigner. She’s spoken about her experience as a refugee for the United Nations and championed the representation of darker-skinned models in the industry. Her impassioned speech at the Fashion Awards 2019, as Enninful and Valentino’s creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli beamed on from the wings, brought the house down. “Never doubt yourself or let the world convince you that things are not possible,” she told the assembled audience of industry professionals, voice cracking, resplendent in a bottle-green Valentino gown. “If a little dark-skinned South Sudanese refugee who comes from absolutely nothing can do it, so can you.”
When Who magazine used an image of another model to illustrate an interview with Akech in 2019, she criticised the magazine on Instagram. “Not only do I personally feel insulted and disrespected, but I feel like my entire race has been disrespected, too,” she wrote, to her 1.1 million followers. When asked about it, she credits social media for giving people the platform to chastise brands and publishers for racially insensitive missteps. “People are afraid of being called out,” she tells me, “and thank God to social media, for that.”
She credits her strong sense of self-belief to the experience of growing up around people who looked just like her. “Where I’m from,” she says, of her early years in Kenya, “no one said, ‘You’re too black.’ We were all black there.” But I get the impression that fighting for industry-wide representation – Akech has spoken repeatedly of how dispiriting it is when stylists don’t know how to deal with Afro hair, makeup artists don’t have the right shades for her skin, or backstage dressers confuse her with other dark-skinned models – can be tiring. “Now I don’t like to talk about diversity any more,” she says, of her hopes for the fashion industry. “I feel like I’ve said it over and over. I just want to see real change.”
Mercedes-Benz teamed up with Adut Akech on a high-fashion gameshow parody in December 2020. Watch it on Instagram
Makeup by Bernicia Boateng using Tom Ford, Sable, NARS and MAC; hair by Charlotte Mensah at Premier using Charlotte Mensah Manketti Oil Haircare Range; nails by Robbie Tomkins at Premier using the Dior Manicure Collection and Miss Dior Handcream; fashion assistant Peter Bevan; shot at Big Sky Studio