From a refugee camp in Kenya to the Paris catwalks, Adut Akech–one of the most successful models of today–has always put family first, and her older sister, Winniy, is never far from her side. As CR Fashion Book Issue 19’s special guest and cover star, we got Adut on the phone with her sister for a conversation that pays homage to their roots and looks toward a very bright future.
Winniy: Well, this is exciting. I’m interviewing you today for the first time ever.
Adut: Look at you being the journalist you’ve always wanted to be!
W: I mean, this is sort of like us wanting to have a podcast as well, is it not?
A: Yes, ma’am.
W: Anyway, we’ll get straight into it. We’ve come from a very, very long journey as people of refugee background, like our family coming from Sudan and then to Kakuma and then to Nairobi and then here [Australia]. And some of our best memories, I would say, have come from the Kakuma refugee camp. You were pretty young when we were there, but I want to ask what growing up in Kakuma was like for you?
A: My time in Kakuma was a good time. We didn’t know anything else, other than that time. We just lived there trying to make the best of every day. I always say it was a thing of not really knowing or being certain we’re going to make it to the next day. We just knew that we had to live each day as it came.
W: One of the things that was a highlight for us is that even though there was so much danger in our lives, there was always so much joy. So that really overtook the fact that our parents and people around us were constantly having to protect us from seeing things. They did such a good job to the point that we came out of that. And now that you look back, you’re like, “Oh, my God, we were under attack on this day, or this was happening on this day, or people were hungry.”
A: Do you remember my favorite tutu dress that I wanted to wear every single day? And I did wear it every day that I could. Every now and then we’d have a little scare, and then we’d go back to living life with our cousins. We made soccer balls out of rubber bands that we just kept tying together. We didn’t know that there was another life other than that.
W: There’s a thing in our family where the next person grows up to be the “carer” of the person after them. Your little sister or little brother is almost like your child. And we talk about our dynamic as sisters, as close as we are and as much as you are someone that I love and care about with all of my heart, I will do anything to protect you and make sure you’re good.
A: You’re my mentor. You’re my protector. You’re my provider. I know I can always ask you for anything I need. You’re my life teacher, you’re like a second mom to me, you know?
W: I like how you always mention this in every single interview that you do, or every time you have a milestone in your career. You never forget to mention the fact that you’re a South Sudanese woman. And I applaud that so much.
A: Before I was anything I was South Sudanese. Before I became a model or got to where I am now in my life, my career, my status, I was a South Sudanese woman, a refugee, an immigrant. And I’m proud. I’m proud of the journey that we’ve been on. It’s what’s led us to where we are today, it’s what’s made us who we are today.
W: Where would you say feels like home to you? Because for me, I have detached the idea of home from place.
A: Exactly, spot on.
W: So I suppose the question is, where do you feel most at home?
A: Where I feel the most at home is where I am around my loved ones. When I’m around my family, my friends. Home is the feeling of being loved, feeling welcomed, feeling like you’re in a safe space where you can be yourself 100 percent, and that you are not judged. That you are loved, you are cared for, you are appreciated, you are wanted. And that’s what I get from being with my family and my closest friends. Even people I work with that I have close relationships with. But what about you?
W: Home for me, I guess, is just anywhere where I can feel that safety I was referring to before with you. Anywhere I can feel protected and connected to who I am. Somewhere that even if my culture is not there, or my family isn’t there, I can still connect to something. In this day of technology where we have mobile phones, you can be in the middle of nowhere and be able to make a phone call and connect to your family. That place can then feel like home, you know? It’s never too far away. As a refugee anyways, we’re displaced people.
A: It’s instilled in us to just be able to adapt to anywhere we go.
W: What was it like for you when you were first discovered in Australia? You worked so hard, and you fought the fact that you were told, “You shouldn’t be doing this, you’re still too young, you can’t move to another country by yourself, you can’t move to another city by yourself.” There was all this talk in our community about girls that become models, that they’re going to do something bad.
A: I heard a lot of no’s. And I’m just someone that doesn’t really take no for an answer. There’s a lot of no’s from the community that feels so entitled to my life. But there’s also the industry side of things. When I started, there were barely any Black girls, Black models, or models of color working in Australia. And that wasn’t that long ago. So, a lot has changed within the last six years. But that was hard. I always felt like even though in my first fashion week I was the girl who walked the most shows, I was one of the few Black girls there—it never felt right. It always felt like, “This needs to change.” And I was hopeful and optimistic that it was going to change. And now it has. The industry is changing a lot, drastically. There’s still a lot more to be done, but nothing to even speak of anymore because we all know what needs to be changed. But yes, back to our community, I heard everything. “She’s gonna drop out of school, she’s gonna be useless, it’s not gonna go anywhere, blah blah blah.” And I just have this thing in me where I’m just driven by people doubting me. I’m driven by the idea of proving people wrong.
I also had the support of you guys. And I had a lot of faith and belief in myself. I just know what my goals are and I don’t need anybody’s validation. If you’re not someone who puts money in my bank account so I can achieve the goals that I want for myself, personal or career, then your opinion does not affect me.
W: That reminds me of when you were discovered—that was probably the quickest period of time. Next thing you know, you’re in another country. Do you remember the amount of questions that would come from people because of all the doubt they had about how something like that happened?
A: It was almost like, “Oh she just got lucky.” And it’s sad, because people still want to see you fail. That’s really just what it comes down to. And I don’t understand, it makes no sense, because I put my country—proudly I can say it out loud—I put my country on a great high pedestal. I have given my country a good name and a good look, and I’m actually doing something to represent my country and my people. But those same people, a lot of them doubted me. A lot of them still want to doubt me to this day.
W: It’s one of those things that I guess comes with success, you’re never gonna get a full crowd of supporters. Now you just enjoy the fruits of your hard work and that’s that. What would you say have been some of the biggest highlights in your modeling career?
A: I think my entire career has been like one big, major highlight. But if I had to pick out specific events it would be my first Vogue cover. After that I have close to twenty or more. It’s crazy to think that just three years ago I shot my first Vogue cover. And another event is being a Chanel couture bride, being the second Black girl in the history of fashion and modeling to ever do it. And then there’s just so many other things. My first-ever fragrance ad—you know I used to always dream about being in an ad like that. Walking through duty free when I first flew to Paris to now, being the face of one of the biggest global makeup brands in the world. We’re in a time now where there’s a lot more representation, but now our sisters and our kids are going to believe it because they are going to see that.
W: And now, going through Miami Airport and seeing your Valentino fragrance ad is insane. I look at a photo of it every single time, as if I’ve never seen it before. It’s just so, so exciting to see. But do you ever get enough of it?
A: I get weirded out when I see myself because I get overwhelmed. I’m learning to, if I see myself, really appreciate it and actually take it all in. I tell myself now more than ever, that I’m proud of myself. And it’s important to celebrate your accomplishments and achievements.
W: Clearly you and I inspire each other so much beyond anything. But is there anyone that you have met on this incredible journey of yours that holds a special place in your life? Somebody that you admire?
A: If we’re talking about my career, I’ve met so many people who inspire me. But if there’s one person who has inspired me from the very beginning to now, it would have to be Naomi [Campbell]. I mean, she’s who I saw and said, “I want to do what she’s doing; I want to be like her.” I’ve been able to meet people like Papa Edward [Enninful, editor of British Vogue]. To be honest, women just inspire me. Being a woman, seeing other women, I’m just so inspired.
W: In the fashion industry, given the fact that there’s been all these things that you haven’t necessarily been happy with in fashion in Australia or overseas, once you leave the industry, what legacy do you want to leave behind?
A: Just knowing that I was a part of this change. The change that has happened and the change that is continuing. I think that’s enough for me, honestly. I want to be known as the girl that was not afraid to use her voice and speak her mind and stand up for what she believed in. And I want that to be an inspiration for new models, or just models in general who are not quite there in terms of being able to speak their truth.
W: I think that when they see you, they see themselves. I don’t think there are going to be young women that get into modeling and think, “Oh, my skin is too dark or my hair is like this,” because you’ve opened that door for them. And you’ve given them that courage and that strength. Something that you were once treated so poorly for is now something that you can be applauded for. And there are hundreds of thousands of young women that are going to feel so uplifted by you.
A: Thank you. It feels good, I sleep better at night.
W: I do want you to talk a little bit about the work you do with the UNHCR and your experiences as a refugee.
A: The UNHCR, which is the refugee agency within the UN, I support in any way that I can to raise awareness. I do a lot of social media support. I know I’m being that voice and representation for refugees. Just trying to change the narrative around how the world perceives them. I always say we’re just like anybody, and that’s crazy to some people. We’re humans, we’re just like anybody. We just don’t have the opportunities that some people have.
W: Anybody’s life can change at any point.
A: The same way that a lot of people view me, see me, and applaud me, I want that same view and applause for another refugee that isn’t a model, because there’s no difference between me and that person.
CR FASHION BOOK Issue 19 is available now on newsstands worldwide alongside CR MEN Issue 13, to order a copy click here.
CREATIVE DIRECTION @carineroitfeld
CREATIVE CONSULTING @edouardrisselet
SET DESIGN @twohawksyoung
ART DIRECTION @olivershaw
CASTING @dmcasting @giuliamassullo
EXECUTIVE PRODUCTION @sashabartur @crstudio
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