In articles in newspapers and women's magazines last week, Wek's "Negroid" lips, nose and figure were hotly debated by African fashion editors, who claimed she represented an outdated notion of Black beauty. They condemned the white-dominated fashion industry for promoting what was said to be a view of Black women drawn from colonial literature, depicting them as thick-set. Africans believe lighter-skinned women with delicate features are in vogue.
"Many Black women do not find Alek attractive," said Nakedi Ribane,fashion editor of Ebony South Africa magazine. "She is just a face imposed on Blacks to make them think that here is someone they can identify with."
Paola Devito, director of Boss Models in South Africa, agreed. "I don't personally think she is beautiful," she said. "The fashion industry is not looking for beauty but rather to shock and be noticed - and Alek has done that." Some Black men were also dismissive. "I would not be seen dead next to her," said Romeo Khumalo, a South African presenter of fashion programs. "She looks more like a peasant than a supermodel."
The debate is unlikely to discourage Wek, who has signed contracts with fashion houses such as Gucci and Ralph Lauren, and has earned up to #10,000 a day since she was spotted by a photographer two years ago in a street in London, where she had taken refuge from the civil war at home.
She still sends much of her money to relatives in the south of Sudan, where she grew up tending her tribe's livestock and crops. "I just want to be myself and have never looked up to anyone but me," she said last month after joining models such as Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss in a Cape Town fashion show to honor Gianni Versace, the designer shot dead last year. Fashion directors, who were accused by Campbell last year of failing to promote Black models, rejected derogatory comments about Wek's appearance.
Cassie Naido, fashion editor of the South African edition of Elle, which featured her on a recent cover, said: "It was surprising to find that most Blacks were against this model whereas a number of Whites found her interesting and different."
It seems a lot of
have been brainwashed into looking up to Campbell."
[Steven Meisel, Wek's photographer for Vogue, said: "I haven't seen anybody that Black and that beautiful for a long time." ]