"I wanted to wake up lighter"

NATURAL BEAUTY: Ajak Deng models for River Island.
NATURAL BEAUTY: Ajak Deng models for River Island.

Commanding the catwalk for Calvin Klein, Lanvin, Chloé and Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton, Ajak Deng's career has thrived since moving to New York City in 2008.

The Vogue cover star has been the face of Jeremy Scott for Adidas and returns home to Australia next month to front the launch of River Island for The Iconic at Melbourne Fashion Festival. 

The model's seemingly meteoric rise to the top is no mean feat, especially given her humble roots.

Ajak was born in Sudan in 1989, the second of eight children. When civil war broke out, her family fled from both rebel and government forces to a Kenyan refugee camp, where she lost her mother to malaria at age 12.

The family eventually settled in Melbourne, Australia. Ajak's father returned to Sudan and Ajak, then 16, was left to support her seven siblings. At first, modelling was just a means to an end.

With her dark brown complexion, short hair and outrageously long limbs, Ajak defies traditional beauty standards. To say she's striking is almost an understatement.

We caught up with the remarkable model and role model to talk her career, building body confidence and diversity (or lack thereof) in the fashion industry.

Where are you now?

New York. I just got back from Paris and I'm still jet-lagged!

You're due back home in Australia next month. What do you miss most about home when you're away?

That's easy. The food. My friends. My family. The weather. Sometimes I think, 'Why did I move to New York? It's so cold!'

Can you tell me about your family?

I have a lot of family around Australia, but my siblings live in Melbourne. They're growing up so fast - finishing school, one by one.  I only get to see them two weeks once a year, over Christmas and New Year. It's really sad.

When I go home, they're so tall and they look so different. I can't stop staring at them and thinking, 'Who are you?' I have a 12-year-old sister who's so cute and looks like a mini-me. We're trying to keep her away from the modelling department for now!

Did caring for your siblings force you to grow up quicker?

Yes, for sure. Sometimes I feel like I'm 50. I find myself being friends with older people and I'm like, 'You do know that I'm 23, right?'

Growing up, were you always confident in your looks?

No. I would be lying if I said that I was.

There was one part in my life where I wished I could just wake up in the morning and find myself a bit different.

I wanted to wake up lighter. To be a shade lighter or three shades or four shades lighter, and have long, natural hair that was curly because I thought people would like me more if I looked a certain way.

Then I realised that, hey, you are who you are and you were born like that. You have to learn how to embrace it. Actually, it wasn't until I got my first boyfriend that I was like, 'Oh, I am pretty!'

Did modelling help?

Yes, for sure. Being in the industry and having my hair cut off, I had no other choice but to embrace my look - to embrace my skin colour, my brown eyes, my short hair and everything.

Who do you look up to?

Gisele and Naomi. They inspire me to want to do better.

What do you think about the lack of diversity on the catwalk? Does fashion have a problem with race?

Yes, I strongly believe it has a problem. Whether it's the designers or the people in charge, something needs to change. With everyone into fashion these days, the younger generation needs to see more diversity in the industry.

Have you ever experienced prejudice as a black model in a relatively whitewashed industry?

Yes. It's a product of our generation, our world.

Wherever you go, people will always point you out for your skin colour.

They'll say you're not supposed to go into places that everyone else goes to just because of it. I experience it everyday. Sometimes, when my day goes by without somebody saying something racist, I get surprised.

Does this happen during castings?

Yes, especially when you're in Milan. They don't even look at your book. They just look at your face and say, 'What are you doing here?'

- Daily Life