Thursday, September 2, 2010

Ajak Deng: Civil war survivor, aspiring supermodel, breadwinner for eight

david jones SS1011 backstage

Frockwriter was preoccupied with a fulltime gig during the Fall/Winter 2010/2011 season, so we missed quite a bit of news. Including two new rising Australian modelling stars, Adelaide’s Emily Wake and Melbourne’s Ajak Deng. We did include one mention of Deng in our preliminary SS10 Australian model wrap just after New York Fashion Week, her first international show season, in which she did just a handful of New York shows (and we originally got her surname wrong*). However it was during the Fall/Winter 2010/2011 shows in February and March when Deng really grabbed the industry’s attention, walking in over 20 shows. These included blue chip names such as Lanvin, Givenchy, Jean Paul Gaultier and Chloe – the first black girl to walk the latter’s runway in nine seasons in fact, prompting New York Magazine to ask in June, “Could Ajak Deng be the next Alek Wek?”. Like Wek, Deng is a Sudanese refugee. But while Wek’s family fled the war-torn African nation for the UK, Deng’s family settled in Melbourne in 2004 – among an estimated 23,000 Sudanese refugees who arrived in Australia from 2002-2007. Sixty-two percent are aged 24 and younger and 45percent of the settlers are believed to be female. Like Wek’s story – which Wek recounted in her autobiography in 2007 – Deng’s story is remarkable. The second of eight children, Deng lost her mother to malaria at the age of 12 while living in a Kenyan refugee camp and took charge of her infant sister. Three years ago her father moved back to Sudan and her stepmother left to join him. Since she was 16, Deng has been financially responsible for her seven siblings.  

david jones SS1011
Interestingly, Deng is the second Australian model with a refugee background to break through on the international fashion stage this year. 

Andrej Pejic’s family fled war-torn Bosnia for Australia in the 1990s, coincidentally also settling in Melbourne. After a successful Paris menswear season in July, Pejic prominently features in a 16-page editorial in this month’s Vogue Paris.  

(top to bottom) lanvin FW1011, chloe FW1011, valentino haute couture FW1011/all images
However Deng is by no means the only Sudanese model working in this market.

Over the past eight years a number of Sudanese refugees have emerged on Australian runways at Australian Fashion Week, the biannual David Jones and Myer shows, L’Oréal Melbourne Fashion Festival and Melbourne Spring Fashion Week. * Confusingly, their first names tend to begin with the letter “A” and there was even another Ajak Deng modelling at one point, prompting Deng’s mother agency FRM Model Management to initially change her name to “Angelique”. 

The Sudanese Australian fashion contingent includes Ajak Nyariel; Atong Tulba; Akuol Ding; cousins Akeer Chut-Deng, Atong Maluck and Abang Athow and now also Deng’s 18 year-old sister Zahara, who began modelling two months ago, also repped by FRM.

Deng was signed to IMG Models in New York last year and now features on its prestigious main Womens board, as opposed to the "Development" board. 

Since her breakthrough season earlier this year, she walked in several Resort 2011 shows in New York in June and several haute couture shows in Paris in July - notably Valentino. She also booked the Spring/Summer 2010 campaign for Benetton, Topshop’s Fall/Winter 2010/2011 campaign and has just shot for Banana Republic and Nordstrom. She was also featured in the controversial ‘Let’s Get Lost’ editorial spread in Interview magazine in June, alongside a black cast and one white model. Deng told New York Magazine that she didn't think there were any "racial overtones". 

But Deng hasn’t been quite so diplomatic when describing her modelling experiences in the Australian market. 

Although very grateful for the opportunities that life in Australia has afforded her family - "In Sudan, all this would have been impossible. It is just amazing" she told The Herald Sun – Deng recently told Vogue Italia that she believes she has experienced discrimination on modelling jobs in Australia.

In a Vogue Italia video interview with former model Bethann Hardison, the founder of Bethan Management, co-founder of the Black Girls Coalition and an advocate for women of colour in the modelling business, Deng reported that she has been told by some Australian fashion players:

“Sorry you’ve come such a long way, but we don’t use black girls”. 

Considering that she has been working for two years essentially part-time while she finished school, Deng’s Australian body of work nevertheless embraces three David Jones shows, the L’Oréal Melbourne Fashion Festival, Melbourne Spring Fashion Week, New Zealand Fashion Week, advertising campaigns for Mimco, Davenport, Bardot and Leluu and editorials in New Zealand’s Pulp and Black magazines and the Australia titles Vice and Cream

No editorial, however, in any mainstream fashion publication and no Rosemount Australian Fashion Week. Why no RAFW? According to FRM, last year’s event clashed with her school timetable and although Deng was booked to work at RAFW this year, the Topshop job in London came through at the last minute and took priority. 

The Spring/Summer 2011 season commences next Thursday in New York. Alongside numerous other Australian models, Deng is there attending castings. Frockwriter looks forward to seeing her build on her success. 

I caught up with Deng at the David Jones Spring/Summer 2010/2011 show in Sydney on August 3rd. She had just arrived that morning on a flight from the US, where she had been shooting the Banana Republic campaign. It was a fairly noisy background and the sound in places in patchy.


jean paul gaultier FW1011/

I read that you have been responsible for your seven brothers and sisters for the past three years. How could you possibly look after them at the age of 16 when you were still in school?
Ajak Deng: Well when I was in highschool, I was getting payments from Centrelink and I was being paid as a parent for my little sister and my little brother. Now .... she’s eight years old, I was told ‘Oh well we’re not going to pay you as a parent, but we’ll pay you as a worker’. As a carer.

How old are your brothers and sisters?

They’re 18, 16, 15, 12, 10 and eight years old. The oldest is 21. But he’s not really doing anything. Under me there are six.

But you’re responsible for everyone?


So how do you do that with your modelling income?
If I have anything then I have to spend it on them and the house but at the moment I don’t have anything because I’m kind of running around the world.

It’s a lot of responsibility for a 19 year-old. Have you met any other models in similar situations?
No, all of them are pretty much responsible for their own money. When they get paid, they go shopping, they buy that and that. I’m like, I can’t do that. Instead of wasting all my money on shopping, I’ve got got to make sure that family. I might keep a tiny little bit to spoil myself.

In the Vogue Italia interview with Bethann Hardison, you mentioned problems you had working as a model in Australia.
I said, ‘I don’t want to think about it as a hard industry, I just want to go out there and do my thing’. A lot of people think ‘Oh I’m a black model, this is going to be impossible’. For me, I don’t want to think like it is impossible. There’s nothing impossible, as long as you put yourself out there.

You told Hardison that Australian fashion industry figure/s had told you, “Sorry they sent you all the way here, we don’t work with black models”. Which shows are you talking about? Do you remember any names? I only did one show last year, during Melbourne Fashion Week. I only got to do one show last year.

Do you think Australians are racist? You have otherwise obviously been welcomed into Australia as a refugee.
We’ve been welcomed but at the same time, once you try to do something good it’s just.. nobody is really accepting you. They’re just like... Oh yeah, like ‘Good luck’. But they don’t welcome you. Like for example when you’re doing a show, [and people are] taking pictures, they don’t really bother to take a picture of a black model. Like a closeup makeup [portrait]. They don’t do that. Whereas in New York, they do that, they don’t mind. They take a photo of any girl with her makeup on. Whereas here no, the girls they know, they take a picture of those girls and they just leave you out. They don’t really care. They walk past you and nobody really cares. I don’t really mind about that as long as I’m doing the show.

You have been having some tremendous success overseas. Amusingly, a lot of people can’t seem to help commenting on the length of your legs.
Everybody says that. They’re like, ‘Damn, those legs are long!’

Do many people make comparisons to Alek Wek?
Trust me, over 200 people in Europe or in Paris would think I’m always Alek Wek. I walk down the street and [it’s like] ‘Oh my God, are you Alek Wek?’ I’m like, ‘I’m not her but thank you very much’. She’s a supermodel, it’s great to be compared to her. But I don’t really mind.

Has Alek Wek been an inspiration for you?

Yeah, very much so.

How did you start modelling? Were you scouted?
No, I actually joined modelling school. Tanya Powell. I did Tanya Powell for like two weeks and after that I got my little photos together, so I went to FRM. And I asked them, I want to be a model. And they wanted to charge me.... I didn’t have much money after modelling school. So I joined this [other] guy as my personal manager... After New Zealand Fashion Week, Melbourne and various jobs that I did that were paying well.... he kind of just ripped me off and changed his address and phone... Totally just abandoned me. So he hasn’t paid me my money, took my portfolio, changed his address, is nowhere to be found.

How much money does he owe you?
Around $8000. He did this to three models.

Who looks after your brothers and sisters when you’re not there?

My step mum [according to FRM she travels backwards and forwards from the Sudan]. I hope she’s not going to leave again because if she leaves, I can’t go back to work.

Well congratulations. You are doing incredibly well – at the same time facing challenges that few, if any, other models have to face.

It’s crazy. When I travel and I go around the world, I’m like, ‘What am I doing here and where do I go from here?’ It’s totally different from Melbourne. But I’ve been to like four or five countries already so far,  so I’m like ‘Wow, that was good - in less than eight months’.



Blog Archive