From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
When Alek Wek, the seventh of nine children, was growing up in the Sudanese village of Wau, medicines to treat the psoriasis she'd suffered since age 3 weren't available. So her mother soothed the itch and inflammation by massaging her daughter's skin with a miracle cure of her own: Vaseline. "That was the only thing that really worked," recalls Wek, 22.

Today the psoriasis is gone (it cleared up after the family relocated to London in 1991), but good ol' Vaseline is still Wek's mainstay, and getting the job done splendidly. "She has the softest skin ever," lauds friend and fellow model Karen Elson. "So soft, it's ridiculous."

Ridiculous might be the term Wek, who was discovered at a London street fair in 1995, would choose to label her modeling success. "My mother has never painted her nails in her life and never worn makeup," she explains. "No one grows up hearing the word 'beautiful' in Sudan."

No matter, really, since with appearances in a Tina Turner video, on the cover of Elle and on runways for Chanel and Ralph Lauren, the 5'11" Wek has helped redefine the concept. "We're finally appreciating the beauty of other cultures," says former model Beverly Johnson, praising Wek's ebony skin and strong African features. "She's the most magnificent-looking woman, like a sculpture." Wek, who moved to New York City in 1996, initially didn't understand her impact. "I didn't get all the 'sister' stuff I kept hearing," she says. "I didn't understand what my modeling meant to some people." Nor-is she completely comfortable yet with the Western penchant for compliments. "In Sudan," she says, "we would never go on about beauty and body parts and proportions."

That said, Wek admits she sometimes laments not getting her sister's 34C chest. And she will reveal her beauty tips: baby shampoo for her hair, a bit of vanilla scent, Rollerblading and healthy living. "If you don't eat properly and get lots of sleep," Wek advises, "it's going to show on your face." Above all, she says, "I always feel joy within, and I like to let it show through." She wears it well.