Wek Packs a Wallop

updated 02/02/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/02/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

AT 10, ALEK Wek, fleeing civil war near her home in southern Sudan, bravely conned her way aboard a military plane taking refugees to the relative safety of Khartoum, the capital, where her father, a teacher, had gone for medical treatment. One of nine children, she arrived with only the clothes on her back. "We couldn't all go together," she says, "so I decided I had to go on my own." Her family escaped soon afterward.

Nowadays, Wek, the latest model sensation, strides the runways of Milan and Paris with the same pluck and self-confidence that brought her to safety. Says influential fashion photographer Steven Meisel of his first meeting with Wek in 1996: "I hadn't seen anybody that interesting, that special, that black and that beautiful in a long, long time."

Wek, 20, of the Dinka tribe, has worn the dresses of Todd Oldham, Isaac Mizrahi and Donna Karan and signed contracts with Moschino, Issey Miyake and Clinique. But though she has the requisite statuesque 5'11" frame, comparisons to other models end there. Few have her smile, and none have Wek's dramatically cropped hair, cherubic cheeks and the flawless coal-black skin that has set the modeling world abuzz. "A girl like her would not have been considered beautiful in the '70s or '80s," says Somalian model Iman, adding that black models like herself, Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banks have a more westernized look. Wek, Iman says, "is like a lovely African sculpture."

Wek's appearance on the November cover of Elle generated unprecedented reader response. "When I saw your recent cover featuring a proud and radiant Alek Wek, I nearly cried," wrote one reader.

"There are a lot of women who look like her in America, and they don't find themselves in any magazine," says Gilles Bensimon, Elle's creative director. Wek welcomes the attention but is cautious about becoming a symbol. "I'm not just wrapped in a black color," she says. "I'm Alek. I'm a person."

Wek's trek from war-torn Sudan to fashion's highest precincts is a profile in courage and luck. Shortly after the family arrived in Khartoum, Wek's father died. Ajok, Wek's older sister, who was already living in London, had begun the arduous process of applying for political asylum for her siblings. In 1991, Wek and her younger sister Atheng were granted refugee status in London, and their mother, Akoul Parak, a social worker, joined them later; other brothers and sisters fanned out to Italy, Germany and Egypt. Because most face travel restrictions of one kind or another, the family has never reunited, and Alek is the only one to have seen all her siblings since leaving Africa. "For me, the most important thing is my family," she says.

It was in London that Wek had her first brush with race prejudice. At a parochial secondary school, she had to deal not only with a new language but also the teasing of a few schoolmates. "It was painful to be called names," she admits. But Wek didn't become defensive and attributed the comments merely to the fact that she was an outsider. She allowed her winning grin and personality to take over, and eventually "they got used to me," she says. Then at a street fair one day, a woman who worked for Britain's respected Models One agency asked her if she had ever considered modeling. Wek thought she was joking.

But within a few weeks Wek had photos of herself taken and realized, "Oh, my God, this is me! This is what I do!" It took a bit more to persuade her mother, who wanted Wek to finish college. After shoots for British and Spanish magazines, Wek came to the U.S. in June 1996 and is now represented by Mora Rowe of IMG.

"Alek is doing wonderfully well, and it's because of her sparkle and her charm—you just love her," says designer Betsey Johnson. When not parading the latest couture, single-girl Wek, who lives in Manhattan, can be found cooking traditional Sudanese food, in-line skating or club crawling, though she doesn't drink or smoke. Secure in her talent and steeled by all she has been through, she is determined to be around for a while. "I hope," she says, "people don't think I'm just a look for the moment."

SUE MILLER in New York City

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