hen Adut Akech began modelling professionally at the tender age of 16, she had an unfortunate introduction to the industry. “My hair got burned,” the now 21-year-old South Sudan-born runway star recalls of a time not long ago when having a like-minded hairstylist or make-up artist of colour on set or backstage was rare. “Our hair doesn’t need heat and everyone started straightening my hair. So I shaved my head — I went bald,” Akech continues of a formative beauty decision that both empowered her and helped cement her status on the catwalk. “Now, I know to say, ‘No, this is not the right shade for my skin tone,’ or ‘No, this does not work with my hair.’ I want new faces to be vocal about this stuff, too. That’s one thing I want to see change.” Her platform to help exact this kind of advancement just got a whole lot bigger: today, Akech becomes the newest global brand ambassador of Estée Lauder.
The circumstances around Akech’s unlikely road to fashion superstardom are well-covered territory at this point: after spending her early childhood in the U.N.-run Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, she relocated to Adelaide, Australia when she was around seven years old, which is where she was eventually scouted. Lesser known is how this experience impacted her approach to beauty. “My mom and my aunties just used natural oils and homemade moisturisers, so I was taught at an early age the simplicity of not doing too much but taking skincare seriously,” she tells me on the outdoor patio of a downtown New York hotel room, her just-glossed lips and oft-photographed cheek bones radiating off a caramel-coloured Rosetta Getty satin halter dress.
“Make-up has always really been fun for me,” Akech says, describing an early appreciation for colourful eyeshadows that stemmed from watching her two older sisters adapt to Australian culture — and, of course, from YouTube. (“Thank God for YouTube,” she jokes. “Watching make-up tutorials and cooking tutorials is my thing.”)
The video sharing platform was actually her first exposure to Estée Lauder, which hooked a young Akech with well-placed ads; the second was on an international flight when she had just begun travelling as a model. “I was going through duty free, and they had one of the biggest billboards in the airport.” The parallels between the size of Lauder’s global footprint and the magnitude of Akech’s contract are there for the making.
Despite her meteoric rise, Akech has remained without a broad-reaching beauty role — a career milestone that often comes with editorial success. It has made her a huge get for Lauder, which adds Akech’s star power to an already blockbuster roster of models including Karlie Kloss, Grace Elizabeth and Carolyn Murphy, whose face was previously known to Akech only in billboard-size; when they met in person on the set of her first campaign for the brand — a group ad for its Double Wear foundation franchise, due out in July — Akech cried. “I was nervous but everyone was just so welcoming and nice. I feel very proud that I’m now a part of an awesome, very welcoming family. It’s a great moment for me to show the world more of who I am.”
This article was originally published on Vogue.com.