Nyakim Gatwech is taking the fashion industry by storm: She’s walked the runways at New York Fashion Week, amassed 375K Instagram followers, and she’s currently starring in a makeup campaign for Canadian brand Annabelle. “From refugee camp to runway” seems like a far too easy way to put it, but that is Gatwech’s story. When her mother was pregnant with her, she fled war-ravaged south Sudan on foot with her four kids and headed for the Ethiopian border. (Her husband stayed behind to fight.) The family walked for weeks and slept under trees—two of the children perished during the trek. “When people ask me about my story, I only think about my mother,” says Gatwetch. “She lived through it, but it’s her journey that makes me strong.” We recently caught up with Gatwech to chat about her quest to challenge beauty ideals in the fashion industry.
When you were 14, you moved to Buffalo, New York. What was that transition like?
“I had never lived in a place with a toilet, running water or power. It took us, like, a week to learn how to turn on the stove. We had to call the lady from United Nations services to ask her to come show us how to flush the toilet. We have so many funny stories like that!”
How did you get into modelling?
“I knew modelling was what I wanted to do, but at school, I got bullied over my skin colour. Kids called me ugly or monkey. I started thinking, ‘How can I be a model when models are beautiful and these kids are telling me I’m ugly?’ I thought about bleaching my skin, but my sister convinced me not to. Eventually, I gave modelling a try, and did local shows and photo shoots.”
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What was your big break?
“I had given up on being a model and started studying to become an elementary school teacher. I still did shoots on the side, and then, out of the blue, one of those shoots just went viral. It was me and a lighter-skinned model and people loved it. Suddenly, they wanted to work with me because of my complexion.”
Do you feel like the fashion industry is more inclusive now?
“It is more diverse now, but it could still be better. There were more than 200 girls at Fashion Week, but only three of us were dark. I still have to bring my own foundation with me to shoots and shows, because makeup artists don’t have my shade. It’s hard, but I’m really grateful for any job I get.”
You’ve been nicknamed the “Queen of Dark.” How did that come about?
“An Uber driver asked me if I would bleach my skin for $10,000, and I talked about it on Instagram: I said it was funny how people still think I should look different to fit in. The media picked up the story and started saying I was known as the ‘Queen of Dark.’ People think that I should take it negatively, but I consider myself a queen and I am dark. I love the nickname.”
What is your message to people struggling with self-acceptance?
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“You’re not alone. There are so many people out there who feel the way you feel. Admit that this is how you feel, communicate with those around you who love you, and work on loving yourself and knowing that you’re beautiful. I’ve been told that so many times, but it took me years to believe it. It takes time but it’s so worth it.”
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