Modesty might be the universal language of cover stars, but when Adut Akech says, “I never, ever, in my wildest dreams, thought I would have achieved half the things that I have now,” you believe her. On top of a wildly rapid career ascent—from an international runway debut walking for Saint Laurent in 2016 to being named Model of the Year by the British Fashion Council just three years later—her life trajectory has been altogether extraordinary.
Akech was born on Christmas Day in 1999, somewhere along the route between her mother’s native South Sudan, where a civil war raged, and the Kenyan refugee camp they called home for nearly eight years. “I was a very switched-on kid,” she says over Zoom, draped in a vibrant orange scarf. “When you grow up in an environment like that, you don’t really have a choice but to be switched on.”
But memories of having to pack quickly due to fears of kidnapping marauders are tempered by more innocent recollections of playing with a ball she and her cousins made out of rubber bands. “We were still kids at the end of the day,” Akech says.
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With the help of an aunt, who lived in Adelaide, Australia, Akech and her mom were eventually able to secure visas. At age seven, Akech boarded a plane for the first time and flew halfway around the world. “I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew that you could go to school [in Australia], and that was one of the things I wanted to do so badly,” she says.
In the car ride from the airport, she turned to her mother and made a vow: “Now that we’re here, I’m going to get an education. I’m going to buy you a car and a house. I’m going to make something of myself.” Akech, now 21, pauses to consider that long list of commitments and smiles, revealing her signature gap-toothed grin. “Yeah,” she says. “I made all those things happen.”
At 13, Akech walked in her first runway show, a local production put on by her aunt. A meeting with a modeling agency during a trip to Melbourne a few years later set her on a path that would include campaigns with the likes of Chanel, Valentino, Givenchy, and Prada. In a true full-circle moment, Akech has begun working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees—the very agency that operates the camp where she grew up.
Her most recent career coup: being named an Estée Lauder global brand ambassador. “I feel like this is my moment to show people—and to show the world—that yes, Black women are beautiful,” she says.
It’s something Akech has always known, despite the bullying and racism she endured in Adelaide as a tall, lanky South Sudanese refugee with dark brown skin. “It was the first time I was in a space with people who didn’t look like me, people who weren’t used to seeing people like myself,” she explains. “From a young age, I just told myself that I needed to grow a tougher skin to avoid all this outside noise, but also to accept that this is who I am. This is how God made me, and that’s not going to change anytime soon, or ever, to be honest.”
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Now celebrated for her beauty around the globe, Akech sees her modeling work as a step toward creating a world in which people like herself won’t have to question their worth. “I do this for my little sisters. I do it for little Black girls all around the world. I do it for refugees. I do it for people who are not seen and not heard,” she says. “That’s my responsibility.”
Stéphane de La Faverie, who serves as group president of The Estée Lauder Companies and global brand president of Estée Lauder and AERIN Beauty, cites Akech’s “charisma, charm, and beauty” as qualities that make her stand out. “Adut is one of fashion’s biggest stars,” he says. “We believe she will also become a beauty icon of her generation.”
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Friend and mentor Naomi Campbell remembers the exact moment she first laid eyes on Akech while working alongside Sean Love Combs on the 2017 Pirelli calendar. “I was in front of the makeup mirror, and I looked up and saw this girl behind me. And [Diddy] and I both gasped, like, ‘Oh my God, this girl is incredible,’” she recalls. “I was just mesmerized by her face and her aura.”
Over the years, the two have forged a close relationship, making time to hang out whenever they’re in the same city. “It was no surprise to me at all how quickly she shot up,” Campbell says, adding how happy she was to hear of Akech’s Estée Lauder contract, and what it means not only for inclusion but also for equal pay and equal treatment for models of color. “I’m proud of her. Every editorial I see just makes me smile, makes my heart smile.” Actor and close friend Jeremy Pope concurs: “Adut is a light and has such a special energy about her. My hope is for her to have whatever her heart desires.”
Despite checking off more career goals in a handful of years than most hope to achieve in a lifetime, Akech isn’t looking to rest on her laurels: “Last year opened my eyes and made me realize, (1) Don’t take anything for granted, and (2) our time in this world is not promised. Anything can happen.” At the start of quarantine, Akech relished the chance to take a break and spend time with her family. “I was like, ‘Okay, cool, I’m tired, I need this,’ because the previous years were just nonstop,” she says. “Second week came, and I was like, ‘Okay, this is weird.’ I actually started renovating my mom’s house—that was what kept me occupied, and my mind busy.”
As the world slowly continues to reopen, Akech is excited to get back to her modeling work and a few passion projects that she can’t reveal just yet. “When things start to get better,” she says, “I’m going for it.” But like many of us, she’s not quite ready to abandon her quarantine wardrobe of sweatpants and slippers. “I see my heels and I want to throw all of them in the bin at this point,” she says with a laugh. She holds up her hand, making her thumb and forefinger nearly touch. “If I wear heels now, they’re like, this high.”
Hair by Hos Hounkpatin and makeup by Frank B., both at The Wall Group; manicure by Honey at Exposure NY; set design by Cooper Vasquez at Frank Reps; produced by Philippa Serlin at Serlin Associates.
This article appears in the August 2021 issue of ELLE.