Ajak Deng has barely been in New York for five days when I meet her at Australian-born designer Michael Angel’s apartment in Manhattan’s trendy Murray Hill. In less than 17 hours, the designer’s show is to open New York Fashion Week for spring/summer 2010. The show will also be the Sudanese-Australian schoolgirl-turned-model’s international runway debut.
The atmosphere in the crowded space is one of controlled chaos as Michael and his assistants undertake the process of meticulously pinning garments to models and scrutinising their walk down the makeshift runway leading from the living room to the kitchen. It is an extraordinary place to find a young woman who arrived in Australia as a refugee a mere five years ago, after a harrowing and transient childhood in her war-ravaged homeland.
Many international models have already come and gone from the apartment but Ajak – all glowing ebony skin and rangy limbs – causes an immediate stir. The 19-year-old is extremely willowy, even by model standards. At over six feet tall in bare feet, she towers over everyone else in the room.
The designer is buoyant as he fits an abbreviated bejewelled emerald-green dress on Ajak. “Wow, you’re just hot to dress, aren’t you?” Michael enthuses as he adjusts the neckline. “Fantastic… in fact, you’re Ajak-tastic!”
On the matter of footwear, however, a small drama is brewing. The largest pair of the especially-commissioned digital print Manolo Blahnik peep-toe booties appear to be too small for Ajak’s size 41 feet. “Are you sure you can walk in them?” asks Michael with the slightest inflection of hysteria as she perilously wobbles across the room. Ajak is unperturbed; an unsurprising reaction from a girl who, prior to entering the rarefied world of high fashion, spent two and a half years in a Kenyan refugee camp.
Later, over lunch at a neighbouring Italian bistro, she confides, “I always looked at models and wished I could do that. One day I asked my step-mum whether I could, and she agreed to let me go to modelling school.”
She was signed by model agent Stephen Bucknall after he spotted her at the Miss South Sudan Australia competition two years ago. He hopes that his protégé will follow in the footsteps of other successful African models. “Models like Alek Wek and Naomi Campbell have really paved the way for Ajak, and I think she can become a supermodel like them,” he says.
Perhaps due to the unusual breadth of her life experience to date, the elements that make up Ajak’s character are compelling and often contradictory. She is at times exuberant and giddy, befitting a teenager who has just been flown to New York for the first time – with less than a day’s notice. When our coffees arrive, she asks the waiter for extra sugar. “I love sugar,” she proclaims. “I take seven sugars in my coffee and sometimes, if I’m bored, I’ll just eat the stuff.”
In other moments, there are flashes of the quiet sombreness and resolute seriousness of a young woman with the weight of great responsibility on her slender shoulders. Ajak does not dwell long on hardship and tragedy, but her experiences of those years are indelibly imprinted. “The refugee camp was the worst part of my life. It was horrible,” she recalls. “I couldn’t stand it.”
Having escaped the constant threat of military attacks on her family’s village in southern Sudan, Ajak’s temporary home in the Kenyan refugee camp posed new dangers. Violence and sexual assault were rife, sanitation poor, health services and supplies scarce. She was 12 years old when her mother died from a malarial infection, leaving behind a six-month-old infant sister in Ajak’s care. Sitting in this leafy, sunshine-dappled courtyard in mid-town Manhattan, it is difficult to fathom her childhood loss, compounded by such undue responsibility.
Australia represented a new beginning for Ajak, her father, stepmother and seven siblings, but it was not an easy decision to leave Africa. “My parents didn’t want to leave Sudan, but they wanted us kids to have a good life, to finish school and do something with our lives.” Her knowledge of their new home was limited. “It was only when we were having our medical checks that they told us we were coming to Melbourne. We were like, ‘Oh, okay.’”
Although far from the dusty huts and distressing memories of those African years, Ajak’s life in Melbourne is far from gilded. For the past few years, she has juggled modelling commitments with high school study and caring for her seven siblings. Unable to find employment, her father returned to Sudan three years ago. Her stepmother soon left to join him, leaving Ajak with the sole responsibility of financially providing for her brothers and sisters, as well dealing with the domestic tasks at their house in the sprawl of Melton, on Melbourne’s rural-urban fringe.
“It is difficult at times, trying to model and doing homework and also cooking for the kids,” she concedes. “It makes for very long days.” Nevertheless, she intends to combine her burgeoning modelling career with studying family law. “People said that I could leave school and just
do modelling, and I thought, ‘And then what?’” she reflects. “I can do some modelling, but it’s not for a long time. If it doesn’t work out, I’ve got nothing to fall back on. That’s why I wanted to finish year 12.”
Ajak is no ingénue with regard to the perceived glamour associated with modelling, an industry which has come under renewed scrutiny after the deaths of five models in the past 18 months, the latest being the shocking suicide of Korean model Daul Kim in Paris in November 2009. “It can be lonely. You go to castings knowing you probably won’t get it anyway, you don’t go thinking you’ll get the job,” she says candidly. “It’s hard – the industry is so messed up, you know. People say to me ‘Do you even fit into any clothes? You’re too skinny!’ And others say, ‘You’re not too skinny.’ What do they want us to be?”
“It makes me upset when they tell other girls to lose weight,” she confesses. “If they told me that, I’d probably be miserable.” Yet her runway-perfect proportions do not provide immunity to wistfulness. “I actually wish I was blonde – theose girls get the jobs all the time. Maybe if I was blonde, I’d be working a lot,” she ponders.
Some months later, Ajak has had little opportunity to catch her breath and reflect on the developments in her life and career. Since returning from her first New York season – where she walked eight shows with aplomb – she has completed year 12, and still wants to be “a supermodel and a lawyer”. That may prove challenging, at least in the short term. Since New York, Ajak has shot numerous high-profile campaigns, including United Colours of Benetton and Mimco back in Australia. She will do the fashion week circuit in 2010, traversing New York, London, Paris and Milan, and will return to New York to vie for the most lucrative jewel in every top model’s crown – landing a campaign for a leading fashion house. From all aspects, it appears that Ajak Deng’s life is being propelled on an unstoppable trajectory, towards bright lights and supernova success. Yet she retains a connection to the land of her birth and ancestors, a bond that is clearly deeply complex. “My family is still back there. My grandma, my uncle – we don’t have any family here. I will go back one day.”
Haidi Lun is a lawyer, writer and style blogger, Dave Tacon is a photographer and writer. Both are based in Melbourne.