Dark models are still in minor in the fashion industry but along with Alek Wek and Atong Dong topmodel Nykhor Paul forms part of the Sudanese invasion that is taking over the fashion industry by storm. Fled from an Ethiopian refugee camp at the age of nine Nykhor uses her knowledge of psychology as an aid while fighting for a better future in her home country, helping the tribes see past their tribalism and their fighting and become more aware of the current issues that are affecting the entire planet.
Your personal story is an emotional rollercoaster for a young girl like you: you were born in South Sudan, fled to an Ethiopian refugee camp and immigrated to Nebraska into foster care at the age of nine. How did all of this make you the person you are today?
“Those things, going from South Sudan to Ethiopia and Nebreska as a young child learning a whole new language, seeing other cultures that I have never seen before, gave me the compassion to care for other people. “
Due to arranged marriage at the age of nine you fled to Nebreska. Can you tell us about this period?
“When I lived with my family and we were going to meet the people from America this is when I heard the rumors that I was promised to someone in Canada. For me it was like: this is not obligatory, but my father told me it was definitely going to happen. I’m my father’s first born and knowing my culture and living back home, I accepted it. If my family decides for me and it helps them, I’m fine. I met my future husband, we talked but I wasn’t happy at all so we ended it but it wasn’t allowed at all.”
What characterizes you and the choices you make in your life?
“I’m spontaneous, I like things that are not planned and to live in the moment. My life is very mellow and I’m open to new things. It’s good to have that balance when you’re travelling a lot and meeting new people.”
What the latest spontaneous thing that you did?
“Well, this is very odd (laughs)! When I visited my foster parents in Nebreska I was gun shooting with some of my old friends, just out of nowhere! I didn’t do that for a long time….it’s really popular in the Mid West.”
How has the situation of your country effected your life as a role model? And as a woman?
“The situation in my country is an awakening. To be on the other side and see what my country is going through is really difficult and it urges you to do something. I feel for the people there. It’s such a noble country. I try to involve other women. If I look at my live in the US I think: this is not right, I want to stand up and speak about what’s happening back home.”
Fashion has never really been important in your life. “It’s a tool, not a goal”. Why is that you have chosen to become a model?
“I was discovered by the age of fourteen. Culturally it wasn’t comfortable for me. Being raised by an American family and started modeling is something completely different in our community, I stepped back and took it easy for a while. It was always something that I wanted to do, but I didn’t want to disappoint my family again. It was either modeling or going to University to study biology which I did at first. The desire to help people has always been in me as a child but I didn’t know how to do that. With modeling I can make money and really help people.”
How does your family react on your career as a model?
“In my community things are now going well and people understand that I have a point, that I’m trying something different. But still for my family it’s difficult to understand that I’m not going to school anymore, they ask: what do you do? And I try to explain to them in my own language and culture but there’s no word for ‘model’, so I tell them that I work with other girls that I show clothes. Ah ok! It’s also kind of amusing for them, a whole new discovery. My father was in a town in South Sudan and he saw pictures of me but they haven’t seen my work or something. I will make a portfolio for them to show so that they can see what I’m doing for a living.”
What is your biggest challenge?
“The transitions between my previous situation and modeling are a challenge, but other people opened already the door for us in terms of modeling like Alek Wek showing her bravery. To move here with a dark skin in a whole new environment is quite inviting and different and you know that some jobs you won’t get but I’ll keep on going. I came from such a long way! It’s really a motivation.”
With your project ‘We are Nilotic’ you want to contribute peace among the 64 tribes of South Sudan. Why do you do that in America and not in your home country? To achieve a political effect is quite challenging?
“The reason that I do it in New York and not in my hometown is because the local authorities will not appreciate me, as a woman, to speak up and my life would be in jeopardy. For us as women we have a story that’s never been heard. If I can just touch them in their heart and get all their personal stories of the 64 tribes. Their children are dying every day because of child soldiers. Can you imagine if you have ten children? Five of them will go to war, three children will probably die…..How do you feel then as a mother from this country? Our voice can be heard, without being a risk. We are the mothers of the next generations and we need peace. I tell their stories through art, movies and fashion.”
Your younger brother passed away last year and to show your grief you shaved your head. Can you tell us your relationship with your family? And what is your role?
“We were very close. I took care of him a lot when we were younger. It was a very sad moment. He was married and he had a child…..(starts to cry)…It was definitely my encouragement to continue and to help. His wife is now all alone with their baby and I’m helping her a lot. It’s not fair and it’s though.”
How were the reactions on your short hair. For instance from your agency?
“It was very interesting. I was short already but in Paris they really shaved it with a good razor so afterwards I was all ‘shiny’. Back in New York people really started looking at me. I mean: I’m dark, very tall with a shiny head…I somehow enjoyed it. I like to fool people, play around. One time in a shopping mall I was posing next to a few mannequins in the store, holding a bag, standing really still. People were looking at me: is she for real and alive? (laughs) Another time I went shopping with white tribal marks on my face. Of course this is strange but in my culture this is beauty. When I moved to New York I saw so many white people, but my reaction was not like: wow. In some countries in America and Europe they are not used to very dark people like me with a bold head and shiny skin.”
In the fashion industry the numbers of black models in campaigns and on the catwalk are still limited, last season only 6 percent had a dark skin (nrs by Jezebel). Supermodels Naomi Campbell and Iman strive for more black beauties in the industry with their ‘Balance Diversity’ activity, still there’s a long way to go. What are your thoughts, will this subject ever change?
“I hope it will change and that people really understand the togetherness that we have. But now I’m even called ‘the black doll’ on the runway and I’m like: ‘Oh my…’There are some beautiful dark women like Lupita Nyong’O. What she has accomplished gives a lot of your girls the confidence to embrace their own beauty. What Naomi and Iman are doing is very brave and we need to work together and show the people what we’re going through, how we feel.”
Beauty means something different in the African culture and tribes then in, for instance, the Western culture. What does beauty mean to you?
“If you can embrace your own beauty you’re able to love and embrace a different person and beauty and you would understand it. If I can appreciate and feel the beauty as a black African woman, I can appreciate the beauty of an Asian girl. I was very insecure for a while but afterwards I was: this is who I am! Beauty is diverse.”
Travelling around the world enriches you personally because of new cultures and people. What are your favorite places in New York, Paris and Rome (maybe Amsterdam?).
“I love shopping and for me New York is the perfect place. I live uptown in Harlem and every time I’m still like: I’m home! (laughs) First I liked downtown more, east village like Soho for instance. In Paris I like the area around the Champs-Élysées and in London, where I lived for nine months, Camden and Shoreditch are my favorite area’s to visit.”
Do you feel at home or more a nomad?
“In New York I’ve created a community of people around me and it starts to become my home. Still Sudan is my true home.”
When you’re travelling or waiting on the set: where do you listen to and/or what is that you read?
“I love listening to music from Bob Marley, it makes me feel at home and happy, but also Beyoncé, Katy Perry, John Mayer and African music. As for books I’m reading ‘New Earth’ from Eckhart Tolle again about finding your inner self. Some books you read differently in another period of life.”
Share us a story: when the cameras are off and nobody is watching….what do you?
“I like to dance and do other crazy activities (laughs!). I don’t really sing out loud though I sang a lot when I was younger. I just ordered new books about yoga to practice at home, here I can concentrate myself better. And I like to be ‘naked’ a lot, walking around bare foot (laughs)!”
What was the last thing that inspired you the most?
“The situation with my brother took the shutters of my eyes, to work even harder and try to make a better life for the rest of my family. He’s my motivation to push forward.”
“I want to go back to school to study psychology. Hopefully the situation in Sudan will be better so I can go back to start a school for girls, new programs to help and support the local environment. Even when the war is over, people will be scared. It will keep me on my toes for a long time but it’s worth it.”
I interviewed Nykhor Paul last year for the brand Marie Stella Maris.
Images: Nykhor Paul for Volkskrant Magazine Spring 2014 (Petrovsky & Ramone, styling Sonny Groo) en Elle Mexico 2014