Anok Yai: From refugee to world’s most beautiful model

Anok Yai: From refugee to world’s most beautiful model
Anok Yai, South Sudanese world’s most beautiful model (photo credit: courtesy)

She stands 5′ 10″ above the ground and has the blessing of smooth dark skin, a narrow face, sleepy eyes, and thin lips. Her body is curved but complemented with long legs, a thin waist, and firm breasts which give her the posturing of a standard model and also inject the feel of African beauty.

This is a succinct physical description of Anok Yai, a South Sudanese model that is taking the fashion industry by storm and is living a dream coveted by most aspiring models in the sector. She has been named the beautiful woman on earth and puts up many crowns enviable to the giants in the fashion realm.

Just by typing her name on the Google search box, many returns come forth. For instance, a search like ‘‘who is Anok Yai?’’ gives the following answer: ‘‘Anok Yai [is] the most expensive model. Recently, Anok Yai, a girl from southern Sudan went viral and was ranked as both the most beautiful woman on earth, as well as the most expensive model. Yes, it is.’’

Another search that prompts to answer a question why Anok Yai is famous returns this hit: ‘‘After being discovered at a university homecoming party, Anok Yai became the first black model to open a Prada show since Naomi Campbell in 1997, and has appeared in various of the brand’s campaigns, fast becoming one of the new faces to watch.’’

For emphasis, she became the first black model since the legendary Naomi Campbell to open a Prada Show- a platform for showcasing fashion that enjoys the Italian roots.

On September 13, 2021, Yai hit yet another milestone in the fashion industry by featuring in the Met Gala 2021 alongside other celebrities such as Kenyan famous actress Lupita Nyong’o.

Met Gala—also known as Costume Institute Gala or Met Ball— is one of the most renowned social events on the globe. It is used for fundraising for Metropolitan Museum Arts in New York, USA.

Plucked from a refugee camp

Anok Yai was born on December 20, 1997, in Cairo, Egypt, where her parents had sought refuge after escaping the pre-independence civil war in the then Southern Sudan. Her parents traveled to the USA where they got accommodation on terms of refugee status and they embarked on building a life from scratch with the weight of parentage on their shoulders.

While being interviewed by a seasoned fashion journalist Allyson Portee, Yai is quoted in an article published by narrating how settling in the US was tough for her family. She narrated how her parents juggled jobs of lengthy shifts to make ends meet for them. 

“Being a refugee myself, I know the kinds of struggles my own family went through,” she tells 

“When we came to the US I was around 3 or 4 and we stopped in New York City first and then went to New Hampshire because they had the most benefits for immigrants. We were given government housing and assistance.

“Had we not been given that I don’t know where we would have ended up. Growing up I saw how much my parents struggled. Having assistance alone wasn’t enough. My parents were luckily able to find jobs but they came to the US with kids and they would work 12,16-hour days almost every day, and we kids had to learn to be independent,’’ she adds.

After moving from New York to New Hampshire, Yai narrates that she came head-on with one of the worst experiences that face black people in the US; racism.

 “As I grew up in school I was bullied for my skin color. I had to develop a thick skin and I had to learn the language, be able to take care of my little siblings, and then go to school. In order to fend for me I had to develop a thick skin,” she recalls in her interview with Forbes.

Modeling career

Her path to the top echelons of the fashion industry began with her single photograph that was taken at Howard University’s 2017 Homecoming, which she uploaded on her Instagram page.

What followed was a floodgate of comments with fashion and modeling agencies reaching out to work with her. It is on this occasion that her career started and blossomed based on dedication and hard work.

She says she had planned to find her professional bearing in the medical field before her passion for modeling surfaced.

“I wanted to be in the medical field, to work in a hospital and get an MD degree, and I worked a lot on my merit. Education is still on my plate to do. But of course, now I can expand more with what I have now.”

Having learned the ropes of sustaining a modeling career, Yai believes that this game is not just about attracting clients with beauty and trendy wares; it transcends that and involves lots of management work.

She says, “When I first got introduced into the fashion industry, I could have easily been a flash in the pan – and I’m sure that’s what many were expecting but right away I decided that I was going to do everything I could to become a powerhouse. Being a model means running a business, where essentially, I am the business. My likeness is what draws people in and my creative and business decisions are the forces that drive it.’’ 

In 2018, while just aged 20 years, Anok Yai opened Prada Show in Milan, Italy, and matched a milestone once set by one of the fashion industry’s best, Naomi Campbell. She remembers this as a huge step in her career but maintains that much work is needed on her part.

“When it happened and I opened the show, I had no idea that I was the first Black model since 1997. I found out the next day. Ever since that show, I have seen other designers follow. I’ve seen a lot more Black models backstage opening and closing shows. It was a huge stride compared to the past. There are strides that we still have to make, but this is a positive one,” she says.

Changing face of modeling

Talking to, the South Sudanese model argues that there needs to be a change in mentality where black models would be glorified because of their talents and not their skin color. According to her, the industry puts emphasis on skin color and remains oblivious to the talents of such women.

“One thing I also noticed is that when Black creatives are introduced into this narrative, it’s solely because they are black. I don’t like this because I want to get to a point that people don’t hire Black people because they are Black, but because they are unbelievably talented. Black people that I’ve worked with are the most talented in their fields,” she argues.

To maintain her pedigree in the industry, Yai believes that assembling a team with a shared vision is what has made her hold a firm grip of impressive performance in her work.

“It’s not only important that I have control of the things going on around me but I also surround myself with a team that shares my visions and expectations. For example, it started off with my hair. I told my agent that I refused to straighten my hair, that I would either walk a show with corn rolls or an afro, and if not, then I wasn’t going to do the show,’’ she recalls.

She is listed among the Top 50 models in the world by and had accumulated a wealth of $3 million by 2019, reveals.

Although she is yet to set foot in South Sudan, she cherishes her roots and reveals being in touch with family members in South Sudan.