The office is a buzz when the images are sent in from New York the day after our cover photoshoot with Nykhor Paul. Frame after frame the South Sudanese modelling sensation delivers stunningly in every shot. But who is the young woman beyond the haunting beauty? Meet the Nilotic Nykhor who has brains before beauty, firm foundations before fashion. She is not just a model, but a role model – in every sense. She speaks to New African Woman.
Following the surge in Sudanese modelling talent that the world has seen gracing the runways and magazine editorials, it was perhaps no surprise that the gorgeous Nykhor Paul, with her distinctive look, would join the ranks of her countrywomen Alek Wek, Atong Deng, Ajak Deng, Atui Deng and Grace Bol.
And in her own right, Nykhor has today become one of the South Sudanese stars of international fashion, with numerous campaigns, magazine editorials and runway shows under her belt. She has so far walked for Vivienne Westwood, Diane Von Furstenberg, Issey Miyake, John Galliano, amongst many others, appeared in campaigns for Desigual, Louis Vuitton and Diet Coke, and aced numerous magazine covers.
However, the admirable strides in the cutthroat fashion industry aside, Nykhor has her sights set even higher, this time in philanthropy and advocacy rather than just fashion.
In April 2014, Nykhor took her ‘We Are Nilotic’ campaign to highlight the violence that has engulfed South Sudan, asking her country folk to put aside ethnic differences, and put peace first. Working with photographer Mike Mellia, Nykhor rallied her high-profile compatriots such as models Ajak Deng and Ataui Deng, actor Ger Duany and singer Emmanuel Jal, to raise awareness of the plight of their beloved country. The newest African state, which gained independence in July 2011, has been plagued by civil conflict and inter-ethnic warfare ever since. At the time of launching her campaign, Nykhor affirmed, “I’m Nuer, but I’m not a tribe, I’m South Sudanese.
I know the resilience of the tribes, but I believe that when the South Sudanese come together, our resilience and determination will be greater than what divides us. I’m stepping out with fellow models from South Sudan, representing various tribes, to show that on the world scale, the tribe you come from doesn’t matter. Hopefully this shows the unity and pride that we should have in ourselves; the peace that can be formed if we put down our weapons and old hostilities, we can move up and progress. We are not Nuer or Dinka, we are South Sudan, we are Nilotic (of the Nile).
She tells NAW: “I started ‘We Are Nilotic’ in December 2013, a few days after the civil war in South Sudan broke out where many people lost their lives and millions were displaced. During that time, my little brother was caught in Juba, South Sudan, inbetween the UN compounds, with no way to get in contact with my family in Ethiopia. Without any media coverage broadcasting what was really happening to the people of South Sudan, I decided to use my platform as an international model to raise awareness and put my country in the spotlight so the world can get an idea of what is really happening,” Nykhor adds.
Great strides have been made since the beginning of the campaign, with appearances on CNN, Channel 7 and ABC and in Glamour Italia, Marie Claire USA, REVS Magazine, Volkskrant Magazine and The Guardian. “The most important goal for the campaign was getting coverage on an international scale, which we have achieved and are grateful for the tremendous support we have received all over the world,” she adds.
Nykhor’s strides on and off the runway seem to be stretching wider and faster, which with “committed” and “determined” the two words she chooses to describe herself, is no surprise.
“Modelling exposes you to so many different people from various backgrounds,” muses Nykhor. “I want to use it to enhance people and help others.” First on her list would be girls and women, she says, when NAW asks her if there is more humanitarian work on the cards, possibly a Nykhor Paul Foundation providing education and empowerment programmes to help women become self-sufficient.
While she may work closely with young women and girls in the future, for now, as a confident young African woman who has walked her way from the refugee camps of Ethiopia, through the shopping malls of Nebraska and on to global runways, she has words of wisdom to share: “Know yourself, own your power, be confident, get an education, understand your womanhood and know your worth, but most importantly put your trust in God and be fearless.
“I always wanted to be a doctor or an artist but after being resettled as a refugee in the United States, people began to hint to me about being a fashion model,” she adds: “After learning English, I did my research with my ESL teacher and found out that this industry could be a great platform for me to support myself and my family back home.”
Born in Sudan (now South Sudan) in 1989 Nykhor spent the first eight years of her life at a refugee camp in Pivundo, Ethiopia, before moving to Nebraska, USA.
A collaboration with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) then saw her join an impressive lineup of IRC Voices, including Piper Perabo, Rashida Jones and John Legend. In order to raise awareness of the needs of refugees and people who have been displaced by conflict, religious persecution or political oppression around the world, Nykhor visited two camps in the Gambella region of Ethiopia and was reunited with her parents in August 2014 – for the first time in almost 17 years.
“Reuniting with my family was overwhelming yet refreshing as I had been waiting for that day since my arrival in the USA. None of us ever thought it would take so long for me to return, so it was a great honour to be among my family and receive love and blessings from everyone. We had all been praying for that day,” she enthuses.
Having been a refugee herself, Nykhor is passionate about the work of the IRC and feels fortunate to be able to lend her voice to alert the world to the plight of displaced people across the globe.
“Now we can put a real face and a real voice to the suffering refugees in South Sudan, with international support,” she explains. “I was able to film and photograph South Sudanese refugees from various refugee camps throughout Ethiopia, many of which are from different tribes. Our work together has made it easier to relay our message across the globe, especially with the New Year’s Eve ball drop at Times Square which allowed us to speak on behalf of the 52 million refugees displaced all over the world.”
Nykhor, who was just a 14-year-old foster child when she was scouted by a model agent in a Nebraska mall, adds: “Growing up in South Sudan and Ethiopia, I never thought I would be exposed to a world like this. I went from walking barefoot in my village in Akobo to walking runways all over the world. I am now at a level where I can say I’ve been truly blessed.”
As a young teenager, and despite signing with Ford Chicago, Nykhor at first walked away from the world of fashion, wary of modelling interfering with her studies, and opted instead to go back to school.
“The reason my parents sent me to America was to get an education, so I focused on finishing my studies. I finished high school, then went to college, then modeling came calling,” she explains.
Her advice to young models? “I strongly believe in education, especially as modelling is a very adult industry where you can be exposed to so many things at a young age. It’s crucial to have your education, a mind of your own and strong family support.”
In 2008, Nykhor could no longer ignore the call of the catwalk and moved to New York where she signed with Red Model Management.
While Nykhor appreciates the various campaigns to address the lack of diversity in fashion, and acknowledges that for her the going is very good, she is quite skeptical about their impact on the industry generally.
“Agencies still don’t sign many black girls, the shows still only book a few girls. I call myself at these shows ‘the black dot’ because there is no variety in the fashion industry,” she says.
Another challenge she openly admits to about being a black girl in the fashion world concerns makeup. Dealing with big egos she can handle, especially if it is in the name of creating “beautiful art pieces”; but she draws the line at makeup:
“My personal challenge has been makeup artists not knowing how to work with my dark skin, often times leaving me grey, or walking shows without makeup, or for most black girls bringing your own makeup and fixing it afterward.”
How this young black beauty has come so far is an admirable journey that she will keep travelling, and poignantly, is one that hopefully will help bring peace to her troubled yet beautiful country – South Sudan.
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