“I lived in South Sudan until I was about four or five years old. Then my family and I moved to the city, because the war was happening. It’s the longest-standing war on Earth today. I am lucky because so many of us have made it as refugees and escaped the war, and still, I’ve lost many family members. And I have family members who are still in refugee camps today. We eventually left my country in the early ‘90s, without my father’s knowledge because he wasn’t OK with it. My mother took me and my sisters one night and said, ‘We’re leaving.’ I was nine years old. I didn’t want to stay, but I didn’t want to leave. I also didn’t really understand what was going on. All I knew was that up until that point, I had been terrified every day since the day I was born.
My mother found some of our relatives in California within the first three months we were in America. The first time I heard about modeling was when we moved out there, and I met my cousin Atong [Arjok] for the first time. I think Atong’s the third most-known South Sudanese model, after Alek Wek, Clara Benjamin, and maybe Ajak Deng. One day Atong and I were walking to middle school when this lady saw us and said, ‘You guys can be supermodels and make a lot of money. You have to try it out.’ We looked into it, and we applied with a scout, and I was picked by 16 agents. They wanted me to move to New York or Paris, but it wasn’t my time. I was the oldest child, helping my mom with my siblings. And our parents had the idea that we had to be doctors and lawyers. So, I finished high school, and during that time I met someone, fell in love, and I had a daughter when I was 21. That’s also when I was discovered again for modeling. I was scouted, actually, for America's Next Top Model, and then something didn’t go through because I wasn’t a citizen yet. My sister and I were going to be the first sisters and Sudanese girls on the show, and we couldn’t make it because of our paperwork. That’s when I said, ‘OK, if I’m going to really model, I need to move to New York.’
I moved to New York in 2006. By this time I was going to college and my mother helped me take care of my daughter, fully, for one year. I started modeling professionally, but I didn’t get my first campaign until five years later. It was Lanvin, shot by Steven Meisel. Every model’s dream! Actually, the week I got booked with Steven Meisel is the week I had the biggest fight with my agency. I wanted to be a model who had a story and who had a voice. Basically a model activist. They were like, ‘What are you talking about? Just be a model.’ Modeling has changed—it’s not the same anymore. You can’t just be tall and skinny and beautiful. You have to have a strength, and an essence, and something you stand for. The same week I was fighting with my agency, I was down in the train station and this lady saw me and asked, ‘Excuse me, are you a model?’ I was like, ‘Not with that question again!’ She said, ‘No, but seriously, I would love if you could come to this casting.’ I ended up going to the casting, not knowing what it was, and it was Steven Meisel and Alber [Elbaz]. They were interviewing me, putting me in the clothes and talking to me, and the next day they were like, ‘You’re it! You’re the new face of Lanvin!’ I could not believe it. It was an affirmation, because I had been fighting for this vision, and then boom, this happens. Ever since, I knew I had to stick to what I believed in.
In 2015 I started working closely with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and speaking at the United Nations. I regularly speak at the United Nations now as an education and youth champion. And I have a charity, Stand For Education. We’re focused on education and arts—arts heal, education is power. If we teach people basic things, provide those things, and open those doors, I’m able to not only tell the stories of girls like me, but to also open doors for girls like me to have a chance. Things are changing in the world, but we have to be actively involved. What’s happening in South Sudan is a human issue that should not be happening. More importantly for me, the way that we can face it is for me to share my story. Especially in the fashion and entertainment industries—we are major influencers, especially within the youngest generation, which is the future generation of this world. If we have that platform now, where we can educate and do something about it, that’s all we need to do.
My mom always used to tell me, ‘Mafish halawa min gheir nar,’ which is Arabic for ‘there’s no beauty without fire.’ It means you have to have a regimen for your beauty. She uses a lot of aromatherapy—sageing, smudging, cleansing. She makes her own incense from home. As far as makeup goes, we don’t really use cosmetics the way that it’s used here in the Western world, but we do have our own ways of using cosmetics when it comes to the village, and when it comes to doing parties. It’s more like adornment. I like to stay more natural [with makeup]. If I play, I play with my eyes a lot. Sometimes I do a little African makeup, or tribal stuff. It could be a couple of dots on my forehead, or I’ll make a line with black eyeliner with three dots. But my favorite thing to play with is my eyes or my lips.
If I’m doing a lip, I just keep my eyes simple with a really nice mascara. Right now, I really like Maybelline—they have this extended eyelash product in a gold tube. I have nice eyelashes, so it accentuates them and opens my eyes. I also really like Glossier Lash Slick—that’s what I have on right now. Glossier mascara and Glossier Generation G in Zip. I like a red lip, mostly because I have two different colored lips—the top one is dark like my skin color, and the bottom is light. It looks natural, even though it’s red. My other favorite thing to use is Haloscope in Topaz. It’s natural, and chill. I use it over here by my eyebrows. If I do wear foundation or concealer it’s Glossier Skin Tint, but I don’t really. Before Glossier I was using this, Black Opal True Color. I also like Morphe.
I basically like all kinds of natural skincare. I just wash my face with water most of the time to just keep it fresh. Or, depending on how I feel, I’ll use a lemon or lime with brown sugar and do a face and lip scrub. Or even a salt scrub. My favorite thing I’ve been using right now, after I wash my face, is this Glossier Milky Jelly. After I wash my face, I condition it with this. And another one of my favorite things is the Clarifying Problem Skin Toner from Shea Moisture. If I get a pimple and it’s darker or something, I just spray it on there.
This is one of the masks that I use, L’Oréal’s Pure Clay, and then I have this Effective Eye Serum as well [ed. note: discontinued]. It’s amazing. Amberlight Beauty is a dry mask, and it’s made by my friend. You basically put a little bit of the powder on your skin with water, or maybe in my case I’ll use coconut oil. You take a little spoon of it and mix it, and you put it on like a mask. My friend who makes it is a model, and she’s working on a skincare line. She makes this serum that I also love. And then I’ve gone through like four Priming Moisturizers. I actually got my honey bunny into it too—he loves it.
My favorite fragrance is J’Adore. I do aromatherapy, too, and I have centuries-old oils from Egypt, from the pharaohs. There’s a black musk body oil, and it’s for the root chakra. And I have an energy oil, and another one that’s basically sandalwood.
My hair is straightened right now. I hot ironed it, and I just put in some oil—I did a coconut hot oil treatment, so now it’s super soft. I wash my hair at least once a week, sometimes more, depending on what I’m doing. For example, I was in Mexico this past week, and I was washing my hair every day. I use Garnier Daily Care 2-in-1, or Shea Moisture Curl and Shine Shampoo Coconut and Hibiscus. It depends on how I feel. I got into Garnier because of the hair gel that they have—it’s really good for my edges. But right now I use mostly Shea Moisture, including the conditioner from the Coconut and Hibiscus line. Sometimes I don’t even wash, I just condition. I need as much oil in my hair as possible. After I wash and condition, I won’t dry my hair, I will just put this Olive Oil Hair Lotion on. It has castor oil, which is my favorite oil. I normally use castor oil more than this, because it’s pure, but the oil is a lot sometimes. I break it down by using one or the other.
I wear my hair based on how I feel. Sometimes it could be braids, sometimes it could be a mini-fro, sometimes it could be shaved, sometimes you can find different colors on my hair. I love to experience myself with different looks, and that was a big problem [with modeling], where I had to have one certain look. We should be able to be true to who we are, versus being true to the trend. My hair is naturally soft, so even if I wet it, it’s not going to be crazy or anything. I can literally just slick my hair back and be alright. In Sudan, all the aunties came over to braid your hair. I used to hide from them [Laughs]. I did all kinds of braids. There was a time where I was wearing all the alphabet in braids, literally, in Arabic.
Most of the time I don’t sleep in [a scarf], I just sleep like this. My friend got me this scarf-headband, and he’s like, ‘Honey, you need this for your hairline.’ I had never heard of it, and he was like, ‘You ain’t white!’ [Laughs] I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, thanks for reminding me!’ But yeah, my hair, I’m just letting it flow. It’s growing now.
I do meditations every day, but I don’t think meditating should be something that is like a chore. We’re already constantly meditating. Focus is meditation. For me, I love to wake up and say my affirmations, take 10 minutes of breathing in, breathing out, and sending out my intentions. Depending on how much time I have during the day, sometimes I do a hypnosis nap meditation, which means I’m doing the breath-work with my intentions, and going to sleep at the same time. It’s very relaxing, and it literally sticks in your subconscious mind, because everything we manifest is from our subconscious mind. When you’re sleeping, everything is happening to your subconscious, and your subconscious mind doesn’t know reality from nonreality. When I put myself to sleep into hypnosis with my intentions, that’s already reality.”
—as told to ITG
Mari Malek photographed by Tom Newton on January 22, 2019 in New York.