Aweng Ade-Chuol: Life, Love & Lows
Aweng Ade-Chuol: Life, Love & Lows
Aweng Ade-Chuol is the South Sudanese supermodel who went from a refugee camp to billboards across the world. But fame and success haven’t always been easy for her… Until she fell in love.
Not every model will start a conversation by telling you how much they love First World War poet Wilfred Owen. But not every model is Aweng Ade-Chuol, who was spotted working at McDonald’s. When we meet, she sinks her sparrow-like, 5ft 9in frame into a low armchair, flanked by her wife of a less than a year – Alexus, known as Lexy – and explains.
‘It’s such a nerd thing to say but he’s always been my favourite poet,’ she says, her dark, almond-shaped eyes brightening above her paper mask. ‘His poetry is just phenomenal to me. It’s all about war and my father was a soldier… Maybe that’s why I love him so much,’ she says, speaking with an accent that blends cutesy Australian lilt with a heavy New York brusqueness. Aweng and her family were granted asylum to Sydney in 2006, and she has spent the past year in Long Island with Lexy, a native New Yorker.
Aweng’s passion for historical poetry is not just a sentimental link to her own past, though her father did fight in South Sudan’s civil war and died of an infected gunshot wound in 2013. It’s part of an insatiable appetite for learning, which is wrapped up in the 22-year-old’s enthusiasm for stretching the most out of her life. ‘I like reading, writing, I like learning something new. I like adventure, I like date nights and dinners out… I like living,’ she says, her eyes darting around the room with every statement. ‘I feel like your bedroom should be for resting, when you’re exhausted from living.’
For the past three years, Aweng has been doing a lot of living. She was scouted at 16 while living in a South Sudanese community in Sydney with her mother and 11 younger siblings. The family had emigrated there from Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, where they’d settled after fleeing the conflict in Sudan. Kakuma is well-known in fashion circles, since it’s the place where models Halima Aden and Adut Akech were also raised.
With distinctive facial scars and cheekbones as high as The Shard, Aweng always knew she was beautiful, but it was in her late teens that she realised just how striking she was. When she was 18, studying for a law degree at university, she followed up on a business card thrust across the McDonald’s counter by a well-dressed woman who said: ‘You’re going to be a superstar. You’ll thank me one day…’
What happened next is fashion folklore, as she followed in the footsteps of Natalia Vodianova and fellow South Sudanese model Alek Wek, whose lives were also transformed after chance encounters. Within two weeks, Aweng was flown to Paris, where she walked exclusively for Vetements, one of the biggest shows in the fashion calendar. That night, there was no going to parties to celebrate, as Aweng rushed back to her hotel room to finish a law assignment, not wanting to completely let go of her previous life. The next day, she woke to the news that she’d been signed by agencies in Paris, Milan, New York and London.
Since then, she’s become one of the industry’s most in-demand models, securing iconic magazine covers and campaigns with Burberry and Balmain x Puma, and walking for Rihanna’s debut Savage x Fenty show. Most recently, she featured in Beyoncé’s visual album Black Is King, alongside Naomi Campbell and Oscar-winning actor Lupita Nyong’o. The whole project was top secret and Aweng instantly becomes coy when I ask about it: ‘I can’t speak about it… All I can say is: dreams do come true. Every girl’s dream is to work with Queen B, and that was my dream as a kid.’
But a life of constant travel, collaborating with the world’s most famous artists and making the most of every day came to a grinding halt at the beginning of this year. Stranded in New York with Lexy, who she met in January 2019 and married that December (more on that later), the pandemic forced Aweng to stay in one place for the first time in her life. ‘The whole set up was tough,’ she says, laughing nervously. ‘I had a crisis of What do you mean, I have to stay [here] for eight months?’
The simple act of stopping threw Aweng’s world into chaos. ‘When you’re so used to things going [she clicks her hands frantically around her face, mimicking the speed of her life up until that point], any pace slower than that is confusing. So I had two months of being completely shut off.’
It wasn’t until an Instagram post appeared on her account this summer that the extent to which Aweng had suffered became horrifyingly clear. She wrote: ‘I attempted suicide two months ago today. And I just want to say, that I’m in a much better place. And no one had to know that – but it’s good to get it out of my chest. I feel well enough to. Especially today. I am thankful for life.’
Aweng spent three days in ICU and a further six in hospital. Lexy, who appears saintly when she talks about the traumatic experience wasn’t able to visit because of Covid restrictions: ‘I didn’t sleep for three days, I didn’t eat for three days, I was just waiting and praying a lot. It’s a very tough situation to find yourself in, but it’s really not in your control.’ She speaks so calmly that I forget that Lexy is only 24 years old.
As Aweng said in her post, she didn’t have to share her battles with the world but speaking about mental health has always been important to her. ‘I’ve always been outspoken, and mental health has always been something that I’ve spoken on,’ she says. ‘But I guess I didn’t experience the other side of it until this year, when lockdown impacted my life directly, actually [put my] life at risk. When that happened, it was a reality check.
Before, it was like, mental health is important, but now, it is the most important thing. Where you’re at mentally is the most important foundation.’
But speaking out to her 157,000 followers was tough, not least because most people had no idea that she was struggling. ‘People were shook. People I spoke to every day, who didn’t know what had happened; people who I spoke to on the day that it happened; people I spoke to in the hospital, in the ICU… They were like, “How come you didn’t confide in us?”’ She also received many messages from people sharing their own experience of attempted suicide, which was hard to deal with: ‘Young kids came up and said, “I’ve been thinking about it… And I’m like, OK, OK now.” I can’t respond to everybody. I had to put a general announcement out to say, “Hey guys, I’ve announced what happened to me, I guess things could be happening in your life, too, but I’m still learning. I need to manoeuvre around this thing I went through, so I don’t know how to help you but here’s some suggestions: therapy and self-acceptance.”’
Aweng is now in therapy twice a week, which led to a period of intense self-reflection as she slowed her life down to the bare minimum of sleeping, eating, cuddling her wife and walking their two poodles, East and Chicago. ‘I’ve really learnt a lot about myself this year,’ she says, speaking like a person who is in the middle of therapy – not in a cold, robotic way, but with the slow, meditative rhythm of someone who has considered every word. ‘I’ve learnt my worst sides, my best sides, my greatest sides… As soon as I discovered how far I can go with all three, it was about self-control: learn how to be within yourself and comfortable enough to control how far you take things.’
One thing Aweng is adamant she’s not going to do is act like she’s the only one who’s suffered. Lexy, who admits that it’s not the first time someone close to her has done something similar, says she ‘did what she had to do’ – which involved stopping herself from crying when speaking to Aweng’s mother in Australia about what was going on. ‘I really appreciate the fact that she handled it like a superwoman,’ says Aweng. ‘It wasn’t just that incident, it was afterwards. After I’d come out of ICU, every word was a trigger. All I wanted was silence. I wanted rain sounds; I started listening to sounds of the ocean at night. We both needed to process what had happened.’
Not many couples deal with such trauma just months after marrying, but it seems that the experience has brought them even closer. When they talk about their relationship and who plays what role (Aweng is the hopeless romantic, while Lexy – who has her own nail company, Palmpered – is the planner and nurturer), it’s like those scenes from When Harry Met Sally, when the older couples sit side by side on the couch and talk to the camera about their love for one another. Aweng, who has dated women since she was a teenager, knew instantly that Lexy was the one for her. ‘I’m the kind of person who has met many beautiful people, and it’s like, OK, cool, bye… But after I saw her [they met by chance at a work meeting], I annoyed the sugar out of her until she gave me her personal number,’ Aweng recalls, her voice galloping away from her. Lexy, meanwhile, is not normally so forthcoming: ‘I’m not a collector of people, so when I meet people, I have a good time with them, but there’s no need to push myself into their life. But, with Aweng, I allowed it to be more. I truly appreciated her as a person; I knew I could get along with her forever.’
They married at New York City Hall in December 2019. Aweng wore a white suit by Kwaidan Editions, while Lexy was in a Pyer Moss cape-like creation: ‘It looked beautiful, like an angel,’ beams Aweng. It wasn’t the traditional day the model had imagined, but it turned out to be pretty perfect all the same: the couple, who wrote their own vows, got matching ‘XII’ tattoos (the date was 12/12), then went for pizza to celebrate. The next day, Aweng had to fly out to Spain for a job, which only made the whole experience more intensely romantic.
Aweng’s family in Australia are yet to meet her new wife, but they already love her like their own daughter, especially after what happened earlier this year. ‘My mother loves her, my siblings adore her and my family are my life, in a way,’ she says. ‘It made me feel at peace to know that the 13 people who raised me love her.’
But there’s also been a fierce backlash from her community. In South Sudan, same-sex marriage has been constitutionally banned since 2011. ‘That is really baffling to me, and I’m still processing it,’ says Aweng cautiously. ‘We got married and the whole world, literally the whole of my community, were wishing that I passed, in a way… A few months later, I attempted suicide. It was really absurd, because subconsciously I felt I was maybe drained by the fact we’d got married. It’s still a discussion now, like, “How dare she marry a woman?” You can’t control what people say, and there were tabloids and newspapers back in Sudan… It was a whole thing. For me, it was like, with the political climate that’s going on, you really think that my marriage is the most significant thing in your life right now? It was saddening, because it was the happiest day of my life, and they couldn’t let me enjoy it.’
But Aweng officially coming out as a lesbian, which she did recently on Twitter, invited a wave of support and respect from Sudanese girls who said they could relate: ‘It was beautiful to see how people react with having someone validate who they are.’ I ask whether she feels a responsibility to speak out for gay rights. ‘At first I did, but then I realised that I’m in my twenties. I wish I could say, “Let me hold the torch for the LGBTQIA+ Sudanese community,” but it’s a lot for one person to handle. I’m human at the end of the day, I’m very human, I’m learning myself.’
For now, the couple have decided to make a fresh start in London. Their dogs – the poodles who refuse to walk through puddles (‘they’re so bougie,’ jokes Aweng) – will join them soon in Chelsea, where Lexy is already busy stocking up on soft furnishings for their new apartment. They’ll combine a small housewarming (Covid-permitting) with celebrations for Aweng’s 22nd birthday.
‘After 2020, I’m not really a people person any more,’ reflects Aweng. ‘I’ve become more of a people person for the people who love me.’ But she already has big plans for 2021. ‘My 23rd… that’s going to be different. I want to have it in Dubai. I want it to be dramatic. I’m a very dramatic person, and 2020 didn’t allow the drama. 2020 stole the show, but now I’m taking it back.’
Written By: HANNAH NATHANSON PHOTOGRAPHS BY MEINKE KLEIN