If you know fashion, you know Adut Akech. Since her 2016 debut in Anthony Vaccarello’s first Saint Laurent runway show, she’s walked for every major house you can think of: Valentino, Dior, Chanel, Givenchy, Versace, and Prada, among others. Now, she’s taking over the beauty realm as the newest global brand ambassador for iconic skin care and makeup brand Estée Lauder. “I remember… I would see these makeup and fragrance ads, and I would think to myself, ‘Could that be me one day?’” Akech says, reflecting on her new title. “But it’s not something that I saw happening for me. I didn’t see myself represented in the beauty space. Throughout time that has obviously changed, and it is me today.”
Her rise to become one of the most sought-after talents in modeling is all the more impressive when you learn Akech spent her earliest years as a refugee. She was born during a journey to the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya; at age 7, the South Sudanese native emigrated with her family to Australia. In high school she began modeling, and the rest, as they say, is history. Today, Akech works with the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). “I’m just grateful that I’m in the position I am to be a voice and carry out the message of refugees and making their issues heard,” she says of her advocacy work.
Below, NYLON talks with Akech about her relationship with Estée Lauder, her gentle skin care routine, and the goals she still sees on the horizon.
Did you have a relationship with beauty growing up?
The first memories I had of, I guess you would say beauty, was from watching my mom and my aunties and the women around me in our refugee camp. That was home. I saw women washing their skin with homemade soaps and creams and oils that they would mix. There’s traditional makeup and face paintings that I would see them doing as well.
How did your view of beauty change as you got older and started your career?
It has, definitely. When I [emigrated] to Australia, I was exposed to makeup and skin care and many things I didn’t see before, stuff I didn’t have the luxury to have before. I now had this freedom and choice of things to pick from. I was intrigued by makeup from the moment I went to Australia, watching my sisters and my auntie, and just everybody around me wearing makeup. I started playing around with it and then, getting into modeling, it’s a different world of makeup — it’s a creative world. You can be transformed into a different person, or character. It’s been a cool, step-by-step process, getting to where I am today.
Because you get your hair, makeup, and nails professionally done all the time for work, has that influenced how you take care of yourself in your time off?
For the most part, when I’m off, I don’t wear makeup. That’s when I’m really heavy on my skin care and making sure I’m rescuing my skin from the makeup that I’ve had on for the past week. If there’s something that I really want to try, like a shadow palette or something, I’ll definitely try it. But for the most part, I’m just doing skin care until I have to go to work and get made up. I leave it to the professionals to do that, but I think it’s also important to let your skin breathe and have a break from makeup sometimes.
What does your skin care routine entail?
I have very sensitive skin, so a lot of things really irritate my skin. I’m very careful what I put on my face. I try to know what works with my skin and what doesn’t, even with makeup and stuff like that. I stay away from what doesn’t and I advise makeup artists. When I wear a lot of makeup for a long time my pores will get clogged up and I break out.
Do you have a ritual for taking off your makeup at the end of a long day on set?
I do! After a long day at a shoot, I’ll go home in makeup. I’m scared of irritating my skin with a makeup wipe, so I would just keep it on and go home. I don’t want to take it half off. I don’t use makeup wipes anymore — I was told that wipes are not good for your skin. I love to take off my makeup with a cleansing balm. Estée Lauder has a great cleansing balm which just melts the makeup away. Then, I’ll go in with another cleanser, and I’ll really get deep in there and cleanse and cleanse and cleanse. Then, I’ll go with a toner to just get off any kind of extra makeup, because you’ll really be surprised how much is left on your face even after washing twice. I’ll go back in at least three times if I’ve had heavy makeup.
And after you get the makeup off?
It depends. If my skin needs hydration, I would use a serum. At nighttime especially, then I’ll put on a moisturizer and a lip balm. One of my favorite lip products ever is the Estée Lauder Nighttime Rescue Lip Oil-Serum. That’s my skin care routine, honestly. It’s kind of the same thing with my daytime skin care routine. But my moisturizer changes.
My favorite day cream right now is the Estée Lauder DayWear Sorbet Creme. It has SPF 15. It’s amazing. The texture’s great. It makes my skin feel hydrated and moist, but not greasy. I hate anything that makes me feel greasy. I like products that are lightweight, but still do what they need to do. I have dry skin naturally so I’m very big on hydration.
When it comes to traveling, the PowerFoil Mask is amazing. I will put it on and cover myself with a blanket because I do not want to scare anybody. The plane is so dry and that can be really drying to your skin. It’s great for the extra hydration that you need.
Do you have a favorite beauty tip you’ve picked up from a makeup artist on set?
I feel like everyone is teaching me something different every day. Recently a makeup artist applied my moisturizer with a sponge, and I liked the way it felt, so now I want to start applying my moisturizer with a sponge instead of my hand or a brush. It’s just little things like that. I love watching and studying and just really seeing how people do what they do. I have so many questions. I’m like, “What is this? Why do you do this, this way?” It’s like being at school.
You’re a total chameleon at work. What makes you feel like yourself?
I love getting my makeup done. I love having different looks all the time and being able to transform into a different character. But my signature look is the no-makeup makeup look. There’s a good brow, a little noticeable lash, and either a lip or an eye, and that’s really it.
Is there a look from a show or a shoot that you particularly loved?
I remember I had this makeup done by Pat McGrath, it was for a Valentino show. I had this gold eye makeup and my eyebrows were gold gems, and it was amazing. I’ll always remember that look. I’ve had so many incredible makeup looks, but that one pops into my mind immediately.
After that, did you have to go home and wash your face 20 times?
I did, I did. I also lost a few eyebrow hairs from the gems and the glue, but it was a fun and creative look.
Now that you’re a global brand ambassador for Estée Lauder, has that influenced how you think about beauty?
I mean, it’s crazy. I’m a global brand ambassador for a makeup brand. I remember, I would walk through Duty-Free at the airport and I would see these makeup and fragrance ads and I would think to myself, “Could that be me one day?” but it’s not something that I saw happening for me. I didn’t see myself represented in the beauty space. Throughout time that has obviously changed, and it is me today. Now somebody can see themselves through me and through my work and my images. That’s all I want, that my little sisters can now see me on TV or when they open up a magazine. They’ll be able to see their big sister and then feel beautiful. It’s a feeling I can’t really describe.
Who did you look up to in the modeling or beauty space?
I looked up to people like Naomi [Campbell] and Iman and the other supermodels that were here before me. They had a major impact on me wanting to model and feeling like I was somewhat represented or seen. They’re the ones that have been fighting for models like myself to be in the position that we’re in now. I’m extremely grateful and thankful to them that they were a voice for us.
How excited are you about Naomi’s baby?
I’m a big sister, again! I can’t wait to go back to LA, I’m so excited. I’m so, so, so happy for her. Every time I think about it, it warms my heart. I’m excited to go to LA and meet my new baby sister and have another baby to raise.
You’re a runway model and a global ambassador and you’re also working with the UNHCR. Do you ever feel like you’re balancing different identities?
When I was younger, I used to have this mindset that you couldn’t do more than one thing because it almost felt like cheating to me, if I was to do something else other than modeling. I felt like I had to only do modeling until I was sick of it. But obviously that’s the beauty about growing up, and learning and just evolving.
It’s just that I’m passionate about so many different things and I want to help the world. That’s why I work with the U.N. I also love fashion and I love beauty. That’s why I’m in this space. There’s so many different things that I want to do that I’m currently working on. I’m a very passionate person and when I’m passionate about something, I really go for it.
What I love the most about working with UNHCR, working supporting refugees, is that I feel like I’m being a voice and a representation for my people. I’m a refugee. I grew up in a refugee camp and that’s my home, that’s my family. I’m just grateful that I’m in the position I am to be able to be a voice and carry out the message of refugees or making their issues heard. A goal of mine is opening up a hospital and a school in my country, South Sudan. That’s one of my personal goals that I want to achieve.
Do you have a life philosophy or a beauty philosophy that you live by?
I don’t know if this is really a philosophy, but it’s that beauty is not just what’s on the outside, it’s what’s also on the inside. Then, it’s important to always remember that we should wear makeup because it’s something that makes us feel creative, and because it excites us, not because people make us feel like we need it to be beautiful. Those are the kind of philosophies that I live by in the beauty side of things.
For everyday life, I just live my life by being grateful — grateful for life, grateful for experiences, grateful for opportunities. My journey reminds me every time of how far I’ve come and how much more I can achieve, and how much more I can do.