Akech’s road to fashion stardom was a long one, beginning in Narus, South Sudan, and threading through a refugee camp in Kenya to the city of Adelaide, Australia, where she was raised with her five siblings. But now she—along with models like Ugbad Abdi and Kaia Gerber, with whom she shares Vogue’s April cover—represents the joyfully multicultural makeup of the modern catwalk. Below, five things you didn’t know about the supermodel.
1. She was a Christmas baby.
Akech was born on December 25, 1999, in South Sudan. She grew up with one older sister, Kim, and a bevy of younger siblings: Alakiir, Yar, Bior, and her youngest sister, Akoul, who is still a toddler.
2. She spent her early childhood in Kenya.
Before they made it to Australia, Akech’s family was settled at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in northwestern Kenya. “That’s where I spent the first seven or eight years of my life,” the model wrote in Australian Vogue in December. “We didn’t know what a magazine was, and we didn’t know much about fashion.… I only discovered the love that I have for fashion when I moved to Australia.” Still, she looks back on her time in Kenya fondly. “Before I’m anything else, I am a refugee, and I’m so proud of that,” she told Vogue’s Chioma Nnadi.
3. In Australia she went by a different name.
“I started going by the name Mary when I began high school, because teachers couldn’t pronounce my name,” Akech said in 2017. (Mary is her mother’s name.) But she was eager to revert to Adut when she entered the fashion industry. “I’m not Mary anymore,” she said. “Adut is unique.”
4. She got her start on the runway (very) early.
“I knew I wanted to be a model the first time I walked down a runway at 13,” Akech recalled in a 2019 interview. Years before she booked a two-season exclusive contract with Saint Laurent, Akech strutted her stuff in Adelaide, where her beloved aunt, a former model, had a clothing label.
5. She likens Naomi Campbell to her “second mother.”
After first meeting in the spring of 2017, Akech and Campbell crossed paths again that September, catching up during Paris Fashion Week. When Akech subsequently moved to New York, their bond only deepened. “I’d go to her apartment, and we’d have lunch or dinner,” Akech told Grazia. “She would give me so much advice. Since then, our relationship has just grown and grown. She was the first family I had in New York.”