As the star of Valentino’s new "Born in Roma" fragrance campaign, model Adut Akech dances through an opulent mansion in a floor-length pink gown. I’m immediately drawn to the carefree way she moves to the beat (even though she's nearly eclipsed by a billowy couture dress), and how she bites her lip as she grooves to the music. And when we meet in person at the Edition Hotel in New York City, Akech has that same fun-loving vibe that comes across on camera.
“In this video, I got to be myself and that’s what I loved about it. I’m not the best dancer – I’m just going to say that up front — but I love music, and I danced my butt off,” Akech says about her experience filming the video alongside Anwar Hadid in Rome. Although she’s walked many runways, including Chanel, Givenchy, and Fendi, representing the new Valentino Donna fragrance is her first beauty gig, and she says the experience was “epic.”
Even though Akech is a designer favorite, her early years as a Sudanese refugee in Australia were marked by people mocking her appearance, from her skin to the gap in her teeth. But today, those are the things that set her apart at casting calls. “Honestly, I’m so glad that I didn’t let what anyone said get to me, because everything that I got bullied for, I love so much today,” she tells Refinery29.
Ahead, the 19-year-old superstar breaks down the daily regimen she uses to keep her sensitive skin in check, the childhood scent she cherishes to this day, and the one makeup trend she will never revisit.
Fragrance is often associated with memories. What is one of your earliest fragrance memories?
“There is a traditional, homemade, [Sudanese] incense made from little pieces of wood and sugar. It’s cooked with some perfume and spices. You use it after you finish cooking or when you just want a nice smell in your house. You just burn some charcoal and put it on top, and it is the most incredible smell. I grew up with it. So every time I go home, it’s a scent that reminds me of my family.”
You're constantly in glam for work. On your off days, do you wear makeup?
“Rarely. The most I will do is fill in my eyebrows, throw on some lipstick, and put mascara on my lashes. When you do something every single day of your life, you get sick of it. But when I was younger, I loved doing makeup. I never left the house without my eyebrows filled in. Looking at pictures now, I’m like, ‘Oh my god, what was I thinking?’ They look like caterpillars. I was using the blackest pencil and nobody told me not to."
You once did a video with Vogue outlining your 5-minute skin-care routine. Is your regimen still that simple? What are your favorite products right now?
“I’m currently using Dr. Barbara Sturm’s dark skin-tone regimen. I have super sensitive skin, and the minute anything goes on it, I rash out. Having makeup on your face 24/7 doesn’t help. I’ve learned what products don’t go well with my skin, and I’ve learned to speak up. Some people don’t like it, but at the end of the day, it’s my skin that’s going to go through the irritation, and I’m the one who has to deal with having the insecurity of having bad skin. During Fashion Week, I pack my own moisturizer, cleanser, and foundation just in case.”
You often feature your younger sisters on Instagram, and your entire family starred in a photo shoot for Vogue Australia this past December. What type of advice do you give your younger siblings?
“One of the biggest things I preach to all of them is working hard and always going for something you want. You shouldn’t let anyone stop you or get in your way. I always try to support them, because I didn’t have a lot of support from my family, other than my own mother, when I was 13 and wanting to model. I had immediate family members who doubted me. I don’t want my siblings to experience the same thing.”
You and your family moved to Australia as refugees when you were a young girl, what struggles did you face and how did it impact who you've grown into today?
“I experienced racism, and I got bullied about my skin and my gap tooth and my height. I want to help people understand what it is to be a refugee. We are just like everybody else; the only difference is that we were forced out of our own countries, out of our own homes because of fear, not by choice. You don’t wake up and say, ‘Today I’m going to be a refugee and move to a refugee camp.’ I would love to see schools educate children, so they know not to bully children just because they are refugees.”
You've been very open about your mental health on Instagram, posting that you've dealt with anxiety and depression. How do you stay positive when you work in an industry that is very high stress and focused on your appearance?
“I always keep in the back of my mind why I’m doing this, so that helps me forget about my bad skin or the insecurity of having a pimple right in the middle of my head. I’m doing this because I have love and passion for it. I have two different lives: my work and my normal life. For me, sometimes my normal life is a little bit hectic, and it’s nice to enter my work life and forget about everything that is happening outside. It’s kind of like my escape. I do it for myself and for my family’s future.”