Mari Malek went from terrifying violence in Sudan, to the hostile life of a refugee in Egypt, to freedom in America. But moving to New Jersey was far from the end of her problems — racism was just as bad there as it had been in Egypt. She was teased and harassed for being black and for being dark.
By the time she turned 16, though, modeling agencies had decided she had what it takes to become a fashion model. That’s when she went from thinking about bleaching her skin (!) to thinking of her body as a temple.
But even the agencies tried to pigeonhole her, thinking she could fit into the successful look they created with Alek Wek, another Sudanese model. Instead, she started her own agency. After a life like Mari’s, it’s no surprise that she wasn’t content merely strutting around in clothes or squeezing into somebody else’s ideas about her.
“We are conditioned to be fearful.” But to that, she says, “Fuck fear.”
Below is the Interview’s Transcript:
Interviewer: So can you talk a little bit about what your style says about you?
Mari Malek: I’m from South Sudan so in the village where I was born people literally walked around naked and decorated in beautiful, tribal jewelry or makeup. Seeing my culture being naked or self-expressive definitely helped me be more confident with my body at least when I was back home. But when I came to America, no, I didn’t feel that confident.
South Sudan had been going through a war, a civil war, for over two decades. I was born during the second civil war so there was a lot of discrimination happening against darker-skinned people and Christian people having us, the darker-skinned people being enslaved, genocide, killed, violence. Personally, our home got attacked but I was really young. I was like 5-6 years old. I didn’t really understand what’s going on. All I knew was one time my mom said, “We are going to leave and I’m taking you girls.” And we ended up being in a ship and traveled. And we ended up in Egypt. I have over 20 sisters and brothers. We were all living together in my home in South Sudan. So now it was me, my mother and my two sisters all alone in Egypt and basically disappeared, left everything behind. We stayed in Egypt 3-4 years and all 3-4 years my mom was working so I had to become the second mom to my younger sisters. So I was taking them to school at the age of 8 or 9 by myself.
As we are doing that, the Egyptians teased us and discriminated against us because we are black and we are dark people. Grown adult Egyptians, guys or women, will make us get up from our seats so that they can sit down. Sometimes when we were getting off at a certain stop, everyone would throw things at us from the windows and spit on us. So every single day we were battling. We basically ended up losing our childhood. I didn’t have a childhood. I had to grow up whether I liked it or not. Now that I’m older and I’m also a mom, I totally understand why my mom did what she did and how strong of a woman she was. She had to basically put on a strong face.
Finally we got our sponsorship. We came and I’m 14 years old in America. No English. I don’t speak any words of English at all. No friends and no people that we can connect or relate to. We were in a dangerous place. We were living in the projects. There were crazy things happening in our building all the time. Drugs, prostitution, whatever. It opened our eyes that, “You know what, the problem is not only in our country. There are problems all over the world.”
My mom did her research, found some relatives in San Diego within three months because she knew, “this was not the environment I want to raise my children in.” And we were all going to the same school together and that’s when all hell broke loose about more discrimination. But now the discrimination is coming from people who were like us — black people.
Interviewer: Were you in a mostly-black school?
Mari Malek: Yeah mostly black, Hispanic and a little bit of whites. At this point, I was completely insecure about my look, myself, my skin, my skinniness because people always commented, “Oh my God! You’re so skinny!” You think you’re not hurting me by saying that? Sometimes I felt like I wished I was somebody else. I wished I was born into a different family. We have been made to feel so bad about the darkness of our skin to the point where some of us secretly think about bleaching their skin and becoming lighter. And then seeing other Sudanese people that are bleaching themselves is like, “Okay maybe I should do that too.” What really changed that thought completely was when I got into the modeling industry because now my ugly, dark skin that I have been made fun of is so fabulous in the industry. People love it. So that helped me look at myself differently.
Ever since I came to America, every single day of my life I would hear from some random person, “Hey, have you tried modeling? You should!” I had no idea what modeling was. And then we did some research, my cousin and I. We went to a scouting convention that was happening in California with models and agencies that came. I was 16 years old at that time and I ended up getting picked by 16 different agencies from all over the world.
So when I turned 18 I dibbled and dabbled into it a little bit, going to L.A. I was also working in the airport so people would approach me in the airport, “Come! You should model. You should model. You need to go to New York.” Finally I made it to New York. I took that risk and it was like, “Oh my God. I love New York!” I ended up with major models and within that time frame of modeling I realized so much superficial people around and materialism and people caught up in a world that really doesn’t matter. It made me dig deeper into, “Why am I even coming to model? Now okay, if I’m going to be a model I have to be a model with a purpose. I’m not just going to model and be a cute girl in a magazine and just have absolutely no voice. I don’t connect with that.”
And so I just decided to go on my own. I became my own agency because it was so, “Oh you’re Sudanese! You’re a black Sudanese girl! Whatever. Okay we’re going to have you look like Alek Wek.” That’s basically… every Sudanese girl have to look like Alek Wek. Every black girl has to look like Chanel Iman. You know, we’re not all one person. We’re different people. We’re different shades and we should be accepted in all the different ways we are. I needed to stand up and I stood up. Whether I have an agency or not, Mari Malek will be seen and she will paint herself, her art, her identity. You don’t have to look like a certain person. You don’t have to act like a certain person. Just truly be you. Genuinely be you and magic will happen.
Right now so many of us have been sleeping for such a long time for so many centuries. It’s time for us to say, “You know what? Fuck everybody who thinks I should suppress my identity, myself! Fuck everybody who thinks I need to dumb down my art. No! I’m going to go off.” So what I do now is use the modeling and the D.J. world, because I’m a D.J., to create awareness for my country, South Sudan. 80% of our country is unable to read and write. 64% is women. 51% is children. And our country is in a place where it’s time for us to rebuild.
Interviewer: It’s getting to the nitty gritty.
Mari Malek: It’s getting bare! And you know what they say sometimes, “What goes up must come down?” I also feel like what’s down must go up. We are in a world where we have been taught and conditioned to be fearful. Fear that if I don’t go to work exactly as the system is telling me, I will never live. I will never survive. I will be looked down at. I won’t have enough money. I won’t have friends. My family won’t love me. That’s what we’re all focused on. And then when we focus on that we forget that hey maybe you should say, “Fuck fear.” And it’s time for us to stop thinking that you and I are totally different person. You are not my problem. Actually yes, you are my problem. It’s time for the world to look at one another as a human race and not like a black race or a white race or Jews or whatever. You are all human. You bleed the same. You are born the same. You die the same.
Interviewer: Why is in your body a good place to be?
Mari Malek: In my body, it is a good place to be because my body is a temple. I give it that respect and that is how I met my husband. Because I was treating my body like a temple. I was celibate for a year. I was mentally accepting that my soul mate and twin flame does exist because I truly believed that and I had several fucked up relationships. “Don’t waste my energy.” That’s what I was telling myself. “Don’t Mari! Don’t waste your energy talking to some stupid guy and maybe even sleeping with them just because. Know your worth.” And when I started to know my worth I was able to manifest what was worthy of me.
Interviewer: Beautiful. That was amazing. Thank you so much.
Mari Malek: Thank you!