Edwina McCann vividly recalls the first time she saw Adut Akech, the South Sudanese refugee, supermodel and UNHCR high-profile supporter. It was September 2016, and Akech was walking the runway at Melbourne Fashion Week.

“I actually remember seeing her, and being struck by her presence,” says McCann, the editor-in-chief of Vogue Australia, which has featured Akech on the cover four times in the past four years. “I mean, she’s extraordinary looking, but she couples that with this ‘X-factor’ – some people have just got it. She was striking the moment I saw her, and incredibly memorable.”

McCann wasn’t the only one to spot this new model’s potential that day. Within weeks of her Melbourne debut, Akech had been signed exclusively to walk in Saint Laurent’s spring/summer 2017 show in Paris, followed in later seasons by catwalk appearances for all the major luxury fashion houses.

“I remember when Karl Lagerfeld brought her out at the end of the Chanel show [in 2018], thinking, ‘Wow, that’s a big acknowledgement’,” says McCann. Adut truly is a supermodel – she’s the biggest model in the world. And she has this great story.”

This is just one of the reasons McCann is so thrilled to share the stage with Akech at Australia for UNHCR’s first-ever event for International Women’s Day on March 8. Produced in partnership with Vogue Australia for the Leading Women Fund, the online celebration promises a fascinating conversation between these two powerhouse women.

“This event is quite special to me because I think Adut represents so much of what is great about Australia, at its best,” says McCann.

“It’s really important for people to hear the stories of refugees who’ve gone on to become such high-profile Australians. It puts a face to some of the suffering, that we have a responsibility to assist people in overcoming.”

For the first seven years of her life, Akech lived in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, after her mother had been forced to flee South Sudan. Although Akech was happy in the camp as a child, she knew there was something unusual about her situation.

“I knew something was off; that even though we were at home, we weren’t at home,” she told The Guardian last month.

“I remember just being a kid trying to make the most of life. We didn't have much. I didn't know I was in a refugee camp. It was just a community of South Sudanese people, one big family.”

South Sudanese-Australian Supermodel, Adut Akech. © Supplied

Eventually, Akech and her family were able to secure asylum in Adelaide, where they had relatives, and Adut enrolled in school. Feeling insecure, she acquiesced when classmates and teachers called her Mary, after her mother: “For some reason, it was so hard to say my name,” she told The Guardian, drily.

Since achieving success as a model, Akech has become an advocate for refugees, speaking out against racism — notably in 2019, when Who magazine ran an interview with her that was accompanied by photos of Flavia Lazarus, another black model. For McCann, Akech’s decision to highlight the magazine’s mistake publicly was an example of her bravery.

“I stood by her when she faced a press pack in Melbourne regarding the photos and I found it intimidating – and I work in media,” says McCann. “She was shaking, she was nervous about it… but it was something she felt so strongly about. She is somebody who is willing to stand up for her values and principles.”

Recently, McCann has been reflecting on the societal effect of COVID-19 on Australians, many of whom have suffered through difficult lockdowns. “I wonder if more Australians will reconsider what we put people through, quite often, in terms of uncertainty, and being locked up for extended periods of time,” she says. “I hope we remind ourselves that we are a very wealthy and lucky nation, and we have a responsibility to do our fair share.”

In the meantime, she’s looking forward to being in conversation with Akech at the Leading Women Fund International Women’s Day celebration, hosted by charity Australia for UNHCR. “I find her fascinating, and nobody can tell her story like she can,” says McCann.

“Being able to highlight Adut’s story and what she has made of her opportunities is really uplifting, and I think we all need a little bit of that.”

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