Name: Nyakim Gatwech
Agency: Basic White Shirt
Claim to Fame: Gatwech went viral when she checked an Uber driver for asking whether or not she had ever considered bleaching her immaculate skin.
When Nyakim Gatwech immigrated to the United States as a teenager one of the last places she saw herself ending up was the cover of a magazine. “My mom was like oh you have to go to school and have a legit career like a teacher or a doctor or a lawyer or whatever,” the model told Hello Beautiful in an exclusive interview.
She had an interest in the field but after fleeing her home country of South Sudan, and surviving refugee camps and the sting of colorism a path towards the runway was unclear for her. “I mean in my heart of my hearts I did want to be a model,” Gatwech reported. She grappled with satisfying that passion seeking modeling gigs and learning more about the industry as she began to study early childhood education to satisfy her family’s concerns until the ignorance of an Uber driver hurled her into the center of a changing beauty industry.
Since a video of her dragging the driver for asking what if she would bleach her skin for $10,000 Gatwech has become an unofficial spokesperson for women who grew up before the commercialization of the My Black Is Beautiful movement. Nearly half a million people have flocked to her Instagram page.She recalled early experiences trying to explain the struggles brought on by her skin tone. “I felt like something was wrong with me because I didn’t date all of high school because no guy would ask me out,” said Gatwech. The sexism that accompanies colorism made it difficult for her to describe what was happening to her family.
“My brother was a dark skinned man who didn’t experience what I experienced, who didn’t get bullied because he was dark skin. Men it’s never a problem for them. Girls find them attractive.” Her peers treatment made Gatwech temporarily resent her gender. “I was like ‘I just want to be a boy, so I don’t have to experience this. But when I got over that I just loved everything about being a woman. You have a lot of power.” Gatwech uses that power to decide who she wants to work with. Featured in major campaigns for brands like L’oreal, Calvin Klein, she had more autonomy than many nameless women and she uses it to express the importance of real inclusion earning her the nickname “Queen of The Dark.”
“My thing is that okay now you can go and create a new foundation because dark skin models are popping. Dark skin people are here. We’re talking about it, it’s a conversation. I love it and I hope that it continues but I don’t want it to work with a brand that’s doing it because it’s a trend I want to work with a brand that knows the meaning of the struggle. I want to work with a brand that stands for something. I just want to work with brands that have a message.”
Her interest in the value of real representation goes beyond color matching and ad campaigns. She wants to help young girls in her home country find carthaisis with what have traditionally been the less celebrated aspects of womanhood, namely their menstrual cycles. “My parent, my mom, did not have the video to give me to make sure that I felt good about that. So I felt disgusted. I was in pain and I felt there was something wrong with me.”
Gatwech’s desire stems from her own difficult experiences during puberty. “I was thirteen when I got my period and I became a woman. That was back home, right in Kenya in this refugee camp where we were living and I woke up the next morning, my stomach was hurting. I told my mom like ‘What’s happening? Mind you like in an African household we don’t talk about-like here in America you sit your kid down like ‘Hey you’re a woman’ You explain to your kid what’s happening to your body- my mom didn’t know how to explain that. It wasn’t our culture. It wasn’t in our home, to sit down and talk about sex or about periods or what type of change your body’s going through. It was considered taboo. So I didn’t have that conversation with my mom and when I was going through that I felt so disgusted. My mom is like ‘You’re fine, you’re fine’ and I’m like ‘Mom I’m not fine. I’m bleeding!”
She looked to her sister who immigrated to the United States in 1999 for guidance. She credits her with the enthusiasm she has for being a woman today. “My sister had a big part of how I was okay with that. She called at the right moment at the right time where we had that conversation and she was explaining to me what was going on with my body.” She says thanks to her sister, “I love everything about my body.”
As an adult she has found sisterhood on sets and in castings. “I love the fact that when I go on set and I meet different models, the conversations will start. When I start talking about what I went through and the other model will start talking about hers like ‘I’m a light skin model but this is what I went through’ and I’m like ‘You went through that? I thought that was just my struggle!”
“It’s just those conversations and just clicking with another woman and knowing their struggle and what they went through because and I feel like we all, all of us, struggle that we went through we all have similarities. When you have a conversation with another woman they just get it you know they get it,” she continued.
Gatwech hopes to not only create access to information but also physical resources. “I want to be able to have like Midols, Advils, you know tampons, pads and send them back home and show these girls that its normal to be able to go through that time of the month. This is showing your womanhood, that you’ve become an adult.”
She sees modeling as her opportunity to make a difference in the lives of young women who might not be equipped with the tools to love themselves. “You gotta be skinny and tall that’s what the word model meant to me before I started modeling,” said Gatwech.
“When you model you are literally somebody that people look up to. Before it was just ‘model’ but now its ‘role model’ where my little niece looks up to me , what I do affects her. What I say can make her feel some type of way about herself. Now the world model to me is totally different it’s role model. I’m a role model for so many little girls. What and where I come from my family the struggle that I faced refugee camp to refugee camp to refugee camp the struggle of not having anything at all. I have to stay true to who I am. I have to show little girls that they can do it. You can come from a hard place, you can come from a refugee camp, you can come from a house where its only one parent. Now I’m not just a regular model, I’m not just a campaign model, I’m not just a commission model, I’m a model that has a message.”