The 19-year-old model is opening up about her new beauty gig, quick rise to the runway and diversity in the fashion industry

By Jillian Ruffo Brittany Talarico
July 19, 2018 09:15 AM
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Less than a year ago, Anok Yai was a college student with plans to major in biochemistry. Now she’s a rising supermodel making history in the fashion world. Yai, who was discovered on a college campus in October 2017, has only a handful of runway walks under her belt — but she’s so captivating that she just landed her first beauty gig as the new spokesmodel for beauty giant Estée Lauder, alongside stars like Kendall Jenner and Joan Smalls.

Before being discovered by the cosmetics brand, Yai landed a modeling contract after a photo of her went viral. She was at Howard University’s homecoming last October, dressed in a sheer black bodysuit and jean shorts, and was spotted by a street style photographer, who took the photo of her that landed her a contract with Next Models. Soon after, she was walking the runways of fashion houses like Louis Vuitton and Prada, where she became the second African American model and the first Sudanese model to ever open a Prada show. Now, as she teams up with Estée Lauder, she’s answering everything we’re dying to know about her new career — and how she got there.

Courtesy Estée Lauder

You’ve landed your first major beauty contract after less than a year in the industry! What does that mean to you?
I am still in shock that I’ve landed a beauty contract. It’s honestly a dream come true! When I look back at the past year I am so grateful for all of the experiences I’ve had and for all of the people who have taken a chance on me. 

Why did you want to team with Estée Lauder?
They are such an iconic brand. I’ve been following their story for years including their spokesmodels and have always thought to myself it would be such a privilege to be a part of that group. 

What’s your first memory of Estée Lauder products?
I remember seeing Estée Lauder ads in my mom’s magazines when I was young and thinking to myself how beautiful the models were. My mom also wore Estée Lauder eye shadows and I always wanted to copy her routine so I used to steal her makeup and put it on in my room.

What’s your everyday beauty look?
My beauty look is somewhat simple and classic. I’ve always really been in to makeup and trying different looks but I never leave the house without mascara and lip gloss. 

How do you feel the fashion industry has diversified over the past year?
I’ve seen more diversity on runways and in campaigns but there is always room for growth.  Social media has definitely led to more inclusivity. People have the freedom right at their finger tips to call out brands for only using one type of model. It’s making designers and brands rethink their every move because they are being watched and judged constantly. It’s a whole new ball game now. 

Social media helped launch your career. Did you think that photo of you at Howard homecoming would cause such an impact? 
I had no idea that photo would cause such an impact! Howard University Homecoming is a really fun event where people show up dressed to impress with street style. I didn’t even bring that many outfits down with me for the trip so I just threw a body suit and jean shorts on not thinking anything of it. 

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What do you feel when you look at that photo now?
I feel grateful. I was literally standing in the right place at the right time. I am so thankful that the photographer took my picture and posted it because it literally set off a whirlwind. The photo also brings me joy because I was having a great time with friends. 

You were the second black model (after Naomi Campbell!) and first Sudanese woman to ever open a Prada show. Describe that moment.
Opening Prada was such an amazing moment for me. To follow in the footsteps of Naomi Campbell is a dream come true not only because she is an icon but also because she’s broken so many boundaries throughout her career. I hope to one day do the same. I found out I was opening the show an hour before it started. I was so excited and nervous I couldn’t even focus enough to call anyone! After I opened and the show was over I called my sister and my agent. At that point everyone had already seen it on social media.

How did you come to hone your catwalk skills? You’re a natural!
My walk did not come naturally! My agent sent me to Milan 4 days before the Prada show to practice. I would be at my Milan agents office walking back and forth for hours a day until I had it down and was ready for the show. 

What are your hero beauty products?
Estée Lauder DayWear Matte Oil-Control Anti-Oxidant Moisture Gel Crème and Estée Lauder Double Wear Stay-in-Place Makeup

What’s the last clothing purchase you made online?
I actually prefer to shop in person which sounds so old school of me. The last purchase I made was the Off White x Air Jordan sneakers. I love sneakers.

What’s the oldest thing in your closet?
One of my brothers tops. I used to dress like such a tomboy and they would always catch me with some of their clothes. This one just happened to travel to New York with me. 

Whose style do you admire?
I get a lot of inspiration from rap artists. They’re always dressed in dope street wear looks and I like to add my own twist to it. 

Where do you look for inspiration?
I look for inspiration from Naomi Campbell and Grace Jones. Both are strong black women who have defied industry standards and have taken the world by storm. They don’t apologize for who they are and have fought hard for everything they have.