Born under a tree in a refugee camp in Kenya, Aweng eventually moved with her parents and 11 siblings to Australia, where she was scouted at 16 while working at a McDonalds. Now, at the 19, and more vibrant with a capital V than ever, Aweng shows no signs of slowing down.
An office favorite from the jump, Aweng popped by the Newsstand to chat about beauty, what it’s like growing up in such a large family and how to save the world.
Tell me a little about yourself. How did you end up in fashion, and all that good stuff?
I’m from Australia, and I was scouted at 16 while working at McDonalds, then again at 18, because I couldn’t get in the industry at that age because of school. So, now here we are! It was nothing fancy—I got scouted that day, and a week later, I was in London walking in my first season in September.
That’s the best way to do it.
Yeah, I just hopped on a plane, got to London, and had a great first season there. Well, this is still my first season, technically—my first full-circuit season.
What’s the first thing you do when you get home after a long trip?
I sleep. Lately, I’ve had insomnia—and I found that out the hard way. I don’t sleep because I’m studying politics, and I’m also studying psychology, and it clashes with my sleep pattern. New York is 14 hours behind Australia, and since my school is online, it’s 4AM in Australia time when I need to start school. So, when I get home—which is not something that has been happening lately—I’m lucky to nap for an hour. When I do go home, though, I usually sleep, or hop in the shower. I do a face mask here and there, too, but it depends on the week. Recently, it’s been non-existent, but usually, if I had it my way, I would go home and knock out.
What’s your morning beauty regimen?
Depending on what city I wake up in, I have different morning regimens. I believe that each city holds a routine of its own, and when I enter it, I want to be lost for a few minutes. So, I usually never do anything—I just breath for a few minutes, almost remind myself on the energy of the very city that I got to wake up in. This morning, I got up in Los Angeles. I was on a 12-hour flight just 12 hours ago, so I got up feeling very euphoric. I did my regular facial routine—just using some Dr. Bronner’s products and their magic soaps—and then had a warm shower. Since it’s still morning, I’m currently catching up on some reading for school, while drinking ginger tea. But every morning is different, and that’s the exciting thing—nothing really stays in routine.
How do you think we save the world?
We wrap it up, throw it away and start over again. Honestly speaking, we’ve kind of messed up our society in the sense that we haven’t just messed up politically—we’ve messed up environmentally, and socially, we’re messed up technologically—we’re just messed up as a whole. If someone were to ask me at a pageant, ‘How do we change the world?’ we just save the children, I think. The world is done—our era, our generation doesn’t have a chance. We can’t just enjoy our time—our time is done. It was wasted. So, I feel like we just need to save the children and make sure they’re safe in their environment. We need to find life on Mars—that’s how I see it! But there’s literally no way that you can actually save the world at this point. So, we just need to make sure the children are safe, mentally, physically and financially, throw them on Mars, and start again.
Do you have any siblings?
Yes, I’m one of twelve!
It’s great! My mom is 35, so she’s a young mom. She had me at fifteen, and had a child every year, or every odd year after that. Then, the twins were born last year. So, for the past five years, we were 10 kids and it was great, but now it’s like, ‘Lets just add these two to the mix!’ But s a kid, I used to get so annoyed because my mom was so young—she was giving birth all of her twenties, so now she’s like ‘I wanna live my life!’ So, I’ve always been like a second mom to my siblings, and it’s such a great thing because one would think that you wouldn’t remember all of the kids names, but you actually do, because you figure out each of the unique characteristics they carry. You sit down with one of them and you’re like, ‘Oh my god, I knew that was your favorite color!’ and it’s so sweet. You’re in a small space where you feel isolated because mom doesn’t know a lot about you, but you always have a best friend—you always know someone has your back.
Who’s your favorite?
Who’s my favorite one? Ha! My brother, the one after me, because we’re best friends. Literally, there are things that he has done for me I don’t think anyone else would do for me, and we cover for each other—he’s my ride or die. He’s so mature for his age—he literally just turned 18 yesterday and I turned 19 last year, and he’s just smarter than me in how he carries himself. I am very intelligent in the sense that I do get good grades, I have the social understanding and maturity, but I feel like he has a more in-depth version of those qualities. He’s my favorite because he’s the one right after me, and if he wasn’t after me, I don’t know what I would do, because everyone else after him is very much to themselves, but he’s very much like, ‘It’s you and me.’
That’s like my brother. I have an older brother and a younger sister, but my brother and I are the closest in age, and he’s my twin.
That’s exactly it. When we were kids, we used to do the most absurd things—we fought people together, we got expelled from school together, we’ve made a lot of great memories.
What’s one lesson you’ve learned the hard way during your time in the fashion industry?
I’ve only been in the industry for under a year, and I feel like one thing I learned is to not lose yourself. I think that models enter this industry with the thought of, ‘Oh, I want to be an icon, I want to be Naomi, I want to be Tyra, I want to be Alek.’ But I entered it just to enter it—I didn’t know what Burberry was, I didn’t know who fashion designers were, or what Vogue was. I was such an isolated kid—my mother, father, step-father and grandparents kind of kept me in a spiritual world, very understanding of the spiritual side of things. They didn’t care about the larger reality. So, when I entered a reality where everyone cares about connections, where everyone cares about materiality—I wasn’t used to it. After 18 years of just being very spiritual, I suddenly entered a world where everyone is so trapped by time. Time is not a concept in our household. But in this world, I have to be somewhere at 10AM, then a fitting at 5AM. Like, what? So, I learned that you have to tap into reality, and you have to understand that everyone around you is working on a schedule, too. You can’t just be like, ‘It’s all about me.’
When I first started, I was like, ‘I don’t want to do that,’ but there are certain rules that you have to follow. You have to do this, this, and that to get there. As a kid growing up, I knew who I was at such a young age that I never had to take steps to be, for example, a lawyer. All I had to do was write a resume and do this debate, and win the debate. But then I realized in this world, to be a lawyer, you have to do four years of school, you have to know someone who knows someone, you have to start as the person who brings coffee to them. That whole concept was surprising to me. And in fashion, you’re not just going to wake up one day and be a superstar—you’re going to wake up, cry about waking up, then go to the shoot at call time, and complain that you were late because something happened when you know damn well you were late because you overslept. It’s all taught me how to appreciate time and people. We’re all here, we’re all stuck, no one’s flying away. So, just do what you have to do.
What can’t you leave the house without?
My passport. I had a diary that I used to carry around everywhere, but then, one day, I left it at a casting and one of the models read it. I wasn’t writing anything crazy, it was all goals and business plans and things like that. So, I stopped carrying it around because I felt like it was a huge invasion of privacy. But my passport is so crucial because I can get called right now to the airport, so it’s something I always need to have. I’ve made the mistake thinking that I didn’t need it, and I got a call asking, ‘Where’s your passport?’ and I didn’t have it. It was a lost opportunity, so now I know better.
What song describes your life right now?
“At Last,” by Etta James. I’m at a time in both my career and education where I’m like, ‘Finally, at last!' Between me and my career, me and my family, me and my business—I feel like it’s all bubbling right now. She’s comin’ she’s comin’ she’s comin, and then BOOM, at last! My GPA went from a 4.0 to a 3.7 because I was in London, and then I found out a little afterwards that it went back up to a 4.0, so that was also an 'at last' moment. I was crying for days! Also, my orphanage has been given the permission to move from Uganda to South Sudan without me having to go through any legal battles. I felt like previously, everyone was holding things from me just to hold it. But now, in every sphere of my life, everything is coming to fruition. So Etta James, “At Last.”
What I say is, ‘When it rains, it pours baby!’
Yes! Also with the bad stuff. There is some bad stuff, but I feel like I’ve always been so concentrated on the bad stuff, in the sense that when one small thing happens, the day is cancelled. I’m so superstitious—like Friday the 13th, I’m not leaving the house. I refuse. I see a black cat, it’s a wrap. There are bad things, but I feel like the bad things I’m dealing with right now, in 20-something, I’m going to wish I had those problems. So, in hindsight, I’m good.
Exactly, and because without the bad things, you wouldn’t be able to recognize the good things when they come your way.
You gotta know what’s good to know what’s bad, and what’s bad to know what’s good.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given? The worst?
My dad, he was a philosopher, and he was in the war his whole life, and he’s always told me that everything in life comes back full circle. It’s different from karma, where everything goes back around in different directions, it’s that everything goes in one circle. Your lifetime is your own circle, and in the next lifetime, you step in someone else’s shoes. So, remember that someone else has to wear your shoes—don’t fuck up. He always used to ask me, ‘If you die today, and your spirit is going into someone else's shoes, would you approve of that person to step into your shoes, living how you lived? How would you feel about that?’ I used to say back, ‘I think I’ve lived a pretty good life, I’m a great child of God!’ Then, I hit puberty, and I became a monster. Literally, I was the worst kid. So, yes, everything comes back in full circle, and he gave me this advice to teach me that I have to be humble, and to remember that one day, even a million years from now, your spirit will go into someone else's shoes, and another spirit will come back into yours. So, just make sure that whoever does enter your shoes is not going to suffer as much as they should because of your doing.
Worst advice I’ve ever received in my life is to give up. I’m horrible at math—I’m a science person. Even though I hate science, if you gave me the periodic table, I could memorize the whole thing. But I’m bad at math, and in primary school, one of my math teachers told me to just give up because I would never learn it. I was like, ‘You said what? You said who? You said where?!’ I ended up in the math league in our school competition because I wanted to prove him wrong. That’s the worst advice anyone can give you: to give up.
What about beauty advice?
It sounds easier in writing than it’ll ever be in practice, but my strongest beauty advice is: try to love your whole self. And when I say whole, I mean every flaw, every mistake, every tear—take it all in and allow it to just seethe away on its own. At least, then, beauty as an entire concept becomes less blurry. Another piece of advice: use coconut oil for everything—skin, hair, nails, food. You’ll thank me later.
What are the top three beauty products you can’t live without?
My Fenty Pro Filt’r shade 490.
Damn! That’s mad specific—that was like a commercial.
My girl, Ri, we gotta, you know? Also, my lip gloss—any type of lip gloss. The one I’m using right now, is a vegan friendly lip gloss that I got from a website called Thrive Market, which I love. And the beauty product I love is the 18-in-1 Dr. Bronner’s Castor Oil Soap. That’s what I use for my skin and my skin been glowin’. With everything else, I just kind of let it go.
So, you love lip gloss. What’s your go-to going out color?
Fenty Beauty ‘Stunna’ Lip Paint in Uncensored—perfect universal red.
Is there a beauty look you’ve never tried but want to?
Lately, I’ve been very into looking at makeup as an art form, and not just something to purify this diluted perspective that society has of what ‘outer beauty’ could, or needs to be. I’d love to explore the painting side of makeup. I’d love a makeup artist like Isamaya Ffrench—one of my favorites—to just be given small bottles of face paint, and for her to paint on my face whatever comes to mind.
What’s one convention that exists in the fashion world that you’re just like, ‘Fuck no, I’m going to do my own thing?’
Photoshop! Oh my god. I recently had a huge fight with someone about Photoshop. They were editing my photos for something major—probably the biggest job I’ve ever done. They were editing, and they just kept on Photoshopping my scars. I was so confused—legally, or technically, I wasn’t even supposed to be in the room, but they were editing all of my so-called flaws. I was like, ‘I’m not Beyoncé. If I was Beyoncé, I wouldn’t be flawed.’ I mean, she has her own flaws and insecurities I’m sure, but I’ve worked my whole life to try and be comfortable in my own skin. I got scouted because of my scars, and it pushed my confidence to a whole new level. Then to do big, major jobs, like Gentle Monster and Vetements, Burberry, Vogue, and for someone to come and show you that after all these months of big brands loving your scars, and not doing anything to your face, telling you you’re perfect, to say, ‘I want to Photoshop the one thing that everyone in the industry is basically working for you to be here for?’ It was such a pity, because it kind of opened my eyes to how Photoshop is used in the industry. You can Photoshop a shirt, or pants, but I don’t think you should touch the face—I just don’t think that should be done as a society. That’s one of the things I feel like needs to end.
So, I sat him down and was like, ‘For real, for real, you’re not gonna Photoshop anything on my body. That’s not happening.’ I had to just be honest with him, because I feel like models feel trapped in this industry. They feel like they can’t speak up, because if you do, you’re not going to get this job, or that job—there’s always so much technical thinking before doing something like that. But I don’t care, what are you gonna do? Sure, I won’t get this job or that job, but as my dad always says, ‘That what’s written for you, ain’t nobody gonna take it from you.’
And I already have backup plans. I mean, I love modeling, it’s a great industry to be in, it’s a great thing to learn a lot about. But there are some major things, like certain uses of Photoshop, that need to be changed. I’m so happy that I didn’t grow up with magazines, or TV. I grew up with literally a house, a backyard, some bikes, and we’re good—that was it. But for my siblings—I have six sisters, and five brothers—they read magazines, and are always on PS4s or their laptops, or iPhones, or iPads. So, if the first thing they see is their sister on the cover of Vogue, or on the cover of whatever, edited, it’s like, ‘Aweng, that’s not you!’ They know me, they were born in front of me, so the first face they saw was either me or our mom. So, we need to understand that as soon as that happens, we’re making children believe that when you enter a certain industry, or a certain aspect of life, it’s okay when people try to change what makes you you. I always tell my siblings that when someone tries to change anything, anything, on you, you have to stand up for yourself. Always.
But do you think the industry is expanding its definition of beauty? If so, why now?
I feel like there is no exact definition of beauty—one cannot put a sentence, or a clear definition of it. I believe that we as a society, or culture, are following a wave that almost started out of nowhere. And when the wave started, with beauty as a history—it didn’t start out well, at all. But now, I believe that with this wave, the definition of beauty has become more inclusive, and very realistic. It definitely has a long way to go in the sense that in popular media, the inclusiveness is sometimes used to stray away from backlash. But in the near future, I have hope that the definition will grow—and that growth is endless.
What do you think will be the next big makeup fad?
The thing with makeup—and fashion as an entire box—is that everything comes back around. I bet that the next fad will be just a reminisce of the pencil-thin eyebrows from the 1930s . I know for sure that if it does come back around, there will definitely be a tweak to it, perhaps an arrow at the end—who knows?
Earlier you mentioned your orphanage. Can you tell me a little bit about it?
Yes. I started it when I was 17. So, my orphanage has been up for two years on September 16. The most amazing thing that I have is Shine Light Orphanage, and it’s based in Kampala, Uganda. I’m currently moving it to South Sudan because I wanted to originally start it there, but it was a whole thing with the government. Initially, they wouldn’t let me because I’m not technically a Sudanese citizen, because I was born in Kenya in a refugee camp. So, I had to apply for that government identification, and dual-citizenship. The orphanage has 37 children right now, and we go from age two to 12. It’s something I created not to be involved in media and all of that—I didn’t want everyone to think, ‘Oh, she’s a model, and she sympathizes with orphans.’ I never wanted to invite that dialogue, or for my orphanage to be equated with those kinds of thoughts—I didn’t create it for that. I created it because I’ve been in the system, I have first-hand knowledge of the system, and for someone to come along and say, ‘I want to give you a home, and give you a father and a mother’—it’s a relief. I want these kids to have a childhood, to enjoy their childhood.
Right now, I’m in school, and for me, all of this is nothing new. People always say, ‘You’re so young,’ but people tend to underestimate me because of my age. I grew up in a different environment. The way my parents raised me was the way Kings and Queens were raised. It was very much like, ‘We love you, but we can’t hold you, we can’t coddle you. We have to keep our distance, and give you tough love.’ It wasn’t even really tough love—it was dangerously tough love, and it was like, ‘You’re either going to turn out the best of the best, or you’re going to hate us for the rest of your life.’ Ha, I turned out both! But it proved to me that you’ve have to work your butt off. So, I started working when I was 14, and I’ve had four jobs since then, and I’ve never had a holiday in my life. I’ve been working, working, working, and when I finally had the opportunity to move the orphanage to Sudan, I said, ‘Here’s my card, here’s my ID, let’s go!’ What I initially wanted to do was build a farm, because that’s what my grandfather did and he got wealthy from that. But then I thought to myself, there’s enough money in this world, I want to do something else.