How one photo changed a Plymouth State University student’s life overnight
One of Anok's new headshots. Photo by Steve Hall
Anok Yai always dreamed of hitting the big time as a model — but that goal always remained just that, an aspiration. Everything changed for the 20-year-old Plymouth State University student when photographer Steven Hall snapped a portrait of her at Howard University’s homecoming weekend in October. Hall posted it on his Instagram account, @thesunk, and within hours, it was racking up thousands of “likes” and hundreds of adoring comments.
“I def thought this was some famous model,” one follower wrote. “An agency needs to sign her ASAP,” chimed in another.
Within a day, Alim Yai — who lives in Manchester and has been acting as her sister’s informal spokeswoman — says modeling agencies were, in fact, taking notice.
By November, Anok landed a contract with NEXT Management, an international modeling and talent agency that counts among its clients pop stars including Ellie Goulding, M.I.A. and Dua Lipa. A mere 65 days after signing her, NEXT revealed Anok’s first advertising campaign and it’s a major one. She’s modeling for Prada’s spring/summer 2018 line photographed by Willy Vanderperre (check it out at prada.com).
She’s just hit the ground running,” her sister says.
Within weeks of going viral on Instagram, Anok also landed another affirmation most would-be models dream of: her own profile in Vogue. In an interview with the fashion magazine, she emphasized how important it was for her to use her newfound spotlight for good.
“I definitely want to be a role model for young dark-skinned girls and girls in general — I want to bring to light ideas of self-love and self-confidence,” she told Vogue at the time. “I am so excited about where this will take me and I’m happy because I can do what I am passionate about.”
The biochemistry major said she hopes to encourage other young girls to explore STEM careers. (Since signing her modeling contract, Anok is taking a break from Plymouth State but hopes to finish a degree online, according to her sister.)
Despite the cheers from online followers, Alim says her sister’s initial brush with internet fame was met with some skepticism from their family. They moved to the United States in 2000 from Egypt, which they fled to escape genocide in Sudan, according to Vogue. Alim says her parents always emphasized the importance of taking education and a career seriously. So Anok shied away from pursuing her interest in modeling and the arts in favor of what seemed like a more practical collegiate path.
“I had to talk them into it, saying that this is a great thing, that she’ll finish school on her own time, but this is definitely the opportunity of a lifetime for her,” Alim says. “They’ve been really supportive, and we’ve just been there for her ever since then.”
Anok hopes to make everyone — her family and her followers — proud.
“She’s just trying to be the best model and the best citizen that she can,” Alim says of her sister. “She doesn’t just want to be a pretty face. She wants to be someone who can contribute to other individuals and to the community.