Black Beauty's New Face

ALEK WEK GIGGLES A LOT. SHE giggles at the mere mention of Method Man, her favorite rapper, and she giggles when she talks about sashaying down the runways of New York, Paris and Milan. And why shouldn't she? At 20, Wek is the hottest face in fashion, keeping heads turning with her flawless ebony skin, tightly cropped hair and never-ending legs. Cameos in Janet Jackson and Busta Rhymes music videos have even made her a strikingly different-looking presence on MTV. After Wek modeled Cynthia Rowley's spring line two weeks ago, the designer declared that ""her happy personality wears the clothes.''

""It's all been such a blast--particularly seeing myself on MTV,'' says Wek in her thick British accent. ""It's just been real fun--that's the best I can say.'' Born into the Dinka tribe in Sudan, Wek escaped the war-torn country with her family when she was 14. After relocating to London, the 5-foot-11 beauty was discovered at an outdoor market two years ago. Since then her African look has begun to redefine what and who is considered beautiful.

Or has it? Many applaud the fashion industry's departure from the white norm in promoting Wek. She also shatters the accepted look among black top models such as Tyra Banks and Naomi Campbell, who tend to have more European features, lighter skin and straightened hair. But some African-Americans complain that Wek is a demeaning stereotype of black features: wide nose, full lips, natural hair and ultra-dark skin. Ironically, at a time when many African-Americans thirst for African culture, some are suspicious of Wek's fame. Says Jamie Simpson, a Los Angeles hairstylist: ""I think they [white Americans] want us to look like her--primitive.''

That's self-hatred, says Bethann Hardison, a black manager who handles male supermodel Tyson. ""We've been taught that Vanessa Williams is the ideal of black beauty. That's why Alek is absolutely necessary --she forces us to deal with the fact that she is beautiful, as well.'' Wek knows about the black backlash--her agent's gotten letters criticizing her looks--and she's confused and hurt by it. ""I can't understand the fuss,'' she says. ""In my village there is no problem because we all look the same. Here there is so much difference in skin--so much is thought about it, and that's sad.''

But Gilles Bensimon, the (white) creative director of Elle magazine who put Alek on the cover of this month's issue, says it has resulted in more positive mail than any other cover. ""One 12-year-old black girl told us it brought her out of her depression,'' he says. And that's the response that will make Alek Wek happy again.