For Anok Yai, Beauty Is Personal

anok yai for harpers bazaar may 2024
For Anok Yai, Beauty Is PersonalEthan James Green
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“I love paintings when it feels like you’re intruding,” says Anok Yai.

We are standing in front of Kerry James Marshall’s Untitled (Studio), which hangs in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The painting is a glimpse into an artist’s workspace, with a model seated, her head in the hands of an artist’s assistant who is staring at the viewer. It is as if you’ve disturbed something—or maybe the viewer is the artist, about to tackle the half-completed canvas that sits to the left of the frame.

anok yai for harpers bazaar may 2024

“I fucking love this,” Yai says and immediately sits on a bench in front of the painting. It makes sense she’d be drawn to it. In addition to being that rare cultural phenomenon—a bona fide supermodel—Yai is also an artist. She taught herself oil painting a few years ago.

“I started off painting a portrait of myself,” she explains. “Every month, I would add a detail.” She describes the work as “a time capsule in a painting of myself.”

Yai chose an extraordinary period to document herself across. Over the past six years, she has climbed to the top of the modeling industry. She is the second Black model, after Naomi Campbell in 1997, to open a Prada show. That assignment is a coronation for a model, and Yai has accepted the crown. Since then, she has walked for Louis Vuitton and Mugler, and she’s also been featured in short films for Chanel and Saint Laurent and campaigns for Estée Lauder. This spring, she became the face of Mugler’s fragrance Alien Hypersense. “They gave me a lot of artistic agency on
the shoot,” she says. “I think the stunts were supposed to be CGI, but I asked, ‘Can I do it for real?’ ” And so there she is in the ad, scaling a wall with ease.

That kind of success could easily be overwhelming. Yai says her love of art, though, is “part of what has kept me whole. … I didn’t feel like I was really losing myself as I got into the fashion industry.”

That’s why she’s agreed to meet me at the Met for our interview. Since her early days of modeling, “I’ve had a habit of drawing on my pillowcases at hotels,” she confesses. “It started off as a habit when I was younger. I would just draw on my bedsheets.” When she began her modeling career and found herself with hours of downtime in hotel rooms around the world, she would ask her team for canvases and painting supplies and begin to explore. It was time to stop defacing the linens. Now, she paints friends; one of the things she’s working on currently is a picture of the singer Daniel Caesar.

Another friend in her circle, fellow model Mona Tougaard, says that she and Yai “definitely have a shared interest in art and humor. We’re laughing together all the time. She can always make me laugh.” The two first met in 2019 at a shoot for Max Mara. To Tougaard’s point, Yai definitely has a deadpan sensibility. When I ask Yai what she thinks of our culture’s widespread belief that aging means a loss of beauty, she says with a straight face, “You know that I’m Black? Never crosses my mind. I feel like that’s between you and God.”

anok yai for harpers bazaar may 2024

Last year, with her career in full swing, Yai made the decision to step back to complete a residency at artist Kehinde Wiley’s workspace and retreat, Black Rock, in Dakar, Senegal. “I booked myself out for one month, and I basically disconnected my phone,” she says.

That willingness to explore the unfamiliar is on display when we first meet. Yai had mentioned wanting to go to a museum, and when she arrives at the Met’s Great Hall, she’s wearing a pink beanie, a black satin bomber jacket delicately embroidered with flowers, and black pants. “This looks so different from the Met ball,” she says. She’s only ever been here before when she’s attended that event—in 2021 in Oscar de la Renta, in 2022 in hot-pink Michael Kors, and in 2023 in oxidized gold-and-silver Prabal Gurung.

Yai had gone to a dinner the night before that celebrated her work with Mugler on Alien Hypersense, so when she gets to the museum today, she has a pair of translucent pink sunglasses on—a chic way to acknowledge the toll of a late night out. They come off, though, as soon as she enters the galleries and starts looking around.

As we walk through the museum, Yai stops in front of the works that catch her attention, allowing her eye to draw her to where we go next. It’s the instinct of someone who is, at heart, an artist.

Yai’s extraordinary trajectory as a supermodel is also, for someone like her, the perfect training ground for someone who wants to lead a creative life. She’s been able to travel the world, finding inspiration in Iceland, Japan, and Brazil.

“I went to Morocco maybe five years ago for a shoot,” she says as we settle into a café on one of the upper floors of the Met. “It was a 10-hour drive to the village where we were staying, and we had to drive by these cliffs where families live tucked [away]. Their kids would jump and hang on to the cliffs and run around. It was so dangerous, but they were so comfortable because for them, the cliff is just a home.

“As we were driving, I was so scared that we were gonna fall off the side and tumble. But when I saw those kids, their idea of where their fears are compared to where mine were at the moment—I was so shocked by those different mindsets,” she says. “I feel like fear controls a lot of people. I mean, it controls me too, and I wanna get to a point where even if I’m scared, I can move forward, right?”

That’s why one of her beauty icons is Nina Simone. “I love the way she unapologetically carried herself and in the face of strife, she still stood her ground,” Yai says of the singer, songwriter, and activist. “She had moments of intense fear because she went through a lot, but she still acted fearless.”

Yai is the daughter of immigrants from South Sudan. She was born in Cairo in 1997, and her family came to the United States, settling in New Hampshire, when she was three. “I felt beautiful in my spirit growing up as a Black child,” Yai explains. “My mom made sure that I did. She instilled in me the idea of owning your beauty and not letting it be controlled by other people’s opinions. She would speak life into me, and she would do it in a way where sometimes I didn’t realize she was doing it.”

anok yai

With its towering mountains and unspoiled forests, New Hampshire can be starkly beautiful, though Yai says she didn’t understand it when she was growing up there. “People would come during the fall to see the leaves. And I was like, ‘What do you want here?’ I had an aversion to New Hampshire because the cold is just—it’s painful,” she jokes.

Even in the cold of New Hampshire, Yai’s mother surrounded her with the rituals of home. “In my culture,” Yai says, “we care a lot about taking care of our skin and scenting the house.” Now, she loves the smell of lavender and rose oils. “I’ve adopted things like perfuming my bed. I have a ritual at night. I like to light a candle. I read a book, take time for myself to meditate, and think about where I am, where I was, and where I wanna go. My life is so chaotic. I like to have moments to just focus.”

Those attempts at grounding are crucial in a world that asks her to navigate the temperamental power that comes from beauty. “When I was younger, I thought that beauty was something that you could attain more of. … If I put on this nice outfit, if I wear this certain makeup, it would make me more beautiful,” says Yai. “But I’ve realized that beauty is more of an essence that you have inside of yourself as a woman. Once you find it in yourself, it’s not something that can be taken away or changed.”

Yai says she feels most beautiful “when I’ve accomplished something. When I finish an art piece, the whole world opens up and I feel the most excited,” she says. “My idea of beauty comes from my own self-worth.”

Hair: Jawara for Oribe and Dyson; makeup: Yadim for Westman Atelier; manicure: Dawn Sterling for NailGlam; casting: Anita Bitton at the Establishment; production: Counsel; set design: Dylan Bailey. Special thanks to Samson Stages.

harpers bazaar may 2024 cover with anok yai
harpers bazaar may 2024 cover with christy turlington burns

This article appears in the May 2024 issue of Harper's Bazaar

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