A striking model who started her career at 16 years old, Mari Malek is a rarity in her field for her humanitarian work in Sudan. As the co-founder of Southern Sudan Initiative, Inc. (a non-profit organization that simultaneously informs people about Sudan ‘s genocide and helps victims of it) Malek used her fame as a platform to bring light to an often ignored plight. In fact, the Sudanese transplant is widely respected for her charity work with Sudan’s “lost boys” and “lost girls.” A sought after model because of her height, build, beauty, and style, Malek’s been featured in national magazines like Seventeen, Vanity Fair, Essence, Trace, Paper, and Bleu and international trades in Spain and Greece. Her appeal is unyielding as she garnered an advertising campaign for Arrojo Hair Salon, and walked the runway for such designers as Luca Luca, Tory Burch, Jose Duran, Katie Gallagher, Lacoste, and Lavin just to name a few. In 2011, she was recognized for her work with Southern Sudan Initiative, Inc. BET nominated her for a Making a Difference (M.A.D.) Awards for their Black Girls Rock Awards for bringing light to Sudan’s genocide. Other nominees included Mary J. Blige, Tichina Arnold, Regina King, Anita Baker, Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, and Melanie Fiona. Most recent accomplishments include: being the first Djamee Model to book a worldwide campaign for a legendary French couture name brand and she is the first DM model male or female to work with legendary photographer Steven Meisel.
L’Etage: When was it that you first got discovered, and how did it all start?
Mari Malek: To be honest I don’t really think I have been discovered yet, however there is a story that got me started and looking into modeling more seriously….When I was 16 years old I heard an announcement on the radio about a scouting agency coming to town (San Diego, CA) and looking for models. I decided that I should give it a try since all I hear every single day of my life is “You should be a model!” So I entered the contest and ended up being picked by 16 different agencies from all over the world. I got nervous, scared and cold feet about pursuing the modeling career at that age, especially since my mother was so strict and only wanted us to go to school and get our education. I also had absolutely no support from anyone so I decided not to do modeling and just continue school at least till I graduate from high school. I did that, went to college and sort of put modeling in the back of my mind. I was still haunted by the comments I hear everyday about how I should be a model…it felt as if I was being sent a message from some sort of unseen force and I couldn’t ignore it. So I decided to move to NYC in 2006 and really go for it, and now here I am!
L’Etage: Who do you admire in the modeling world or fashion industry?
Mari Malek: I admire everyone who has creativity and the strength to bring it to life and inspire people. I have a huge respect for anyone who follows their dreams and becomes successful at it. If I was to name a specific person, it would be Kate Moss. Kate Moss reminds me of myself. She is a petit/short model, was way too skinny blah blah blah. People in the modeling industry gave her a hard time at first for her size, but now look at her! I love that she did not let any of the negativity and criticism get to her. I go through the same thing now, I am a short black model, too skinny blah blah blah, well guess what?…I will not take no for an answer, I know what I can bring to the table! When I walk into an agency, runway show, shoot for a magazine etc. I come with a presence that is felt, I bring inspiration so I will keep going until I decide to stop!
If you are starving and you only have one piece of bread, you share it with others. Thats just how it is and I think that is where my interest of philanthropy work comes from.
Mari Malek: To me a hot bag and a hot pair of heels is a must! You can wear jeans and a T-shirt with your hot bag and heels and you are good to go! I usually carry my Chanel purse, its classic! I also love diversity so I am open to wear anything from any designer as long as I love it. You can find all sorts of things in my closet especially funky things, but it doesn’t matter who the designer is as long as I love it!
L’Etage: You’re also a famous disk jokey in NYC – DJ Stiletto, how did you get into that industry, and what inspired your name, DJ Stiletto?
Mari Malek: I don’t know if I am that famous but I will take that;) but yes Dj Stiletto is my alter ego. She is the triple F, fierce, fashionable and fearless! (She is kind of like the Lady Gaga of DJ-ing hahaha) I have always loved music and used to fantasize about becoming a DJ. I am mainly attracted to beats and would find myself doing mixes in my head so I thought what the heck? I am in NYC, always in the party scene so why not just start DJ-ing…and at that time there weren’t much female DJs, so I went for it. I am mainly self taught and still learning how to master my craft. My name was inspired by my love for the shoes, I love shoes and specially my hot heels, so now whenever I am spinning you will catch me in some hot Stilettos!!! So to sum it up DJ Stiletto came about for my love of music and shoes. Any shoe designers looking to sponsor DJ Stiletto..please let me know;)
L’Etage: How do you balance your career being a high-fashion model, and popular New York disc jockey as well?
Mari Malek: You know it doesn’t even feel like work. I love every minute of it! So I have no complains. Is the art of music something you’ve always been apart of all of your life, can you sing?
Music is powerful! It heals! So yes it has always been a part of my life. I think everyone would agree that at some point in their lives music helped them get through something, thats how I felt. I love to sing but I am not a singer. Music makes me dance so much, I can dance thats for sure:). When I was younger in Sudan , we were going through a lot of tough times, but music made us forget because we would dance our butts off!
L’Etage: You’ve appeared in one of Lady Gag’s latest music videos, “Born This Way” – how does it feel to be apart of such an iconic music video of this generation?
Mari Malek: I love Lady Gaga, I think she is so artistic; I was flattered to be a part of it. I felt that I was supposed to be there, be a part of it, and feel the energy of it. It was like an affirmation. The title of the song and the message of the song is beautiful!
L’Etage: If we were to browse through your iPod or music collection, what are some of the titles or artists that we would come across?
Mari Malek: My Itunes has over 10,000 songs in it so far, the question should be who will you not find on my music collection..hahaha. but to name a few that are on my collection…Prince, Nirvana, Lenny Kravitz, Lady Gaga, Solomon Cortes and Kreaux, Michael Jackson of course, Thievery Corporation, Madonna, Adele, Lil Wayne, Jay Z, Robyn, Missy Elliot, Robin Thicke, Aaliyah, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Koffi Olomide, Radiohead, Afrojack, Bob Marley, Major Lazer etc…the list goes on!
Africa has some amazing talented people whether its fashion, music or art we have it. I want to see more, hear more. I want us to support each other and empower each other.
L’Etage: You’re also the Co-Founder of Southern Sudan Initiative, a charity that helps the lost children of Sudan (also known as The Lost Boys). Please tell us about the organization.
Mari Malek: Southern Sudan Initiatives, Inc. aka SSII exists to better the lives of our young men and women known throughout the world as “Lost Boys” and “Lost Girls” and to repair the damage that decades of war have inflicted on religious, agricultural, economic, social and culture life in Southern Sudan and surrounding areas. Our vision statement seeks to become an organization that utilizes the leadership, experience, education and energy of “Lost Boys” and “Lost Girls” for the restoration and benefit of all people in Southern Sudan and surrounding areas. We really want our people to be more self sufficient. We have five objectives that we are focusing on; Clean Water, Education, Health, Agriculture and Micro Finance.
L’Etage: How do you find the time to support your cause at Southern Sudan Initiatives, does your dedication as co-founder stem from somewhere close to your heart?
Mari Malek: This can go both ways…sometimes it takes so much time to do things for the charity and other times it takes little time. Some things such as planning fundraiser events or applying for grants can take months, and me just spreading the word can take 2 minutes of my time. I carry my brochures and business cards with me everywhere, especially when I am shooting or DJ-ing, you never know who you are going to run into.
When I was younger I watched my mother coming to the aid of others all the time. She was also a nurse, I remember her volunteering all the time and traveling with her to different villages to help the soldiers. She always helps especially if you are a stranger. I believe this comes from the Southern Sudanese people in general, regardless of what we are going through, we always help each other. If you are starving and you only have one piece of bread, you share it with others. Thats just how it is and I think that is where my interest of philanthropy work comes from. From my heart, it makes me smile too!
Mari Malek:”The Lost Boys” is the name given to a group of refugees, mostly young boys, who fled civil war in Sudan for refugee camps. Although they are now men, the Lost Boys name stuck and continues to be used. Through the United States Refugee Resettlement Program many have been resettled to communities throughout the United States . Non-profit and community based organizations are often involved in helping refugees integrate into the community in which they are placed.
L’Etage: As you may know, Alex Wek is also from South Sudan . What are your thoughts about her being that she’s also a Sudanese refugee, who became an international super model, and her role supporting many organizations that offer help with the Darfur Crisis?
Mari Malek: I met Alek and came across her a few times. I had an idea of her involvement with refugees and non for profits, due to that I reached out to her to help support our charity Southern Sudan Initiatives, Inc. I hope that we can do something together one day. Many of us Sudanese girls look up to her because we can relate to the things we have all been through. However, I think Alek is a strong person and I respect her for that.
In NYC we have about 10 sudanese models including myself and Alek Wek, I pretty much know all of them. Some of them are becoming recognized in the industry while others are still finding their way. It seems like there is a bit of animosity and jealousy between some of them, which I totally disagree with. I think each and everyone one of them has something special about them and they should be confident enough with themselves. I think that we should all support each other, be there for each other and respect each other. Heck, we can all do a show or do a shoot together for the bigger picture, maybe raise awareness for our country or inspire other sudanese girls who are now suffering, who went through the struggles that we went through… Can you imagine how much of an impact that would be?
L’Etage: South Sudan is actually now the newest country to be recognized by the United Nations, what are your hopes and dream for your new country?
Mari Malek: I am so happy that we are now independent. I hope that we can keep nourishing, be peaceful and keep growing. I hope the Southern Sudanese can protect our country, especially the villages. I hope some of the villages will stay alive and keep our culture going. I hear there has been a lot of building going on there right now, that is great but I do hope a lot of our culture and rituals will be kept and protected. Our country deserves this moment, it has been a long way coming. God bless us!
L’Etage: John Garang was very instrumental in the peace agreement between the government of Sudan and the rebels; unfortunately he didn’t live to see the fruition of his work, what are your views of this leader?
Mari Malek: John Garang did his job well, he believes in his country and he was a great leader. He stuck around and stood up for us.
L’Etage: What are your thoughts on celebrities like George Clooney who have been ardent support of people of Darfur and the genocide there; do you think that has been useful in educating Americans about Sudan and the atrocity there?
Mari Malek: As for George Clooney, WOW! He conceived The Satellite Sentinel Project, or SSP in Southern Sudan . SSP provides an early warning system to deter mass atrocities by focusing world attention and generating rapid responses on human rights and human security concerns. What more can I say? What George Clooney did is priceless and has such a huge impact on Southern Sudan and the world itself. George definitely educated not just Americans but the whole world about Sudan . Thank you George, I love you!
What George Clooney did is priceless and has such a huge impact on Southern Sudan and the world itself. George definitely educated not just Americans but the whole world about Sudan . Thank you George, I love you!
Mari Malek: I don’t really know, it could go both ways. Will they have an impact, yes. Long-term impact? I don’t think so unless if that celebrity keeps it going or does something long term. I just wish people could be more open minded and be leaders of their own minds and selves. Why does it have to take a celebrity to interest people in knowing what is happening to our planet? Why does it take a celebrity for people to attend an event to support a charity? Why does it have to take a celebrity for people to give a donation to a charity? People need to be more aware!
L’Etage: What do you find especially rewarding – emotionally, about having this organization?
Mari Malek: What I find rewarding about SSII is what we bring to the people of our country. We bring hope, we bring a smile, we bring life! It feels so good to be of help. We are just getting started, I cannot wait till we build the schools, the clinics, the farms…we are building a future and nourishing our future generation.
L’Etage: Where can I go to find out more?
Mari Malek: Please visit our website to learn more: www.southernsudaninitiatives.org or email me personally firstname.lastname@example.org
L’Etage: You were recently honored during the BET Black Girls Rock Awards – what did that event mean to you, and how did it feel to be amongst some of the most respected and exceptional women? Just to name a few: Mary J. Blige, Tichina Arnold, Regina King, Anita Baker, Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, and Melanie Fiona.
Mari Malek: WOW. It meant the world to me so much because I am not doing it for myself or self satisfaction; I was simply going to do it for my country, representing my people. It was such a positive empowering moment. I was honored and highlighted for the M.A.D. Girl Award (Making A Difference girl) for my humanitarian work for Southern Sudan Initiatives. I was very proud of myself:) The women that were there were all phenomenal, it was a room that you had to be in!
L’Etage: What are your thoughts about the African impact in global entertainment?
Mari Malek: Africa has some amazing talented people whether its fashion, music or art we have it. I want to see more, hear more. I want us to support each other and empower each other. I want parents/families to support their children with their dreams. We are very blessed, we are rich, I want us to be able to share our talents with the world!
L’Etage: What is the one thing you’d most like to change about the world?
Mari Malek: There are many things that could be changed about the world to make it a better place but if I was to choose one thing, I would start with stopping female circumcision, its brutal and not natural. Growing up in Sudan, I have witnessed some of my 5,6,7 years old friends go through that, and some of them died of infection or trauma. I hope this can be changed soon!
L’Etage: What are you most grateful for?
Mari Malek: I am grateful for my health, for my family, for my opportunities, and most of all for my experiences, good and bad, they made me who I am today!
MARI MALEK PHOTO GALLERY
(Click on thumbnails to enlarge pictures)
Born on: April 24th in Wau South of Sudan
Home: New York City
Job Title: Model, Humanitarian, D’J
Interview Location: New York City
Job title: Model, Humanitarian, D’J
Interview By Sabrina Boasman
Photographer: Udo Spreitzentbarth
Make-Up artist : Lazarus jean Baptiste