“I was telling my stepmom last night that I feel like I’ve been a nomad since birth,” Aweng Chuol asserts. The 22-year-old model is calling from Chelsea in London, her wife Lexy’s chosen location, though she is unsure if they’ll stay there for much longer.
Born in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, Chuol moved to Sydney, Australia, aged seven with her family, then, up until recently, she was living in New York. Over the past two years alone, she’s traveled to more than 60 countries because of her work, and can see herself eventually living in Malawi or Madagascar, even though they are places she has never been. But, for now, it is New York that has Chuol’s heart.
“Everyone is sort of young and if you go to the right areas, there’s lots of young people,” she says of feeling akin to the community there. “I love to go to Miss Lily’s [a Caribbean diner] in SoHo. I’ll go on my own for dinner and then come back with six strangers.”
When I ask about her upbringing, Choul says, coyly, “It was a very generic household,” after sharing that she was the first of 12 siblings. “I grew up in a huge family. My mother is 36 right now. I’m 22, and the youngest are three years old and twins.” They are close-knit and, growing up, Choul’s mother and family community raised her (when they left Kenya, her father stayed fighting in the South Sudanese Civil War and passed away due to complications from a gunshot wound in 2013).
“I feel like children are just something my family loves, and even my friends who came to know me ended up having, like, six children of their own. We all thought she [Choul’s mother] was going to stop, but she loves children. She loves raising children and just kept on going – and thankfully we all turned out kind of alright.”
“I feel like the STRESS of the past year has opened my EYES to [the fact that] you NEVER know what is going to happen next”
“Alright” is no small understatement when used to describe Chuol’s dazzling trajectory as a model; she cites working with Beyoncé and Rihanna as two career highlights to date (though she’s not allowed to give away many details). “Rihanna was just phenomenal. Beyoncé was amazing,” she shares of walking in the Savage X Fenty debut runway show at New York Fashion Week in 2018, and of appearing in Beyoncé’s headline-making visual album Black is King last year.
Chuol’s striking features might have been seen just about everywhere now, but she isn’t solely focused on being ‘that girl’ within the fashion world. She’s in law school, plays the piano and is training to become an actor, despite her mother’s ambitions for her to become a news anchor. “I got into law school at 17. I remember thinking that was the dream [she] had for me. I could have [become an anchor]. I could have really, really done that. And I would have done it faster and I wouldn’t have been as stressed as I am in law school right now.”
A self-described overachiever, lockdown gave Chuol the space to nourish her ambitions and passions outside of modeling. She has spent a significant amount of this time cultivating her acting skills and says she would love her first role to be in the horror genre. She refers to this as her “selfish time”, but others might refer to it as self-care or self-prioritization.
“I’m really running social media at my OWN pace. I don’t think ANYONE gets to decide HOW much is too much for someone to release”
“I feel like the stress of the past year has opened my eyes to [the fact that] you never know what is going to happen next. We hear that as children, we hear that as teens, and when we enter our twenties, you never know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” says Chuol. “2020 literally gave us the physical reality of that. I felt like in the last year, I [was] just really being selfish, in a way, with my decisions, being selfish in my life, which is my personal life.”
There were some parts of her life, however, that Chuol did share. She wrote on Instagram last summer that she had attempted suicide during lockdown and attributes her decision to share this publicly with her upbringing. Growing up, she was always encouraged to feel what she needed to feel: happy, sad or angry. “I’ve always had that nurturing family member or friends or aunty telling me, ‘Whatever has occurred that is bothering your soul, finish crying and then tell me.’ It was never, ‘Pause [your feelings] and tell me now.’ I was never rushed.”
“I feel like I’m really running social media at my own pace,” continues Chuol. “And some people will appreciate it. Some people will just feel [that] maybe I’m sharing too much. But I don’t think anyone gets to decide how much is too much for someone to release.”
Prior to this, Chuol had also shared her love with the public, as her marriage to Lexy – a nail-artist entrepreneur, who she met in 2019 – made its way into the media last year. Flurries of well-wishes from fans flooded in – messages that Chuol would have liked the capacity to respond to. But being visible online takes its toll. Which is why she has assembled a personal team, in addition to her management and modeling agent, who focus on her mental wellbeing. This ensemble includes a therapist and a life coach, and she’s in therapy twice a week.
Chuol never imagined that her career would lend itself to her having a public platform (she currently has 178k followers on Instagram). In fact, she says, “I wanted to get into a job where I make enough money in a year to own a house and farm where I’ll have a landline and I will not be on social media,” she says, reflecting on her current reality, which is, in some ways, at such odds. She’s decided to present less of her relationship online; while Chuol loved the experience, she now feels like enough has been said and, most importantly, shared. “I love the [Elle] shoot [which featured the recently wedded couple kissing on the cover]. I think it was important. I think it was a staple. I think it was amazing. But personally, I would love to keep that part of myself to myself.”
Chuol speaks with an effervescence – as a young woman who knows that the world is hers and the possibility for what she can continue to achieve is limitless. “I do have dreams I want to achieve by 25. During quarantine, I ticked off a lot of goals, to be honest, and I am ticking a lot of them this upcoming week and month. Luckily for me, I manifest well and fast. I’ve kind of canceled out a lot of [dreams] because it felt like a lot of pressure to have 115 [to achieve] by the age of 25. That’s just a lot for anybody. I’m going at my own pace, but I am holding myself accountable if I can achieve it.”
Despite this self-assuredness, there is still the odd pinch-me moment when the reality of her momentous journey sinks in. “A lot of [people] couldn’t imagine where I’m going. I couldn’t even imagine. Can’t even imagine. I’m a camp Black woman. Right?” she says, as if to remind herself of who and where she is. “I am educated. These are things that my great-grandmother would not have even imagined. If I was gay in the 1930s, do you think I could have gone around saying, ‘Hey, I want to be a model’? So, I’ve really kind of pushed down a lot of blocks.”
“I’m very HOPEFUL, in a sense, for the FUTURE generation. I hope we do get it together and get a hold of climate change and the PLANET”
Her excitement for what is to come is palpable and it seems evident that Chuol will reach stratospheric heights in whatever she tries her hand at next. It would hardly be surprising to see her grace the big screen over the next few years, or sooner if her track record is anything to go by. Referring to her life both on and off the runway, she states, “I’m a very grateful person. I walk with gratitude.”
Chuol’s expectations extend far beyond the self. She has been tuned in to politics since graduating from high school. “I started wanting to know what’s going on in the world and that can become overwhelming,” she says, particularly for someone who describes herself as an empath. “I’m very hopeful, in a sense, for the future generation. I hope we do get it together and get a hold of climate change and the planet.”
As we round up, she tells me, at the end of a heavy year, in which as a collective we have mourned lives and an existence gone, that she is remaining full of hope. “I’m a very hopeful person, just by nature. I am hopeful for the world.”