Born To Stand Out
From fleeing South Sudan’s civil war to walking the Victoria’s Secret runway, model GRACE BOL has been on quite a journey. LAURA CRAIK gets the low-down on a world turned inside out and the remarkable woman navigating a very different future
Some models like to work it both on-duty and off; others are naturally self-effacing, only coming alive in front of the camera. Grace Bol falls into the latter camp. In front of the lens, she has a magnetic confidence that no amount of posturing can ever attain: you either have it, or you don’t. Which is why it takes a moment to register that this stooped person slipping into the lobby of the Nobu Hotel in Shoreditch, east London, is the same woman. Bol is dressed as anonymously as a person can be, in head-to-toe black, bar a gray scarf draped over her head. Unfortunately, being a statuesque, 5ft 11in beauty with the cheekbones of Grace Jones makes all attempts at blending in futile. Bol would stand out anywhere.
Even accounting for the fact that she has just flown in from New York and is jet-lagged and exhausted, Bol is not the most verbose of interviewees. That her quietness is of the shy variety, as opposed to the aloof or arrogant sort, makes it impossible not to warm to her, even if her responses can occasionally be less than effusive. But given the trajectory through which she arrived at her career, her self-effacement is hardly surprising. “That’s a long story,” she says with classic understatement, when asked how she was scouted. The short answer is that she was discovered eight years ago, in a mall in Kansas City, Missouri. The longer answer is that she came to be in Missouri after her family fled war-torn South Sudan when she was eight years old. “Because of war I moved all my life,” she says quietly. “I guess Kansas City was the first home for me; the first city we could make a home. Before that, we were in a camp. We moved from South Sudan to Uganda, stayed in a refugee camp there, and then came to the US afterwards.”
Her first impression of America was that it was cold. “The shock of the snow,” she remembers, smiling. “I never saw snow before in my life. I never knew it could get that cold. It took time to adjust – it was not easy. I remember seeing ice on the ground. I touched it and was shocked. I thought it was a powder. I still think snow is beautiful, especially in Central Park.”
“Because of WAR, I moved all my life. I guess Kansas City was the first HOME for me; the first city we could MAKE a home”
Bol currently lives in New York, where she moved as her modeling career took off. She prefers not to give her age, either now or when she was scouted. “Can I leave that bit out? I was very mature,” she smiles. Her reaction to being scouted was typically coy. “I didn’t know anything about modeling, but I met people who were doing it and questioned them a lot about whether this was for me, and they kept assuring me that it was.” She pauses. “It took me so long to accept that I am a model. I didn’t think I was made for it. It took time to work on that.”
For a long time, she didn’t tell her parents about her burgeoning career. “I didn’t let them know, because I wasn’t sure what to say, and they might have looked at it as a waste of time. But then one of my younger siblings saw a picture of me online, without me even informing anyone at all. They saw, and then they told my parents,” she says. Bol declines to talk about her parents, but will say that “they were excited for me”, although her father has since passed away. Ask how many siblings she has, and she simply laughs and says, “A lot, just leave it as ‘a lot’.”
“I didn’t know ANYTHING about modeling. It took me so long to ACCEPT that I am a model. I didn’t think I was made for it. It took TIME to work on that”
She says her big break was the Givenchy show, for fall/winter 2011, though she also walked for Maison Margiela and Vivienne Westwood in the same season. “But Givenchy was the show that helped everyone recognize me, when I went to Paris for the first time. Riccardo Tisci was really nice. He didn’t speak much, but there was a connection there. I can’t explain it,” says Bol. “Sometimes you only need a minute in front of someone and, in that minute, surprisingly a lot happened.”
This season, Bol’s standout moment was Victoria Beckham, where she modeled alongside Stella Tennant, Liya Kebede and Edie Campbell in a show that marked the brand’s tenth anniversary. “I like Victoria’s style and her clothes, and I like her as well,” smiles Bol. In November, she will walk in the Victoria’s Secret show, her second outing for the lingerie behemoth. “I feel really good about it, because I wasn’t 100% sure that I was going to make it back [into the line-up],” she beams. “I think I’m going to enjoy my second season even more, now that I know what it’s like onstage, and how different it is to other shows. I’m just grateful and happy to be there, and I love the fact that we all have so much fun.”
As for the famously tough training regime, she takes it all in her stride. “We have to train like an angel!” she laughs. “Yes, we have to work out, but there’s no instruction to it, so I just do my normal thing, which is running. I’m trying to get more into yoga, but running is my favorite.”
“GIVENCHY was the show that helped everyone RECOGNIZE me. Riccardo Tisci was really nice. He didn’t speak much, but there was a CONNECTION”
Victoria’s Secret shows have been criticized in the past for their lack of diversity, but Bol says this isn’t something she has ever noticed. “The truth is that when I’m watching shows I don’t count how many [skin] colors there are. I don’t pay attention to that part. It’s just ‘is the show nice, are the clothes nice?’ I focus more on the show, not the type of people in it.”
Through social media and other channels, a lot of models are using their platforms to endorse political and social causes they believe in: would she consider herself an activist? “I don’t know yet,” she says. She mentions that the last time she visited South Sudan, last Christmas, she noticed some positive changes. “We have our own country now – that’s a first step. It’s still not the best, starting from scratch, but it’s a home for everyone. I just pray that the violence completely stops.”
Bol’s face fills with love when she speaks about her grandmother, her favorite person to visit in South Sudan. “She’s such an interesting woman. I love just being next to her, and the memories we have together. There’s so much that I learned from her. She’s very happy. Well, I can’t say ‘very happy’, but very kind. A lot of people say that about her. She’s one of the most well-respected people in our village, because she’s so kind and loving to everyone. She went through so much that, when I look at her, it just amazes me. I guess that’s what inspires me.”
Fellow South Sudanese model Alek Wek has been another mentor. “We have a lot to talk about. We share the same struggle, in terms of our country. She still speaks my language, so we were able to speak in our native language – it was amazing, given the number of years she has spent away.”
“[Me and Alek Wek] have a LOT to talk about. We share the same STRUGGLE, in terms of our country. She still speaks my native LANGUAGE”
Bol declines to say whether she is dating anyone, and is only marginally more forthcoming about her beauty routine. “Simple,” she says. “Just normal, natural stuff. Oils.” Any products she could name? “Vaseline. On my face and body.” But she does light up again when we talk about clothes. “I love Prada, Louis Vuitton, Ralph Lauren… I love Roland Mouret. His clothes have a really good fit. I have a huge list of favorite designers. Every year I add more and more. Right now, I’m wearing Burberry pants, a black Vince biker jacket and a scarf by Calvin Klein. For handbags I love Prada, Louis Vuitton, Loewe and Zac Posen.”
I wonder what Bol thinks she would have done had the modeling world not come calling. “Um… well, I always did like fashion. I always look at clothes and think what it would be like to design them. So, I have a few thoughts about clothes, and other little personal dreams that I can’t speak about,” she smiles. Grace Bol, designer? For someone with as much strength of character as she, anything is possible.
The people featured in this story are not associated with NET-A-PORTER and do not endorse it or the products shown.