South Sudanese college student whose homecoming photo went viral is now on cover of Elle magazine

Anok Yai, who was discovered in a viral Instagram photo, is now featured on the cover of Elle. (Photo: Twitter)
Anok Yai, who was discovered in a viral Instagram photo, is now featured on the cover of Elle. (Photo: Twitter)

Anok Yai was just 19 when she attended Howard University’s famous homecoming celebrations in October 2017 to visit a friend. A photo of her taken that weekend landed on Instagram and led her to viral fame, attracting the attention of modeling agencies and eventually, high-end designers and publications — now including Elle magazine.

The South Sudanese model was a student at Plymouth State University, where she was a biochemistry major. However, within a week after the candid image went viral on social media, she was visiting New York, where she was signed with NEXT model management. And in Milan, Italy, she opened Prada’s Fall/Winter 2018 show, only the second black woman to do so, following in Naomi Campbell’s footsteps.

After a couple of magazine spreads and covers, and numerous catwalks, Yai, now 21, is making a splash on Elle magazine’s January 2019 cover.

In an editorial spread shot by photographer Max Papendieck, Yai is featured alongside model Grace Elizabeth, and described as one of “fashion’s brightest young stars.”

“Prior to her discovery, Yai was juggling a full course load and working as much as 80 hours per week in order to pay for her education. Initially, her parents weren’t thrilled about their daughter putting her academic pursuits on hold,” the Elle article reads. “It wasn’t until they saw her image on a billboard that the Yais came around.”

Meanwhile, Yai is not content just to bask in her new status in the fashion industry: She’s out to change things. “As a face of Estée Lauder, she’s vocal about the need for more diversity in the fashion industry and is particularly proud of convincing designers to allow her to walk the runway with either cornrows or an Afro,” the article reads. “She also advocates for the hiring of hairdressers trained in a wider range of hair textures.”

Online, many people are rooting for the young model.

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