Walking on a street in Holland, a shopping mall in Texas, or a modeling school in Nebraska––discovering talent will always be one of the most rewarding aspects of my career, in an industry that has defined who I am. I am fortunate to have found my “passion job” during the glory days of fashion and supermodels, to have launched and managed stellar careers, and to have forged lifetime friendships with the innovators of our industry.
A few months ago, late in the day on a Sunday, I was in my Venice Beach studio and Justin was in London. We were virtually casting and producing the Superdry AW20 collection shoot with the actor, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, and a cast of models who represent rebel teenage culture. A last-minute model cancellation caused a frenzy (because that’s what happens). Justin and I had to scramble to find a replacement and in the very last hour of the day, we discovered Eman.
With all of her extraordinary imperfections which define her beauty, her spirit and personality that define her character, and her giraffe stature that defines her physical presence, I present to you a young woman who represents the future.
Michael Flutie: I have some really easy questions that we can talk about and we will go from there. The first thing is, why don’t you tell me a little bit about your life. Just tell me about your mom, your dad, the village that you grew up in. Tell me about your sisters.
Eman Deng: Okay. My mom and my dad, they got divorced and everybody stays alone. My mom stays in Cairo. My dad stays in South Sudan, my little sisters, they stay in Uganda.
Michael Flutie: How many sisters do you have?
Eman Deng: I have four sisters and one brother.
Michael Flutie: And how old are your brothers and sisters?
Eman Deng: My sister, the one who is following me, she’s 16. And then the other one, she’s 14. And then the other one she’s 12. And the other one is nine. The last boy, he’s one year and something.
Michael Flutie: Is your mom Egyptian?
Eman Deng: No, no, no. She’s from South Sudan too, but she went to Egypt for treatment. That was about four years ago. And my dad, we last saw him in 2010 or 11.
Michael Flutie: What kind of a treatment did your mom have?
Eman Deng: She had hepatitis B. She had it for two years and then she had to do treatment, but now she’s fine.
Michael Flutie: She had a baby while she had hepatitis?
Eman Deng: Yeah. She had to give birth to the baby when he was six months and then they kept him in the glass. And he doesn’t breastfeed because of that. They did not breastfeed when they give birth to him.
Michael Flutie: Who takes care of your baby brother?
Eman Deng: My stepdad.
Michael Flutie: Oh, so you have a stepdad and your paternal dad?
Eman Deng: Yeah, we have a stepdad, that’s the father of my brother, and then my four sisters they’re from my dad. I’m the first child to my parents.
Michael Flutie: And are you still in contact with your dad?
Eman Deng: Yeah, I do call him sometimes.
Michael Flutie: What does your family think about your career?
Eman Deng: They’re fine with my career, because they believe that if I become famous or maybe if I start working a lot, I’ll be able to take care of my little sisters because it’s hard. There’s nobody supporting them that well. So I need to work hard and then start supporting the family since I’m the first child and my dad is not working. My mom also does not having a proper job. They are okay with me modeling because they believe their life will change through me.
Michael Flutie: That’s a lot of responsibility for you to have, Eman.
Eman Deng: Yeah. It’s a lot sometimes I just end up crying.
Michael Flutie: I can imagine.
Eman Deng: Yeah. But that’s life. I just agreed to work hard, because life is so difficult. At some point it has two ways, the good side and the bad side. If you fall on the bad side of life, you need to struggle to get what you want. But yeah, it’s God’s plan.
Michael Flutie: Did you always feel responsible for your family as you were growing up?
Eman Deng: Yeah, I did.
Michael Flutie: Do you remember the first time you felt that you were responsible for your family?
Eman Deng: Yeah. I remember when I heard my dad and my mom got divorce, so that’s when I felt like now I’ll need to take care of my sisters, my mom and myself. That was 2012. That’s when they got divorced. That’s the first time I felt I’m now responsible for anything which is going to come up.
Michael Flutie: I think it’s very difficult to be the oldest child and especially the oldest female child. And I think to have the responsibility of feeling like you have to take care of your family must be something that you wake up to, every day. When you wake up every day, describe to me what your dream would be? Your ultimate dream.
Eman Deng: Everyday, when I wake up, I’m just like, “God, I just need my family to stay in one place. Maybe my sisters to meet my mom. And then we can stay together, live like a happy family and I can be able to take care of them when they are in one place because now everybody is so scattered. God, if you can just find a miracle and then I can be able to take these kids to my mom.” Then life is good. So, that’s the only thing I have every day in my mind. Yes, to take my sisters to my mom and to have enough money so they can stay and go back to school and become good kids. That’s all.
Michael Flutie: Tell me about the first time that you ever realized that you were interested in fashion or modeling.
Eman Deng: From about seven years old. Because I used to dress like a boy and I felt there’s something that connects me to the fashion industry. And when I used to watch TV, because I used to watch a lot of shows in Sudan, I’d just put on these channels where I could see girls walking. Naomi, Iman, and other girls. I told my mom, “One day, if really, I become tall I think I’ll end up being like them.” And she’s like, “Why?” I told her because I love that. And I feel, I was meant for that.
Then my mom said, “No, I want you to become a doctor.” But when I turned 15, I told my mom, I want to try modeling. And she’s like, “I’m not okay with you modeling at this age. Maybe when you become 18, I’ll let you do it.” Because in my culture people think, if you become a model, you’re going to start doing prostitution. You’re going to start selling yourself to men, sleeping with different people to get money, or maybe to be in magazine you need to sleep with men. You need to do crazy things. So they were scared about that.
Michael Flutie: What happened after that?
Eman Deng: I kept on telling my mom and my grandparents, because I grew up next to my grandparents, “Guys, just give me a chance. Let me become a model.” Because I told them, I don’t want to study. I didn’t want to go to high school. I told them, “I want to try modeling.” And they’re like, “Is that what you want? Really?” I told them, “Yes.” Because my grandparents, anything I say, they trust me in that. And they’re like, “Okay, let’s give her a chance and see how it goes. If she start misbehaving, then we pull her out. But if she continues being a good girl we’ll let her continue with that modeling thing.” They gave me a chance when I became 17 to try, go for training. And it was a competition, a beauty thing. We were 35 models. I made it to the top 10. After again, I made it to top five.
Michael Flutie: Which contest was it?
Eman Deng: It was Ms. March 2018. And then after I went for another one, Miss South Sudan. That was in the middle of April 2019. That’s when I won I became the Miss and then my mom’s like, “Okay, now I can let you become a model as you wish.”
Michael Flutie: Tell me about the first time that you ever realized that fashion, clothes, are part of the industry.
Eman Deng: Okay. When I was young, I didn’t know any of the brands. I would just see them [the models] walking. I didn’t know that fashion had designers. But when I turned 14, that’s when I realized that there are designers that come in to make the show and also photographers. It’s a big team. And then the first brand I came across, it was Off-White. So I was almost 14 when I discovered that fashion has designers and photographers. It’s not just about runway, because I thought fashion is only about runways, going to catwalk with your own outfit and then going back home.
Michael Flutie: Did you ever do any shows in Uganda?
Eman Deng: Yeah. There’s Kampala Fashion Week in Uganda.
Michael Flutie: What was that like? So that was your first job.
Eman Deng: Yeah. That was my first job, Kampala Fashion Week 2018.
Michael Flutie: How many outfits did you have?
Eman Deng: Six outfits, and there were seven designers.
Eman Deng: Yeah.
Michael Flutie: Okay. So then you came to London, and that was 2018?
Eman Deng: No, I came to London 2019.
Michael Flutie: And then, so you were placed with the agency that you’re with now, RPM?
Eman Deng: Yeah.
Michael Flutie: And had you ever been outside of Uganda before that time?
Eman Deng: No, never.
Michael Flutie: So tell me what it was like to go to London. What was that like? What was the experience like for the first time?
Eman Deng: When I heard I was going to London I was so excited. I didn’t think of the things I’m going to face here, because my English is different, and the way people speak here, it’s different. So I was excited. I went to Kenya to work on a visa. It took me four months before I got the visa. When I arrived here in London, the first thing that happened, I lost my bag at the airport. I didn’t have any clothes with me. Everything was in my bag. I was crying and no one could understand my English. The way people were talking, everything is so difficult. I was lonely. I missed my family, because it was my first time to travel somewhere far and leave my family.
So everything was just horrible for me. I would cry everyday, go to the agency, tell them, “Guys, I don’t think I can survive here. I need to go back home.” And they’re like, “No, you need to work.” I stayed here in London for two weeks, and then I went to Paris. I stayed in Paris for one week. I told the agents, “I cannot remain in Paris, because people are so mean in Paris.” I told them I can’t. I used to cry every day. What was so difficult for me was the weather, the way people speak, and the kind of food they eat. It was different. I had a hard time fitting in the environment. Today, I’m still trying to figure out how to stay in London.
Michael Flutie: So tell me about your job with SuperDry, that was your biggest campaign, right?
Eman Deng: It’s my biggest job since I came to the industry.
Michael Flutie: Tell me about it.
Eman Deng: I’ve never done a campaign before.
Michael Flutie: Yeah. What was it like working with Hero Fiennes Tiffin?
Eman Deng: It was good working with Hero. He doesn’t show off, he’s just a calm guy and he’s so cool and easy to work with. After the campaign, that’s when I realized that he’s a big deal in London and everywhere. And the pictures are everything! So it’s a great achievement and everybody’s so excited about that job. My mom, my family, my friends, the people that support me.
Michael Flutie: Did you send them the video?
Eman Deng: I did. I posted it on my Facebook and everybody was sharing it. Even on my Instagram people were like, “I’m so proud of you, you came a long way, and more blessings coming.”
Michael Flutie: What was it like working with Justin Campbell?
Eman Deng: Oh my god. The first time I met him was when I went for the fitting the day before the shoot. He came and sat next to me. I didn’t know he was the photographer. And then he was like, “Oh, do you stay in London?”
I’m like, “Yeah, I stay in London, but…”
Then he said, “Do you like London?”
“Actually no, London is so crazy. I don’t like it. I don’t have friends, been lonely in London.”
And he’s like, “You don’t have friends?!”
I’m like, “Yeah.”
He said, “I’m going to make you my friend. I’m going to start taking you around London, you will love it.”
So when we’re done talking, he’s like, “I’m the photographer.” And then he said, “When I saw your pictures, there’s something special about you, that’s why I had to book you for this campaign.” I didn’t know he was the one that did the casting. I didn’t know he was the photographer. I was just like talking to a normal person when he came and sat next to me. So after speaking to him I’m like, “God, I just spoke with the photographer, and he casted me for this campaign.”
So after, when we started working, he was so excited about my posing, the energy, being natural. One of the models came to me and she said, “How do you do this? Like, how do you pose your body because when you walk in there, it feels like you’ve been in this industry for years.” I told her, “I just be myself. Even if I’m stressed, I try to leave the other things aside because I’m here at work. I’m here to show people that I can do better than what they see.” But I was working with him [Justin Campbell], which was nice. I wish I continue working with him forever, because he’s one of my favorite photographers now.
Michael Flutie: I would like you to answer the following questions.
Eman Deng: Okay.
Michael Flutie: My happy place is?
Eman Deng: Uganda.
Michael Flutie: My dream is?
Eman Deng: To become a supermodel.
Michael Flutie: I am afraid of?
Eman Deng: Losing my mom.
Michael Flutie: The first memory that you have?
Eman Deng: Having somebody that loves me so much.
Michael Flutie: The first dress you bought?
Eman Deng: It was a long dress for the competition. It was blue. It looked like It was made for a princess.
Michael Flutie: Your favorite ice cream?
Eman Deng: Chocolate ice cream.
Michael Flutie: Your favorite food?
Eman Deng: Chicken and chips.
Michael Flutie: Your favorite designer?
Eman Deng: Rick Owens.
Michael Flutie: Who is your hero?
Eman Deng: My mom.
Michael Flutie: Your favorite model?
Eman Deng: Eman.
Michael Flutie: The amount of money that would make you happy.
Eman Deng: A hundred thousand pounds. Something like that. Yeah.
Michael Flutie: When I stop modeling, I want them to remember me, for?
Eman Deng: Changing the mentality of my people [South Sudanese] saying modeling is for prostitution.
Michael Flutie: Do you believe in miracles?
Eman Deng: Yes I do.
Michael Flutie: And my last question is…
If you open up a magazine and you read the headline of a story about you, that also has your face on the cover, what do you want that headline to be?
Eman Deng: South Sudanese refugee girl becoming the next superstar in the world.
Michael Flutie: And if you were doing an interview and they asked you why, what would that answer be?
Eman Deng: Because they say, being a refugee, it’s hard to achieve what you want. I’ll be able to tell other refugee girls don’t ever sleep on your dream. Don’t ever let the situation cover up your dream. You need to fight hard, no matter what it cost. Through God, all things are possible.