When Nyakim Gatwech called an Uber, she never thought she’d set herself on a crash course with history. Little did she know, getting in that car was like entering her worst nightmare. And “nightmare” would be the best way to describe it, because she had never met anyone quite like this driver. But when Nyakim later found out who he really was, and how he got that way, she thought he had lost his mind. And just when the model had no doubt lost all hope, he asked her to do something that had her scrambling for her phone.
Sadly for Nyakim, this was not her first nightmare. Back when she was just starting out on her journey in America, things for Nyakim were very difficult. Having originated from South Sudan, one of the poorest countries in the world, as well as taking refuge in Ethiopia before the family made their way to America, there was very little that Nyakim hadn’t experienced in terms of hardships. At least that is what she thought.
In 2007, Nyakim, her mother, and her siblings arrived in Minneapolis, Minnesota. For them, it was a safe haven from all the difficulties they had faced in Africa. “America is education, food, hospitals, not feeling like your child will pass away because there’s no medical care,” she writes. But their new country came with its own set of challenges.
After Nyakim enrolled in high school in Minneapolis, she was bullied for the first time for the color of her skin. Kids would say things like, “You black as hell, take a shower.” When teachers asked her questions in class, other students replied, “Who are you talking to? We can’t see her. She’s not here.” She spent countless schooldays crying. People said she was ugly, and she was starting to believe it. Even worse, she was starting to consider extreme measures.
Recalling a time when two random men made a bet to see if she was wearing leggings or if her skin really was that dark, Nyakim acknowledges how she had internalized the colorism she faced. “There was a time in my life where I considered bleaching myself to avoid the dirty looks, the laughter, and for boys to find me attractive,” she says. But, luckily, there were people in her life who wouldn’t let her stop loving herself.
The best advice Nyakim ever got was from her older sister: “The most satisfying feeling is when you are comfortable in your own skin and when you accept your beautiful dark, dark melanin.” Other people, too, were starting to notice her natural beauty. People stopped her at the grocery store to tell her she should pursue modeling. The only problem? Nyakim didn’t even know what modeling was. And once she found out, she didn’t believe it was something she could do.
The non-stop bullying had left deep scars in Nyakim’s psyche. She thought, “These kids think I’m ugly. I don’t see myself on social media, or TV, or in the magazines. I don’t think I’m meant to be a model.” Even though her sister encouraged her to try it, she kept thinking modeling was for lighter-skinned girls only. But then she got a serendipitous opportunity, which set off the chain of events that put Nyakim where she is now.
At a school event, Nyakim got to model and walk down the runway wearing her friends’ designs. She discovered she was a natural. She moved to New York and spent every weekend doing photo shoots. For two years, she worked tirelessly to build up her portfolio. It was a tough time, as she faced constant discrimination from designers, makeup artists, and even other models. But she was determined not to give up.
Eventually, Nyakim started breaking through in the world of modeling. She booked more photo shoots and signed more contracts. She had finally deprogrammed herself from the idea that her dark skin was a detriment and not an asset. She had learned self-love, and this empowered her to pursue her dreams with even more determination. But one interaction she had with a stranger brought her back to those darker times.
One day, Nyakim was sitting in an Uber on her way to a job interview in St. Paul when her driver, who she describes as a “light-skinned black man,” told her, “Wow, you’re dark.” “Yeah, I know,” she replied. Then he asked her something that brought back painful memories: “If you were given $10,000, would you bleach your skin for that amount?” And yet, her response was something he probably didn’t expect.
Nyakim burst out laughing. “Why would I ever bleach this beautiful melanin God blessed me with?” she said. The man still couldn’t understand why Nyakim considered it a blessing, and even said her life would be easier if she had lighter skin. “Even if being lighter would make my life easier, I’d rather take the hard road,” she replied. She then took her story to social media, where it struck a chord.
Nyakim shared her interaction with the Uber driver on Instagram, and was overwhelmed with the positive response that it got, with people dubbing her the “Queen of the Dark.” “I’m used to people asking the stupidest questions ever about my skin,” she told Cosmopolitan. “I was so surprised that people were moved by this story.” But it was her outlook on life that moved people the most.
The model and aspiring schoolteacher has grown her Instagram page from 20,000 followers to more than 300,000 and has booked professional gigs ranging from local magazine covers to national campaigns for brands like Calvin Klein and Aldo. But more importantly — to her — she has become a woman that little girls look up to when they’re in search of self-love and a positive influence. She promotes a bold message that often challenges the status quo.
“When I put a picture up I’m telling people that no matter what you say, I love who I am. I love my skin tone. I’m telling people that I am beautiful even though I look different than the majority of people in this world I live in,” Nyakim said. She challenges the American standards for beauty and hopes that others can find the strength to do the same in their situations. And now, she is sharing the secret for this strength.
It’s nothing scandalous or radical, but it is something that can be hard to cultivate when others try to bring you down. Nyakim believes self-love is the key, expressing, “It takes time to love who you are. Be confident in whatever the situation is…If you love yourself other people will see. It will shine through you and then they have the choice to accept you or walk away.” So, even though her dark skin was the cause of some tough times, she couldn’t be more grateful to look the way she does.
Nyakim loves the nickname her fans have given her. “There is nothing wrong with darkness and being called a queen is just cherry on the top,” she wrote on Instagram. “Black is not a color of sadness or death or evil. It’s just the way it has been portrayed for so many years. So I am the queen of the dark who brings light and love to those around me.” She also wants young women everywhere to know that they can reach out to her to be that person because “self-love is contagious.” “If loving myself and talking about it is helping people, I want to keep doing that. That’s important.” Slay on, Queen. Slay on!