Anok Yai on Her History-Making Model Moment

Photographs by Rafael Pavarotti
Styled by Ibrahim Kamara
Interview by Jenny Comita

Anok Yai wearing a Richard Quinn embroidered dress, Conner Ives gown, Hanro bra, Swarovski necklace,...
Anok Yai wears a Richard Quinn embroidered dress; Conner Ives gown; Hanro bra; Swarovski necklace; Prada shoes.

The 50th Anniversary Issue of W is an all-out supermodel celebration featuring 17 cover stars ranging from the world’s most famous names to women who are well on their way to total fashion domination. See every cover model here and read Jenny Comita’s essay about the evolution of the beauty standards that define the industry here.

You were discovered as a student at Howard University in October 2017, and by February 2018 you were opening the Prada show at Milan Fashion Week, the first Black model to do so in 20 years. Were you aware that you were making history?

When I opened the Prada show, I didn’t realize that I was the first Black model since Naomi [Campbell] to open. Even when I got off the runway and everyone congratulated me, I didn’t realize. It wasn’t until afterward, when my agent called me. That was a surreal experience and definitely one of my biggest career moments.

Maximilian gown; Missoni bra and briefs; Raf Simons hat; Swarovski earrings, necklace, and bracelet; Giuseppe Zanotti shoes; stylist’s own fishnets.

LaQuan Smith jacket and skirt; Gucci dress (worn as camisole); Patricia Underwood hat; Swarovski earrings and necklace; Giuseppe Zanotti shoes; stylist’s own fishnets.


Growing up in Manchester, New Hampshire, were you always interested in fashion?

I’ve always been very artistic and had a love for art and fashion. In high school and middle school I would have these crazy outfits. I used to have mohawks and green and hot pink hair. I would do crazy, outlandish things with how I dressed. In seventh or eighth grade, I came to school in stilettos. My mom let me dress any kind of way, but she hated if I would wear makeup.

Ahluwalia coat; Araks bralette and briefs; Prada shoes; stylist’s own fishnets.

Balenciaga dress and boots; Swarovski necklace and bracelet.


How have you seen the modeling industry shift over the past few years?

Since the Covid pandemic, models have had more creative control. I’ve had the opportunity to creative-direct some shoots, and at this stage of my career, I can be more than a model—I can be an artist. At the end of the day, a runway show is a collaborative effort. As a model, you can sometimes feel like just a hanger. But when I’m on the runway, it feels like a performance. I’m at a point now where if you don’t give me artistic freedom, I’m just going to take it.

Anok Yai wears an Off-White top and skirt; Jimmy Choo shoes; stylist’s own bra and gloves.

The Brazilian photographer Rafael Pavarotti has established himself with a clear eye for composition and a fondness of vibrant colors. For W’s 50th anniversary issue, he captured Anok Yai, Bella Hadid, Kendall Jenner, Precious Lee, and Adut Akech—models with a strong point of view and an even stronger sense of self.

Hair by Eugene Souleiman at Streeters; makeup by Chiao-Li Hsu for Lashify at CLM; manicures by Eri Handa for Chanel Beauty at Home Agency. Casting by Michelle Lee at Michelle Lee Casting. Set design by Mary Howard at MHS Artists.

Anok Yai at Next; produced by PRODn at Art + Commerce; production manager: Mitch Baker; producers: Kait Robinson, Ian Milan; photo assistants: Felix Turnbull-Walter, Valdrin Rexhepi, John Griffith; digital technician: Paul Allister; on-set retoucher: Pawel Okol; retouching: DTouch London; fashion assistants: Felix Paradza, Marion Kelly; production assistants: Ryan Carter, Rance Gensemer, Kelli McGuire; hair assistants: Pamela Baumgartner, Christine Moore, Anastasiia Milyaeva; special thanks to David at Fourteenjay Salon; makeup assistants: Mert Nazlim, Iona Moura; manicure assistant: Yoshimi Muranashi; set assistants: Montana Pugh, Michael Newton, Kylie Baker, Jason Beaucourt, Brendan Galvin, Ben Redding, Breanna Dejesus; tailor: Olga Dudnik; props: Hook Props; special thanks to Hook Studio