"I've been waiting for this day for months," said the South Sudanese-Australian model Duckie Thot on Thursday, cozied up in an armchair in midtown Manhattan just before the first look at the official 2018 Pirelli Calendar was to be unveiled. The cast alone is enough to get anyone excited: It features Naomi Campbell, RuPaul, Lupita Nyong'o, Whoopi Goldberg, Sean "Diddy" Combs, Adwoa Aboah, among many, many others, in a reimagining of Alice in Wonderland—too many to repeat without losing your breath.
Of all those names, though, it's Thot, who's 22 and has only been modeling outside of Australia for a year, who landed the titular role—and who stayed with the photographer Tim Walker for all of the four 12- to 14-hour days on set, which turned out to be all the better for her, given that she had a "fan girl moment" over everyone involved. (After privately freaking out to the calendar's stylist, Edward Enninful, she'd run up to each and every cast member when they entered and breathlessly introduce herself with a, "Hi, nice to meet you. I’m Duckie, I’m your Alice.")
Thot landed the role after spending a mere six hours in London, where she met Walker, who walked her through his concept for the product that's recently shifted its focus from pin-ups to political statements. Walker's statement, which he's said is about the ongoing "diversity debate," was to exclusively cast black models—a concept that, even when well intentioned, has often proved controversial. (Vogue Italia's all-black 2008 issue was memorably deemed by some to be "both a success and a failure" for appearing to suggest that diversity is only for "special" situations, whereas casting in general remains white by default.)
To Thot, however, the idea was "fabulous"—a reason to embrace the project with open arms, rather than hesitate. Indeed, her enthusiasm was in part why she hit it off with Walker, who spent most of their meeting explaining that he wanted to tell Alice in Wonderland in a way it had never been told before.
"I just thought it was so genius, really. It was so simple from the start," Thot recalled. "Every girl deserves a fairy tale, and that’s exactly what we’re doing and offering. It's so beautiful that girls can look at Alice in Wonderland and see themselves."
In short, it's the type of "positive message" Thot has felt compelled to share with her work since she really settled into modeling, which she took up at 15 after falling in love with watching her sister, the model Nikkie Perkins, on set. After a stint on Australia's Next Top Model, Thot finally left what a country she's described as both one she loves "with [her] whole heart" and one that "doesn't promote black models." Unfortunately, Thot's career path seems to prove she was right about the latter: Though she struggled to find work Down Under, in the States, where she was quickly heralded the "Black Barbie," she immediately started booking gigs—the first of which was with Pat McGrath and Kanye West. After Yeezy, she also walked Fenty, and has since only gotten cozier with Rihanna as a face of Fenty Beauty.
Even now that she's signed to New York Models and landing magazine covers, though, Thot takes care to punctuate seemingly each and every of her achievements with a reminder of her not so distant past: "I remember being bullied in high school by other kids for the way I looked and today I'm on the cover of @papermagazine," she tweeted in September.
"I get messages every day from women all around the world about how they struggle with their skin color and fitting in and being themselves, and I was there at one point as well a few years ago, as a teenager," Thot said on Thursday. "So if telling my truth is somebody else, why hide it and why not share it? I’m confident in myself now; I’ve found myself, so I think helping others through that is important, especially today."
Part of being Thot—which, by the way, actually is her last name; it's from a South Sudanese language from the Nuer tribe, just like her first name, Nyadak, which she hasn't gone by since age 6—turns out to be embracing those "fan girl moments."
"I love Naomi Campbell," Thot gushed of the supermodel, who plays the Royal Beheader, along with Combs. "It was so cool just to be able to watch her do her thing, which was mainly what I was doing when she was shooting with Diddy—just sitting it in the chair behind him and being like, 'Wow, that’s the woman.' I've got nothing but so much respect for her—she always gives me positive vibes and good energy."
In the end, though, it was in fact Walker whom Thot connected with the most, thanks to the fact that they both practically lived on set, with Thot either being shot by Walker or simply soaking up watching him shoot people whom she'd admired for years. "It was an intense four days, and I was just holding it together, just being like, 'Cool, just work, Duckie, work,'" Thot recalled. "I remember crying right after we finished, and it wasn’t because I was sad or anything like that—not at all. After we'd done that shot, it was just like, boom, tears of joy, so much joy, just hugging Tim. We were both so happy in that moment."
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