Alek Wek, Atong Arjok and Ajak Deng are some of the most popular and successful South Sudanese models in the world. However, they only managed to succeed in countries where the fashion industry thrives such as the US, UK, Australia and other parts of the Western world.
In Qatar, an oil-rich Muslim country in the Middle East, the fashion industry is a new one, playing a huge role in the lives of women in Qatar today who wear the world’s finest brands with their abayas including Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Valentino and the list goes on. And where fashion exists, so do models. However, it’s quite rare to find a dark-skinned beauty walking on the fashion runways of Qatar. But this small Arabian Peninsula is home to the only South Sudanese model and, probably, in the Gulf region – Sherin Santos.
“It’s not very easy being black in the model industry,” said the 22-year-old model. “[In Qatar], most of the designs are meant to capture a certain audience and not having a big African population as compared to the other nationalities, it’s difficult…so I look at Alek Wek, I look what she’s become so you push yourself out there, struggle, get to where you want, show people that you’re worth it, and let people change their minds,” said Sherin about being an African model in Qatar. As a South Sudanese model, Sherin has many models from home country to look up to such as Alek Wek but also looks into the world’s most successful models such as Adriana Lima and Naomi Campbell for inspiration.
Sherin was born and raised in Qatar where her parents first arrived in 1986. Her father was the first in her family to move from Sudan to Qatar when he was offered a job in Qatar Petroleum. Her mother and siblings followed. “Life here is surprisingly comfortable. There’s a weird sense of comfort and it’s the same thing you do everyday. And you get a good pay and a good life so you stay here,” she said. Sherin is the youngest of her four siblings and the second in her family to join the fashion world. The first is Sherin’s mother, Tereza Effrem, a fashion designer who runs her own recently opened fashion boutique in Juba, South Sudan. Effrem named the boutique, Veros Boutique, a name formed by the first initial of each of her offsprings’ names.
“You can never be a full time model here. You really can’t stand out as a model because the modeling industry is still growing. Maybe in a few years time, there will be a big modeling industry,” Sherin said. However, she finds modeling in Qatar fun and easy “to get into especially if you know the right people.” From her experience, modeling for local designers is comfortable as their designs are usually modest and conventional whereas modeling for international designers is not. “You have to wear dresses that you wouldn’t normally see a person wearing…They want you to do this, be a certain way. Change your walk. Do this, do that,” Sherin explains. But although the designers from aboard have certain expectations, “as a model, you grow, learn, train yourself and get positive criticism,” said Sherin.
Sherin has landed on some of the best modeling opportunities in Qatar. The list begins with her most recent modeling job at Katara Fashion Show were Sherin modeled for Qatar’s most popular abaya and jalabiya designers including Fahad Al Obaidly. Sherin’s modeling resume also includes for Layla Al Siyabi’s LAS Charity Fashion Show, Rabab Abdulla Fashion Show, Luxos Fashion Show, Tasmeem Fashion Show at Virgina Commonwealth University in Qatar, Run The World Fashion Show, and last but not least, Made in Italy Fashion Show. Sherin has also taken part in a photo-shoot for Glam Magazine, Qatar’s first and most popular fashion magazine.
“I don’t know how I am [as a model] yet because modeling is very subjective. Some people might be like ‘she knows how to sell the dress very well’, some people might be like ‘she doesn’t really know how to walk,” she said. With no professional training or schooling in modeling, Sherin is self-taught model. The model Sherin is today is a result of – wearing comfortable clothes as much as possible, putting on the highest heels and the most unexpected outfit available while trying to make someone else want to wear what she’s wearing. “When you wear something and make someone say ‘I like what you’re wearing’ or ‘I want to wear what you’re wearing’ then you can say ‘OK, I’m a good model,” said Sherin. “At the end of the day, modeling is about selling or making people believe that what you’re wearing is the best and can look good on anyone.”
First step into the modeling world
When Sherin was around 14 years old, she was listening to a talk on the radio about a model who got her big break when she was 16 years old. “I remember listening to that and I was just like ‘oh my god, I’m going to be 16 soon, I haven’t done anything. I want to try something new,” she said. From that moment, Sherin was motivated. “Back in the day, modeling wasn’t really popular because its something that started new. A lot of people didn’t go to fashion shows and stuff. But I started picking up the phone and called all the big outlets at that time. I called Splash, Centerpoint and said I’m this and this. I would like to participate. Is there any chance?” said Sherin. The first to respond to her call was the Manager of Centerpoint Mall who, after interviewing her, invited Sherin to model for a fashion show for Splash, Shoe Mart and City Lifestyle at Centerpoint Mall. “That was my very first fashion show…that was the first time I actually walked the runway,” she said. “I loved it. I was pampered. I got my hair and my make up done…Walking wasn’t easy. We had a slippery runway. You have people starring at you. Its a pretty tiny runway so we get a bit intimated.” Since then, although Sherin didn’t sign with a model agency or had her own agent, modeling agents and agencies began contacting Sherin inviting her to take part in fashion shows across Qatar. Only at 14, Sherin kicked off her career as an African model in Qatar.
“I was in best shape when I was in my late teens as I used to exercise a lot. I could eat whatever I want; especially a lot of junk food, but the calories would just burn. Now I’m a little older so metabolism is not the same. And since I cannot exercise as much as I want, I try to watch what I eat,” said Sherin who’s around 52 kg and 1.68 m. Sherin is a vegetarian. “I have been so since 2011 because I started educating myself about where our meat came from, and how these animals were killed. I have a very soft corner for animals, especially those who can’t defend themselves,” she explains.
No cultural boundaries
Coming from a culturally sensitive country, one wonders if Sherin faces cultural boundaries. “I’ve noticed that the Sudanese and South Sudanese culture is opening slowly. As I have lived in Qatar since I was a kid, I got used to the culture here. I know I’m Sudanese or South Sudanese but I’m more adapted to doing things the way they do them in Qatar. Over here, you can still model because it’s not too skimpy and somewhat comfortable,” she said. In addition to the undemanding fashion industry in Qatar, Sherin continues to model without any parental restrictions. “My parents always push me to do extracurricular activities. My mum is always proud and she’s always like ‘do it. Why aren’t you doing it? I want to see you doing it out there.’ My dad is like ‘challenge yourself. Do something different.” Effrem, Sherin’s mother, attends almost all of Sherin’s fashion shows. “She goes to these things not only to support me. She also learns. She sees how things are done, how clothes are made and she enjoys that,” Sherin said about her mother who designs most of Sherin’s dresses.
From Qatar to India
Having been born and raised in Qatar, Santos wanted to take a break from life here so she decided to go to university in Pune, India where she attended the University of Symbiosis to studied accounting. Sherin joined her elder sister in India, who was studying law there. “My parents are kind of traditional. They wanted me to go somewhere where they knew someone. They didn’t want to live me on my own. I had to choose between the US where my older brother and sister are, or India where my other sister is. And I watch Indian movies and I saw how life is there and I said ‘that’s it; this is the place to go. I am going there.’ I think I made a good choice cause it was a very different experience. Besides speaking Arabic, English, Arabi Juba – the Arabic that is spoken only in South Sudan – and French, Sherin learned Hindi in India. “I don’t speak it fluently although I understand it. I have to practice it because it’s been a while,” she said.
Sherin completed her education in three years and received a bachelor of commerce with a concentration in accounting and finance. “Back in school, you had to take either science or commerce and I was really horrible at science. I hated science so the only other option was to do art or commerce,” said Sherin who attended Middle East Educational Society, a British-Indian curriculum school in Abu Hamour. “I took accounting and all the other subjects that came along with it, which were very interesting. There’s so much you can do with commerce. You could do anything. So I thought I could be a chartered accountant.”
While in India, Sherin pursued her passion for modeling. “After I went to college, when I was about 16, I did a lot of fashion shows for college…It wasn’t really modeling. It was more of college fashion shows where you do your own style and show yourself.” In addition, In India, Sherin participated in photo shoots for modeling agencies for the first time in her life.
Citizen of nation 193
South Sudan is the newest country in the world. Only two years old, South Sudan was a part of Sudan, which was the largest country in Africa and the Middle East, in 2011, until July 2010, which is when South Sudan decided to secede. “Its actually a bittersweet feeling,” said Sherin about the secession of South Sudan from Sudan. “We had a house in Khartoum. When you say Sudan, Khartoum is the first to come to my mind. I had a lot of family in Khartoum. We were all living there. We still have a house there,” However, Sherin hasn’t been to Khartoum since the secession in 2010. Instead, on holidays, Sherin has been visiting South Sudan, which she last visited in January 2012. “The last time I went, it feels like home. You see your people, you speak the language of course, and you have the same sense of ‘OK, its home’. I’m still getting used to it. It’s a bit difficult. I won’t lie. The culture is different from what I’m accustomed to,” explains Sherin. “I think in some time, South Sudan will establish itself in the world stage.”
During the referendum for Southern Sudanese to choose between unity and separation, “voting was not easy” said Sherin. “I wasn’t really sure what I wanted. I was confused.” Although her parents voted, Sherin couldn’t. “I had to go to South Sudan to vote. You couldn’t do it through Qatar [not through the Sudanese Embassy]; you needed a South Sudanese embassy. The centers were all over South Sudan, which was at the time still Sudan. The other centres were in the US and Canada where there is a large concentration of South Sudanese.” According to the Sudanese Embassy in Qatar, Qatar is home to over 30,000 Sudanese but there are only a few hundred South Sudanese in the country.
Only 22, Sherin has a lot of to look forward to. “I would like to model somewhere outside [of Qatar] just to get the experience,” she said. One day, Sherin dreams of putting together a fashion show in South Sudan for her morther’s fashion boutique once everything is set. “Her store is kind of new…I have a lot of cousins and they’re pretty tall also. I want to wear her clothes and show it off but we haven’t officially done that and I would like to do it in in South Sudan,” she explains. But in terms of Sherin’s modeling career, “I don’t know if I want to model full time because you have to start at an early age. And I’ve tried, it’s a lot of fun but I’ve also built up other interests… but I want to continue to do this as a hobby. Because once you start taking your hobby and make it into work, it doesn’t become much fun or interesting. It becomes work,” said Sherin. For now, this young African beauty will continue to model until she has enough.