"We need to make you a color!" exclaimed legendary makeup artist Pat McGrath to a then very new-on-the-scene model named Duckie Thot just last year. According to Duckie, the two were both at a fitting for Kanye West's now-infamous SS17 Yeezy show and McGrath was testing foundations on all the models. After getting to Duckie, the makeup maestro paused and let the comment casually slip from her lips. "She said it like it was just light conversation," Thot recalls -- and it's evident from her voice that, despite a full year having gone by, she's still in a state of complete disbelief.
This whole episode is, of course, compounded by the fact that the September 2016 presentation was also Duckie's first official runway show. Though she's reluctant to cite any singular moment as the one when she knew she had made it (truthfully joking that "many girls can get a big booking and not work ever again after that job"), something about this interaction with Pat McGrath clearly left a lasting impression. And why not? It's not every day that one of the most recognizable names in the beauty industry tells you that your skin has inspired them to create a new cosmetics color.
Then again, Duckie's skin color is a large part of the reason her name has slowly (but, no doubt, surely) become a mainstay for the fashion set. It's a warm, mocha chocolate that's impossibly smooth and even-toned, and its dark hue is striking in a way that has made her simultaneously adored by casting agents looking for something radically different to the white industry norm and uplifted by the onlooking people of color observing -- and celebrating -- her increasingly rapid success. This latter community has even anointed her with the title of "Black Barbie."
But what does Duckie feel about that?
On a late afternoon in August, Duckie visits the PAPER office to sit for an interview, during which she will grapple with this question and a range of others. As she struts in, wearing a pair of heels that she would later take off to switch into flat sandals, she's all grace and smiles. The New York Models-signed upstart has a leather biker jacket precariously slung over her shoulders with a spaghetti-strapped snakeskin crop-top worn underneath. When she finally sits down, immediately crossing her legs and then using her hands to press out her leather miniskirt, she starts to contemplate what it means to be a Black Barbie. "Those are some pretty high expectations," she admits. "Barbie is this perfect thing that walks around and I'm definitely not perfect." Nevertheless, she doesn't seem annoyed by the label. "I'm so happy that people say that about me, because it basically is a lovely thing to be introduced to the world as this Black Barbie. I will take the title."
Thot's real first name is Nyadak -- her real last name is "Thot," something she openly acknowledges "everybody loves to throw shit on" — but she's been officially going by Duckie since she was six. In Melbourne, Australia, where she was born and raised in a culturally traditional Sudanese household with her mom, dad and six siblings, her peers at school couldn't pronounce her real name, and it got to an unbearable point. "I went insane! It drove me mental," she proclaims. Of course, neither name was something commonly found amongst Australian citizens. As she explains, both the words "Nyadak" and "Thot" are, in fact, Nuer, a South Sudanese language that's native to the Nuer tribe. "Oh yeah," she says wryly after noticing my surprised facial expression. "Many people don't know I come from a tribe."
After briefly attempting to give a detailed explanation on what it means to be from a tribe, she eventually decides to take a page from Kanye, who she refers to as one of her idols more than once, and sums it up using the third person: "Duckie is from a tribe, and it's lit." She slips into third person again, later, when correcting me about where she got her start in the modeling world. No, it wasn't, as I had suggested, on the eighth cycle of Australia's Next Top Model, where the then 17-year-old reality show contestant finished in third place. "Uh-huh, no I didn't," she mutters disapprovingly after the suggestion. "I knew I wanted to be a model before that show, and I knew I wanted to be a model after I did it." She follows this declaration with a pause, and then, through intermittent laughter, jokes, "Duckie learned! Duckie taught herself!"
It wouldn't be surprising to find out that she also taught herself how to navigate an interview. After a few minutes of rehashing her run on the show, she very plainly asks to move on. Mentioning that she wants to separate herself (and her current career) from her stint on the show, she pleads, "Can we not do this question? I always try to dodge this topic in all my interviews."
After leaving the show, Duckie continued to pursue modeling in Melbourne. In fact, she "stuck with it for two years," but ultimately found that the demand for black models Down Under was virtually non-existent. "I literally got nothing," she explains. "I didn't understand why, but I wasn't getting any work.
"I think it was a very confusing part of my life for me. I was just this little [black] girl in Australia just being like, 'Oh yeah, I want to do modeling,' but [while also] being in a country that doesn't promote black models. It was kind of like a mindfuck all in itself anyways, so I didn't really get how far I was going to go with it."
Her frustration with the lack of opportunities available to women like her in Australia pushed Duckie toward considering other options, and she ended up settling on the idea of trying modeling in New York, where she knew it to be more diverse (even if more competitive). Interestingly, the revelation came to her mid-workout. "I remember running on the treadmill in Australia and thinking, 'You should be running on the treadmill in New York,'" she says, mimicking exhaustion and heavy breathing while she acted out the scene. "That's literally what I was thinking!" (She keeps moving her arms like a runner.) "I just thought -- why am I here? So I was just like, 'Let me make the executive decision to move to New York. I'm not getting my coins in Australia!'"
Sure enough, two months after signing with a new agent in Australia, Duckie boldly approached them to present the new idea. Her agent obliged and, from Australia, pitched her to "six or seven" of "the best agencies in New York." At the time, her agent felt confident that at least one of them would be impressed enough with Duckie's work to sign her on the fly without first meeting her in person, but, as the model recalls, "Every single agency was hesitant to sign."
At the very least, Duckie is noticeably self-aware about precisely why they were hesitant, and she exercises no restraint when talking about it. "You know, they saw this really, really black girl with a long-ass weave to her butt and legs for days. They were probably like, 'Oh!' and didn't want to sign me," she remembers. But as she reminisces on that time -- when she wasn't a well-known "New Face" and couldn't find anyone to take a chance on her -- she doesn't seem at all resentful about the past.
Then again, why resent the past when your present is so promising? Yes, her journey may have been more difficult than that of a lot of other models, but at least Duckie was prepared for it. As the black daughter of a black father, she remembers how hard he worked to ensure that she would enter the "real" world fully aware of what awaited her as a woman of color. At one point, she recalls, "He always taught me that I'm always going to have to work twice as hard in life no matter what, and that there's no book to explain why or as to what reason."
So she kept at it, choosing to look at the agencies' initial rejection not as a reason to give up, but rather as a reason to work harder. Duckie saved up some money to buy herself a plane ticket to New York and then set up in-person meetings with many of the same agencies that had rejected her before. This time, though, they fell in love. When she returned to Australia about two weeks later, she had multiple contract offers in hand.
And the rest, as they say, is history. It tickles her to proudly exclaim, "When I moved to New York, my first job was with Pat McGrath and Kanye!" And with such a major first booking, the sky was naturally the limit. Since then, she has gone on to model for Naeem Khan, Rihanna (Fenty x Puma), Baja East, Norma Kamali and Ulyana Sergeenko. She's appeared in PAPER and W, as well as international issues of Harper's Bazaar and Vogue. In her own words, "Now, my whole passport is booked out with stamps on every single page."
Recently, she was even announced as one of the models participating in the upcoming edition of the highly regarded Pirelli calendar. This time, its story is an all-black reimagining of Alice in Wonderland, shot by iconic photographer Tim Walker and styled by newly appointed British Vogue editor-in-chief Edward Enninful. Duckie, who walked her first show less than a year ago, was sought out and cast as the titular Alice.
Yet, despite a Pirelli booking being huge for any model, Duckie seems most excited about what she got to do on the other side of the camera. Sure, she loved striking poses with the other talent on set (including RuPaul, Whoopi Goldberg, Sean "Diddy" Combs and Lupita Nyong'o), but it was during the creative brainstorming that Duckie felt like she "kind of died" in a good way.
"When I was meeting with Tim [Walker], we had coffee -- so it wasn't the usual standard model booking," she excitedly recaps. "He pulled out this big thick book of all his ideas that he had scrapped out. I don't even know for how long, but it was a huge mood board. With the way my mind thinks, and the way he was really explaining what he wanted, [it] made me want to get that booking even more. He just had this vision that nobody has ever had before, and he was running it all by me. I loved that. When people run things by me and talk to me, that's a whole different side of Duckie. That's when my creative side comes out."
Like many models cognizant of how to maintain their success in this extremely fickle industry, Duckie doesn't want to just be a model. And, as a visual person with a clear understanding of, and exhibited passion for, the fashion industry as a whole, it makes sense that she has a "creative side" that comes out when she's treated like someone with more to offer than just a pretty face for the camera. Unfortunately, other than her creative planning work with Tim Walker on the Pirelli calendar, mum seems to be the word on future endeavors.
When asked what, besides more modeling, she currently has in the pipeline, Duckie responds coyly. "I'm not giving away my secrets because I have plenty of things to come. I'm sure you'll be shocked by what realm Duckie ends up in next. It will throw people off. I think it's going to add something completely different to my character." But after being further prodded to divulge what these things could possibly be (Acting? Writing a book? Designing her own clothing line?), she makes it abundantly clear that she has no intentions to budge. Instead, the 21-year-old, returning to the third-person like so many larger-than-life greats before her, insists that she will say one thing about it and one thing only: "Modeling is not the full stop for Duckie."
Text by Michael Cuby
Photos by Paola Kudacki
Styling by Jason Rembert
Hair by Lacy Redway at The Wall Group
Makeup: by Ralph Siciliano at The Wall Group
Nails by Casey Herman at The Wall Group
Photo Assistants: Sloan Laurits, Ryan Garcia and Michael Echeverry
Digital Tech: Osvaldo Ponton
Stylist Assistant: Shameela Hicks
Location: Dune Studios Brooklyn