Anok Yai walks the runway at the Prada show during Milan Fashion Week Fall/Winter 2018/19 on February 22, 2018 in Milan, Italy.
Photo: Venturelli (WireImage/Getty Images)

Twenty-year-old model Anok Yai is living the dream—a dream she didn’t always believe could include her. When she was captured by a street style photographer during Yardfest at Howard University’s 2017 homecoming celebration last fall, she had no idea it would catapult her to the top of a crop of up-and-coming models—and include a chance to make history.

“As I was leaving, this photographer started taking pictures. He asked for my Instagram account and told me he thought the photo was going to go viral,” Yai told British Vogue. “I didn’t think anything of it until the next day when my phone started blowing up. My first thought was that my friends had put up an embarrassing photo of me on Twitter, and I thought I’d become a meme. I was really happy when I found out it wasn’t that. I started off with 150 followers on Instagram and that night it was 30,000. The next night it was 50,000, and then I started getting calls from agencies.”

Yai, who is Egyptian-born, of Sudanese descent and raised in New Hampshire, ended up choosing international agency Next Models, home to major faces like Riley Montana, Aiden Curtiss, Alanna Arrington, Selena Forrest and more. Mere months after being signed, Yai scored another big win when Italian label Prada booked her for a global exclusive.

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But it was Prada’s 2018 Fall-Winter runway presentation during Milan Fashion Week that put Yai in the position to make history. The model was given the coveted opening spot, making her the first black model to open a Prada show since 1997, when the honor was given to Naomi Campbell, one of Yai’s idols. Thankfully, Yai was oblivious at the time to how big a fashion moment it actually was, more focused on her nerves, as she told Vogue UK:

When the stylist asked me if I was ready, I told her I didn’t remember how to walk. But she told me to follow the light, and the second I got on to the runway, everything just came back to me. After the show, I went to a club in Milan with some friends and partied all night. It didn’t hit me that I’d opened for Prada until the next morning.

The experience gave Yai a taste of life as an in-demand high fashion model—and also the opportunity to connect with Campbell, who sent her a congratulations via DM on Instagram.

I freaked out—I didn’t know what to do! .... I don’t know what I would do if I met her. She told me to stay as sweet as I am now, and the whole thing was crazy because I looked up to her so much growing up. I would sit on YouTube for hours watching videos of her. The first time I saw her walk was for the 2003 Victoria’s Secret show and it was an awakening. That’s when I knew I wanted to be a model. She looked so beautiful and confident - I wanted to be exactly like her.

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And as Yai tells Vogue UK, the impact of her big moment with Prada is still sinking in:

The day after the Prada show I got an interview question about being the second black woman to ever open the show. I was shocked. This issue is very important to me, because even though the fashion industry is making strides in terms of diversity, if you compare the white models to the black models, there’s still a huge difference. There’s a lot of weight on our shoulders and we have to represent for every young black girl who is looking up to us.

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Representation is paramount to Yai, as she now seeks to break barriers and be an inspiration for future aspiring models—inspiration she told Vogue UK she didn’t have growing up in New Hampshire, watching America’s Next Top Model.

There can be so many negative connotations to being black. But I hope the models working now can set the tone for how people see us, and especially how little girls see us. Growing up, I looked up to Naomi Campbell and Grace Jones, but I needed more than just two people. Everywhere I looked, I saw people praising lighter skin and mocking people with dark skin. Now that I have this platform I can hopefully be the person I wanted to look up to. The industry is changing. It’s really slow, but it is changing.

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