Anok Yai doesn’t really like the picture that is on the verge of changing her life.
She concedes it’s a high-quality photo and politely thanks the people who tell her she’s beautiful, but she was surprised by the photographer aiming his camera at her during Howard University’s homecoming celebration. To her, the resulting picture makes her look like a “deer in headlights.”
Tens of thousands of people disagree. In just more than a week, that photo has brought Yai Instagram fame and gained the attention of nearly a dozen modeling agencies, she said, including one that flew her up to New York for an interview on Tuesday.
She suddenly finds herself in new and exciting territory, as a dream that she chose not to pursue has ended up pursuing her instead.
Yai was born in Egypt, but her heritage is Sudanese and her family has lived in the United States since she was 2.
As a child, she and her sister were engrossed by “America’s Next Top Model,” the Tyra Banks-hosted show that pitted aspiring models against each other in a series of challenges. The Yai girls would envision themselves as contestants, racing to interviews and gigs in New York, walking runways in Paris.
People had always told Yai she was gorgeous enough to grace the cover of a magazine, but the models she’d seen growing up were all white or light skinned — and she was not.
Plus it was a crowded and complicated field. When people told her she looked “exotic,” she worried the modeling world would see her as an easily-discarded fad.
“My fear was being able to stand out because there’s so many girls modeling and the industry is always changing,” she told The Washington Post.
So she shelved her modeling dreams and enrolled at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire. She’s a biochemistry major and wants to be a doctor.
A school friend recently suggested a trip to Howard’s homecoming. The friend had transferred from there but thought Yai would enjoy an immersion in the Howard experience.
But if they went, the friend said, they’d have to dress the part.
“My friend was like ‘Anok, you have to dress nice. All these girls, they dress amazing.’ ” Yai recalled. “My friend was like ‘If I see you in a T-shirt and jeans, you’re not walking with me.’ ”
It was warmer than she expected that Friday evening, so Yai donned jean shorts and a sheer black top and wore her curly hair in a loose mane down to her shoulders.
She realized she’d made the right choice when she stepped into YardFest and got compliments from people she didn’t know.
“I didn’t even think that anyone would look at me,” she said. “I was looking at the girls and they had nice outfits put together.”
Some people asked to snap photos of her, including Steve Hall.
He’s a Howard graduate who works at the university. He’s also a professional photographer whose passion is documenting black fashion, beauty and culture at events like Howard’s homecoming. He posts the images — along with commentary and other things he finds interesting — on his website, the SUNK. He sees Howard’s homecoming as a version of Afropunk, an arts festival that celebrates black culture.
He brought his professional camera, rented a lens for the weekend and planned to spend hours photographing the cultural aspects of homecoming.
“I wanted to do as many shoots as possible and to take as many photos of fashionable Howard students as I could,” he told The Post. “My goal was to get 50 or 75 dope photos.”
He literally stumbled into Yai as someone else was taking a photo of her with a camera phone. The first photo Hall snapped was candid. Then he asked if he could snap a few more. He then asked for her name and Instagram handle.
He told her she is “the physical embodiment of what my art is,” he recalled to The Post. “Mysterious. Just a tall, dark-skinned and insanely beautiful person. I told her ‘I don’t know what you’ve been doing, but you should definitely be photographed and you should be modeling.’ ”
He uploaded her picture to Instagram the next morning, one of dozens he touched up in a marathon editing session.
“Saw her right at the end of Yardfest,” he wrote. “Stunning.”
His phone started buzzing — Instagram notifications — and it wouldn’t stop.
Yai’s phone was buzzing too, and she couldn’t figure out why.
Then she saw the picture. Deer in headlights, yes, but people seemed to like it. Lots of people.
“When it got to a couple thousand and it just kept going higher and higher, I was surprised. And I was happy. I always wanted it to happen, but it was something I never expected.”
The number of people following her ballooned, from around 300 to 50,000 by Tuesday morning. The picture of her in Howard’s yard had more than 30,000 likes. Another one had 21,000.
But the teen knows Internet celebrity can be fleeting and figured her newfound fame would be short-lived.
Then the calls and messages started coming in. They were from modeling agencies that wanted to hire her, she said. Her Instagram fame had morphed into something life-changing.
“I got an email from a modeling agency,” she said. “They said they were interested in having me and they had me call them. And they just set up tons of interviews and it just went on from there.”
The most serious ones offered to fly her out to their offices, just like the ones she’d seen on “America’s Next Top Model.”
The first week of her new life has been a roller coaster and at times overwhelming. She’s still a 19-year-old facing huge decisions.
“There was one day where I had a bunch of classes, and I had done about three to four interviews, and my sister kept saying here’s another one, and here’s another one.
“And I was nervous because I had just gone from being a random girl living in New Hampshire to an Instagram-famous model. I wasn’t sure if I could handle all the expectations.”
Her mom still wants her to finish school but doesn’t want her to miss her shot at modeling. If her career takes off, their compromise solution is online classes. And she reconnected with Hall, who told her that getting recognized was the easy part: The work starts now.
And she said she was inspired by, of all things, comments and direct messages she’d gotten on Instagram.
“I’m glad light has shined on you and that focus of it is for your perfect smooth BEAUTIFUL DARK SKIN,” one commenter said.
“You are such an inspiration to young black [girls] growing up [to] believe in yourself,” another said. “All sorts of perfection. . . . I wish I saw more of such confident dark skin girls in my teens.”
Her random brush with serendipity has given her something more than Instagram fame and a budding career, she said. It has given her a platform.
“When I was younger I was extremely insecure about my skin color,” she said. “All I saw was light-skinned and white girls in the media. Now, I can speak my mind on certain topics and have people that will definitely listen. Now, I can use my mind and tell people about colorism and teach girls about self-confidence.”