The supermodel Alek Wek, a refugee from Sudan who had been resettled in London, was discovered by a talent scout at a market. Louice Ali was working his summer job last month when his break came.
Born in Khartoum, Ali fled war-torn Sudan with his family just after middle school. He spent the next four years in a refugee camp in Damascus, where he couldn't go to school, or do much of anything. In December of 2007, he came to Houston with his mother, father and five siblings.
Soft-spoken, extremely shy and, having just turned 18, still in high school, the thought of becoming a model had never crossed Ali's mind. Shawn Webb, the education director at YMCA International, which resettled Ali and his family, thought it might be worth a try.
Ali works at the agency as a summer case aide, helping incoming refugees with the transition to their new lives. One day last month, Webb suggested he enter the "Faces of Summer" modeling contest hosted by Page Parkes, who runs a modeling and acting center in Houston. Webb took a picture of Ali in the office and submitted an application. The next day, he received a call saying that Ali had been selected as one of six male finalists. He was the only one without any experience or training.
Starting early on July 25, the day of the show, the center's staff gave Ali a crash course on the basics of posing and walking the runway. It wasn't enough to win him the competition. But Parkes approached him afterward and told him she would be in touch.
Soon after, Webb called Todd Parker, the photographer who had shot the show, about putting together a portfolio. He and his colleagues were pooling their money to pay.
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"I felt guilty as hell," says Parker, who accepted what they'd already collected, about half of his normal fee. To unveil the photos, on Thursday evening he threw Ali a small party at the studio, which was attended by about 15 people from the YMCA. Ali was visibly uncomfortable as his pictures flashed to a soundtrack on a projection screen.
"He stood there and took it," Parker says -- at least until the third time through the show, at which point Ali could take no more.
It seems as if he'll need to get used to the feeling. On Friday, Ali learned he'd won a contract to learn to model with Parkes' center.
"I need to practice, so I can take the shyness, or whatever it is, away," he says.