The view from the top, albeit thrilling, can be disorienting — a fact the Australian supermodel Ajak Deng knows all too well. Standing just shy of six feet, Deng naturally towers over many in her company, but there are moments when even she can’t quite fathom the height.
Take a recent skydiving experience. “It was all fun and games until we reached 5,000 feet,” she says. “I was like, ‘This is it?’ And they were like, ‘No, we’ve got 10 more thousand feet to go.’”
Deng is afraid of high altitudes, and in the aftermath of the 2014 disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370 she developed a phobia of air travel, a major inconvenience for someone required to commute internationally for work. The skydiving, she explains, was an attempt to face — and hopefully quell — her fear. Peering down from her position in the sky, Deng could no longer see cars; far below, they looked like ants. “I said, ‘No, I changed my mind, I’m sorry. I’m not doing this,’ ” she recalls. “They’re like, ‘The plane can only land with [just] the pilot, so there’s only one way out.’ ” She jumped.
The tactic worked. Not only did Deng conquer her fear of flying, but she became hooked on the adrenaline. “I want to go skydiving in Dubai over the Palm — my dream,” she says of the emirate’s palm tree-shaped human-made islands. Deng flew into Sydney for our interview from Brisbane, her home for the past 12 months and one of many relocations Deng has made in her 33 years.
Born in 1989 against the backdrop of civil war in what is now South Sudan, Deng fled the country’s violence with her family to a Kenyan refugee camp, where she spent three years waiting for Australia to approve their visas. During this period, Deng’s mother died of malaria. Deng is the second eldest sibling and responsibility fell to her to care for her three sisters and four brothers. The death of her mother caught the attention of the authorities, and the family’s application for refugee status was expedited, allowing them to formally immigrate to Australia, where they settled in Melbourne. Deng was 12 years old.