On the internet, they call her the “Queen of the Dark.”
Nyakim Gatwech of Minneapolis doesn’t know who first started referring to her with that moniker but she’s embraced it — especially as her messages of self-love have made her an online sensation.
The 24-year-old, originally from Sudan, found Instagram fame recently after an Uber driver asked her if she would ever bleach her skin for $10,000.
In her March 27 Instagram post recounting the incident, she wrote that she “couldn’t even respond I started laughing so hard” and “Why on earth would I ever bleach this beautiful melanin God bless with me.”
The response from other Instagram users was overwhelming, Gatwech said, as hundreds of comments poured in commending her inspiring story.
“I was so surprised, I was not expecting that [reaction],” she said. “I did not think I was going to be somebody who inspires people.”
Gatwech said this wasn’t the first time someone had asked her about bleaching her skin, but she never had a problem with the way she looked until she came to the United States.
“My whole life literally flipped upside down,” Gatwech said about her move to the U.S. from Sudan when she was 14.
In school in Buffalo, N.Y., her classmates would tell her to “take a shower” and other negative comments about her dark skin.
“The kids at my school started bullying me, they had a problem with how my skin color looked,” she said.
When Gatwech was 16, her mother, a pastor, decided to move them somewhere with a larger Sudanese population so she could preach in their native language.
They landed in St. Cloud.
“What was different in Minnesota was that there were kids who were from my country,” she said. “I still got comments, I still got looked at.”
She’d come home in tears and look to her mother for comfort, who would read her passages from the Bible. “‘God created you like this,’” her mother would tell her. It was through talking with her mother and sister that Gatwech said she began accepting and loving herself.
Her advice: You have to find people who accept you for who you are.
“I’m not going to surround myself with people who look down on me or think I’m ugly because of something I can’t change,” she said. “I was created like this.”
'I felt beautiful'
In her junior year of high school, a local designer and one of Gatwech’s favorite tutors encouraged her to model in a local fashion show, but she wasn’t sure.
“Why should I try to put myself out there in front of people and say I’m beautiful when they don’t think I am,” she said.
After a lot of prodding, Gatwech said she was finally convinced.
“It was amazing,” she said. “I felt beautiful.”
Soon after the show, Gatwech did a photo shoot with a local photographer.
“The way the photographer edited the pictures, they made it lighter than what I truly looked like,” she said.
At first, she said she was OK with the editing because she would do that to her own photos (using filters) when she posted them on Instagram. She thought people would think these photos were beautiful because her skin is lighter.
After high school graduation she moved back to Buffalo to live with her sister. She wanted to be closer to New York City in order to pursue a modeling career.
“It didn’t go, it was just so slow,” she said. “I wasn’t getting the right connections, I didn’t know the right people.”
After being there for a year and a half, she decided to move back to Minneapolis and pursue her other passion — education. She modeled on the side locally, doing local photo shoots and shows while working in a school.
Just before Gatwech posted about her run-in with the Uber driver, a photo of her sitting next to another black model with much lighter skin gained significant traction online. The photo received more than 13,000 “likes” on her account and almost 54,000 on the original, which was posted by photographer Isaac West.
Overwhelmed by the response, she said she would sit in her living room and read comment after comment. But these comments were different from ones she’d received in the past.
“Before, the comments I would read were not really nice,” she said. “I’m getting so much positive feedback.”
She said she still gets negative comments, but the good now outweighs the bad. If she gets a negative comment now, she either ignores it or tries to educate.
What’s next for her
Gatwech said the “Queen of the Dark” title started showing up online after the Uber story went viral. She said she first spotted it in a story that included a phrase that said “ … Sundanese model, who was recently named Queen of the Dark.”
“I was like, ‘what?’” she said with a laugh. “I did not have a conversation with somebody that say ‘hey we’re going to name you Queen of the Dark, is that OK?’”
She said she now approves of the name and assumes it came from her Instagram handle, @queenkim_nyakim.
Now that she has a worldwide audience, Gatwech said she has plans to tackle issues in her community.
“I’m going to take this seriously and I’m blessed to be in this position,” she said.
She’s always had trouble finding makeup products that complement her skin, and she said she’d like to work with companies to create products for more diverse skin tones.
“I always had those thoughts, but I never talked about it because I didn’t think I was somebody people wanted to hear from,” she said.
She also wants to reach out to children who faced the same kind of bullying she did in school.
While speaking to elementary and middle school students in St. Cloud in early August, she asked them who in the group had been told that they are “too black.”
“I got like 10 to 20 people raising their hand,” she said. “It’s just so sad, I almost cried.”
She wants to create a program where she can meet with kids to talk about the bullying they face and help them to work through it.
“I wish there was a program I could go to when I was around their age and when I was going through that,” she said.
She said when she was young she didn’t know who to turn to when she was bullied and now tells her followers to talk to people who love you.
“My message is just always self-love, just learning to love yourself,” she said.