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Amarillo resident Nyanwiy Deng opened the door of the Diane Dick Model & Talent Agency on Washington Street and stepped inside—all 6 feet 2 inches of her. She didn’t have an appointment. She just walked in.

Diane, the legendary local agent and model, looked up from her desk, gasped, and asked, “Where have you been?”

That, indeed, is the question. Nyanwiy is about to become a big deal, and she’s going to be talking about her origins on a regular basis. Represented by Dick’s agency, Nyanwiy (pronounced “ne-ON-wee”) just won Female Model of the Year at January’s International Modeling & Talent Association convention in Los Angeles. IMTA is a biannual gathering of unsigned talent—once a year in L.A. and later in New York City—which hosts modeling competitions in a variety of categories. Ashton Kutcher got discovered there. So did household names like Katie Holmes, Eva Longoria and Elijah Wood.

If the stars continue to align, Nyanwiy Deng may soon be headed toward that kind of A-list recognition. “I see New York, Paris, Milan, the top,” says Dick of her model’s future. “The best designers: Givenchy, Gaultier, the very best. She really could be the next big star.”

The apex of high fashion, in other words. That world is already a long way from Amarillo, and definitely a long way from the reality Nyanwiy knew before 2019, when she and her family arrived in the United States from Africa.

A Dream Come True

“My parents are South Sudanese, but I was born and raised in Kenya in a refugee camp,” Nyanwiy explains in soft, ever-so-slightly accented English. Literally, she was born a refugee. The ongoing civil war and ethnic violence in South Sudan drove many families into neighboring countries like Kenya. Nyanwiy doesn’t know her father, but she and her mother ended up at Kakuma, a notorious refugee camp in Kenya’s northwest corner.

Nyanwiy spent most of her upbringing in that environment before moving further southeast to the Dadaab refugee complex in Garissa. Every aspect of life was a struggle. Occasionally, they didn’t have safe water to drink. Sometimes there wasn’t enough food for regular meals. She had to walk long distances to get to and from her school building.

“There were a lot of challenges over there,” Nyanwiy says, in an incredible understatement. But that world was all she knew. She’d never experienced life outside a refugee camp. “We had learned how to live like that.”

She went on to attend high school in Nairobi until her family, which at that point included a younger brother and sister, received approval to resettle in the U.S. The Dengs left everything behind to board a flight to America. They spent their first six months in Memphis, Tennessee, before moving to Amarillo, where several members of their extended family live.

“Then we had to find our own jobs,” Nyanwiy says. She and her family had struggled to find work in Memphis, but Amarillo was different. “There, we were looking for jobs. Here, the jobs were looking for people. It was easier to find jobs here, and they were paying good, too.”

In September 2019, Nyanwiy got hired by the Tyson Foods plant in northeast Amarillo. She boxed and labeled packed beef. She took a stint as a trimmer, working in refrigerated coolers. In the process, she earned her GED because her Kenyan high school diploma didn’t transfer to America.

It was hard work, but she was happy. “It was a dream come true coming to America,” she says. “America was like heaven to us because we would see it on TV. The buildings, the lights and the life. I had better opportunities than I would ever have back at home.”

And that perspective—one of gratitude for her new surroundings and the hope generated by opportunity—dates back to when she was working in food production. 

That was then. Over the past few months her workplace has changed. She’s on the cusp of a brand-new career, and it’s considerably more glamorous than trimming beef.

Best of the Best

Nyanwiy had dreamed of becoming a model but didn’t exactly know how to make it happen. She wasn’t going to be discovered on a refrigerated assembly line. But some of her colleagues at Tyson began to tell her that Amarillo was home to a legitimate modeling agency. “People came over to me, people who knew Diane, and were like, ‘You need to go find a lady called Diane,’” she says. “They literally came with papers with the address on it to show me exactly where to go.”

So she went. One day last year, Nyanwiy just showed up at Dick’s agency. Diane just happened to be there.

“The first thing I thought, and I’m totally sincere about this, was, ‘Thank you, God,’” says Diane. “I think there are times when God brings certain people into your life. I think it was a God thing.”

Diane Dick is a veteran of the fashion world. Now 80, she began working as a model in the 1960s, then in 1966 established her own agency, based in Amarillo, which represents local talent around the world. Her models have appeared in film and television, on the covers of international fashion magazines, and in advertising campaigns from Texas to China. She’s a charter member of industry organizations like IMTA, and has been attending that conference since it began. 

Diane knows the international modeling world and the modeling world knows Diane.

She’s never seen anyone quite like Nyanwiy. “She’s got this gorgeous, beautiful face,” Diane begins to say, then stops herself and looks at her model. “Don’t listen to this part. I don’t want your head to get too big.” Nyanwiy smiles and looks down. She’s definitely listening.

Diane continues. “Her skin is just incredible. Her body is perfect for [modeling]. She’s intelligent. She’s pleasant to work with. She’s eager to learn. She’s flawless for this business. Those are all things that combine to make her more than just the ordinary person,” she says.

A few weeks ago, the judges and industry leaders at IMTA seemed to agree. “Agents come from all over the world to look for new faces and new talent,” Diane says of that event. “People from all over the world come to compete. It’s the best of the best.” 

The 2024 Los Angeles IMTA represented Nyanwiy’s first competition—and probably her last. “You have no idea how incredible she is,” Diane says. She racked up the wins. First place in Makeup. First place in Swimsuit. First place in Runway. First place in Fashion Print. First place in Jeans.

And then, the apex of the competition: Female Model of the Year and Most Sought-After Female Model. 

After the event ended, an IMTA staff member came to Diane. “I don’t know if you realize this,” the woman said of Nyanwiy, “but she had more callbacks than any other model ever in the history of the IMTA.”

What does that mean? “It means every single top agency that was there wanted [to sign] her,” Diane says. 

Diane Dick’s agency in Amarillo will always be Nyanwiy’s “mother agency,” in industry terms—the agency of discovery. But it will be up to larger modeling agencies to take her career to the next level, and countless agencies were ready to attach themselves to Nyanwiy’s future stardom. In late February, Nyanwiy had garnered exclusive contract offers from Hop Models (Atlanta), BMG (NYC, LA, Chicago), AMTI (Canada), and was in contract negotiations with Milk Management (London).

Incredible Trajectory

Already, high-profile fashion photographers are interested in Nyanwiy. Advertisers are calling. Designers want to get her in their clothing, but Diane sees more than fashion in her client’s future. “She could go right into movies. You talk about someone that looks like a queen, that looks like royalty. That’s her,” she says. “Everything about her is just so regal.”

Nyanwiy smiles again. “It would be cool to be a queen,” she says softly.

She realizes her time as an Amarillo resident has been all too brief. She lives here for now, but she’s about to move on. Her new career will take her across the United States and around the world. “She’ll get to shoot in some of the most exotic locations on the face of the earth,” Diane says, “with the most talented, creative, innovative people. I’m just thrilled to death for her.” 

Nyanwiy Deng is going to travel the world. She’s going to become a template for the world’s best designers and a muse for the world’s greatest photographers. She may reach the pinnacle of the fashion world and her gifts may propel her even further than that.

“I know for a fact that it’s going to be a change in my life, a big change,” she says.

But this city in the Texas Panhandle—where so many of her cousins and aunts still live, working hard and building new lives in a new place—will remain part of her story. 

“I like it here. It was a blessing for me,” she says. Nyanwiy made the decision to walk in the door, but describes her meeting with Diane Dick as “an opportunity that just fell out of the sky.”

A blessing. An opportunity. A “God thing.” Whatever it was, it is a gift. A gift for Diane Dick’s agency and a gift for Nyanwiy’s burgeoning career. 

“It was definitely the beginning of a different and better life for me,” Nyanwiy says. She looks up and smiles at Diane, her mentor. Nyanwiy’s training takes over. She sits up straighter, pushes her shoulders back, and embraces the height, elegance and confidence that make her an extraordinary beauty in a decidedly ordinary landscape. 

We’re not familiar with kings or queens in the Texas Panhandle, but this much is clear: Nyanwiy Deng looks like no one else, and she’s about to capture the world’s attention.