Sanele Xaba, SA’s first male albino model, hopes his suc­cess will in­spire oth­ers who are liv­ing with the con­di­tion ‘I was tired of be­ing diffe­rent and at­tract­ing at­ten­tion’


PEO­PLE stop to stare as he emerges from a cab in one of Cape Town’s busiest streets but he barely no­tices – he’s been gawked at for as long as he can re­mem­ber.

But these days Sanele Xaba isn’t only turn­ing the heads of cu­ri­ous strangers, he’s at­tract­ing at­ten­tion from some of the top dogs in the mod­el­ling world and all eyes are on him as he strides con­fi­dently down the cat­walks at in­ter­na­tional fash­ion shows.

The 22-year-old was named the face of the Ber­muda In­ter­na­tional Col­lec­tions last year – an ini­tia­tive that show­cases the tal­ents of de­sign­ers from around the world – and when we catch up with him he’s just re­turned from a show in Am­ster­dam as part of the col­lec­tion.

“Am­s­ter­dam is an amaz­ing place,” he says en­thu­si­as­ti­cally. “I would love to be able to af­ford to buy a flat there.”

He di­vides his time be­tween Cape Town and Europe and loves ex­plor­ing new places, he says.

Sanele has taken cen­tre stage in shows for top brands such as Adi­das and Ja­panese fash­ion house Kap­i­tal Cloth­ing and proudly de­clares he has “pen­e­trated the in­ter­na­tional mar­ket”.

“I’m mak­ing a name for my­self,” he adds.

Last year the born and bred Dur­ban­ite was nom­i­nated for male model of the year at the Abryanz Style and Fash­ion Awards in Kam­pala, Uganda, show­ing he’s mak­ing his mark in Africa too.

Sanele is the first South African male model with al­binism to crack the in­ter­na­tional scene and some­times he still

has to pinch him­self to make sure he isn’t dream­ing.

“It’s been a fan­tas­tic jour­ney and I’ve been truly blessed,” he says. “It has boosted my con­fi­dence in a big way.

“I used to be shy be­cause of all the negativity I ex­pe­ri­enced but now I feel like I’m an am­bas­sador for ev­ery per­son liv­ing with al­binism. I want my suc­cess to mo­ti­vate other peo­ple with this con­di­tion to dream big and not feel ashamed.

“We are ca­pa­ble of achiev­ing any­thing in life and our skin shouldn’t be a stum­bling block.”

SANELE isn’t kid­ding when he says he’s ex­pe­ri­enced negativity – in fact, it started from day one when mem­bers of his fam­ily asked his mother, Sithem­bisile, whether she’d taken the wrong baby home from the hos­pi­tal.

When he was grow­ing up in La­montville near Dur­ban, peo­ple called him names such as um­lungu (white guy), which baf­fled and up­set him as a lit­tle boy.

“I was liv­ing among these peo­ple and speak­ing their lan­guage. I kept ask­ing my mother why I couldn’t have a black skin like every­one else. I was tired of be­ing dif­fer­ent and at­tract­ing at­ten­tion wher­ever I went.”

Af­ter pri­mary school his mom sent him to Glen­wood High School in Dur­ban, a former model C school, hop­ing he would be more ac­cepted if he es­caped the day-to-day ridicule in the town­ship.

Sadly, it wasn’t so. Not only was he taunted by his class­mates, he also en­dured snide re­marks from adults as he made his way to and from school.

“I could al­most un­der­stand the re­marks from fel­low learn­ers be­cause they were just kids. But to get the same treat­ment from adults was heart­break­ing. “How­ever, ev­ery time I went home and told my mom about my daily ex­pe­ri­ences she told me to ig­nore them and al­ways as­sured me of her love and sup­port. She was my rock and still is.”

Then some­thing hap­pened that changed his life for­ever and made his bul­lies look at him with new eyes.

Sanele, who had grown into a teen with strik­ing looks and lithe limbs, was out on the streets of Dur­ban one day when he was scouted by a rep­re­sen­ta­tive from iin­doni Mod­els agency.

She told Sithem­bisile her 15-year-old son was des­tined for great things in the mod­el­ling in­dus­try, which is al­ways on the look­out for the un­usual and the ex­cep­tional.

“Luck­ily my mom agreed and I signed up with the agency,” he says. “I re­mem­ber my first gig was at a fash­ion show at the Dur­ban July in 2010.

“I couldn’t be­lieve my eyes when I got a cheque for a cou­ple of thou­sand rand – it was quite a lot of money for a 15-yearold. I bought my­self a Black­Berry and gave the rest to my mother.”

Dur­ing the Dur­ban July Sanele met An­dre Martin, owner of cloth­ing brand Life, who told him how im­pressed he was with him and how he would love to use him in some of his cam­paigns.

“I told him to speak to my agent,” he says with a chuckle. “Be­fore I knew it my face was in ev­ery sec­ond shop in some of Dur­ban’s most up­mar­ket malls!”

Gig af­ter gig fol­lowed but Sanele made sure they hap­pened over week­ends so they didn’t in­ter­fere with his school­work.

Af­ter ma­tric he de­cided to ded­i­cate him­self to mod­el­ling full time and see how far he got – and so far, so very good.

IF THERE’S one per­son who has in­spired him over the years it’s Re­filwe Modis­elle, South Africa’s first fe­male model liv­ing with al­binism. “I re­spect Re­filwe a lot,” Sanele says. “I think she paved the way not only for young women with al­binism but the whole com­mu­nity. I’ve met her a cou­ple of times and she’s given me a lot of ad­vice on how to keep my head up in this in­dus­try.”

In a con­ti­nent like Africa, where peo­ple liv­ing with al­binism are per­se­cuted and even mur­dered be­cause of the colour of their skin, Sa­nele wants to play a lead­ing role in cre­at­ing aware­ness and fight­ing the stigma.

He of­ten does mo­ti­va­tional talks around the coun­try and is also part of Un­der the Same Sun, an NGO in Tan­za­nia that ed­u­cates peo­ple ab­out al­binism and fights dis­crim­i­na­tion.

“Over the years a num­ber of peo­ple with al­binism have been mur­dered in Tan­za­nia for all sorts of weird be­liefs. I’m glad to be part of the NGO – it’s some­thing that’s close to my heart.”

As for his heart when it comes to love, it re­mains free. Given his hec­tic sched­ule and fre­quent trav­el­ling, he ad­mits he would be “do­ing an in­jus­tice to a re­la­tion­ship”.

“What girl wants to date a guy who’s for­ever away? I don’t want to date for the sake of dat­ing. I want to give my part­ner my full at­ten­tion and right now mod­el­ling is con­sum­ing all my time.”

But he would love to be in love “when the time is right” and start a fam­ily.

“I want to have as many kids as pos­si­ble – and adopt some too,” he says.

And when that hap­pens, they can talk about how their daddy helped changed the world and make it a bet­ter place.

LEFT: Sanele Xaba is in de­mand as a model – both lo­cally and in­ter­na­tion­ally. He’s proud to rep­re­sent peo­ple liv­ing with al­binism and wants to fight stigma by ed­u­cat­ing peo­ple about the skin con­di­tion.

ABOVE: Walk­ing the ramp dur­ing South African Menswear Week in Cape Town last year. RIGHT: Sanele as a young boy at a fam­ily gath­er­ing.

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