“Looking at myself in the mirror is weird. My face is black and white. People assume that I have vitiligo, the disease that causes loss of skin colour in blotches. The mark on the left side of my face, which also runs over my scalp – making my hair appear blonde – is a birthmark. I don’t know of any medical explanations for birthmarks. I’ve accepted that this is me and I embrace being different. My mom’s side of the family has visible birthmarks; my aunt also has one on her face. Theirs are darker, though.
When I grew up in Mafikeng, North West – and later in Pretoria – I was never made to feel different. I wasn’t aware or self-conscious about it. It’s only when I started primary school that I felt awkward about it because kids teased me and called me “two-colour” and “Africa”. In high school I felt even more awkward. Try mixing adolescence with a visible birthmark that makes you stick out. Add to that being tall and skinny. I just stood out. But despite everything, I still wanted to be a model.
At the age of 15, I looked for an agency. I’d never thought of ever covering the birthmark, but when the owner of the modelling agency suggested I do so to look “normal”, I did that with the help of layers of make-up. It worked and with the birthmark covered, I felt great that for the first time I was part of the crowd.
I grew addicted to the make-up. I loved that strangers couldn’t tell I had a big mark. Finally, there was no one staring at me. I looked amazing in pictures, but in real life the make-up made me look like a wax doll. I overlooked that on purpose; as long as I fitted in, I was fine. Makeup became a mask I put on to feel confident. I adopted the name Iman because it was the only make-up brand that was able to give me full coverage. There were times the make-up faded and people would give me awkward stares. I didn’t care. I’d cake it on some more.
I did all of that and yet, I wasn’t booked for gigs. I’d go to castings, plastered with make-up, and have to take it off, shock everyone with the birthmark and explain to them what it was and how I got it, and then put makeup on again. I became frustrated. I’d always wanted to be a model and the one thing holding me back was the very thing I had no control over. I burst into tears at an agency once. Luckily, they were encouraging and awakened me to the harsh reality that as much as I was reaching out to them because I looked different, I too needed to believe in myself. They were right. Those words gave me the push I needed. I started my Facebook page and later Instagram, where I posted images of myself, birthmark and all. I ditched the modelling agency I was working with in search of a representative who would accept my look wholeheartedly. I changed my mindset and assess why I was living by everyone else’s opinion.
What also helped was Tyra Banks’ show, America’s Next Top Model. When Winnie Harlow, a model with vitiligo, was a contestant, people started saying how much I looked like her. I didn’t know her, but friends encouraged me to be as open and confident about my birthmark as Winnie is about her vitiligo. People also started tagging me on her pictures, thinking I was her, and applauding my alleged work and inspiration. At first, I resisted the attention. Then I realised that if Winnie could do that, what was stopping me from doing that right here at home.
Now I follow and admire other game changers in modelling such as American albino Diandra Forrest and locally Thando Hopa, Refilwe Modiselle and many more who challenge the perception of beauty. Looking back, I feel cowardly that I allowed myself to be riddled with doubt and listen to everyone’s opinion about my looks. I’m the girl with the mark to everyone. So what? It doesn’t define me; it’s a part of me, just like my fingers and toes. I’ve grown used to the stares and raised eyebrows every time I enter a room or walk down the street; some people even take pictures.
Over the years, I’ve learnt to use the birthmark to my advantage. It makes me stand out from the crowd. My face is unforgettable. When models walk down the ramp, there’s always a particular dress a certain model wears that everyone will be drawn to. With me it’s the reverse. The audience remembers my face and then the dress. I love that. I’m happy my face is challenging society’s views of what it takes to be a model.
In 2016, I did the unimaginable and walked for the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week, without belonging to an agency. I saw a post on fashion designer David Tlale’s social media that they were looking for models. I didn’t have a portfolio, but I was determined to be part of it. I took pictures of myself and wrote down my height, weight and more at the back of the images.
Some of the other models tried to discourage me because I didn’t have a portfolio. I’m grateful to Andiswa Ngxiswa, who loved my look and encouraged the designers to hire me. After that brave move, I approached Ice Model Management and they signed me up. Being signed hasn’t changed my luck. I still struggle to get gigs. I feel South Africa is behind the times and isn’t welcoming of models like me. Modelling is a tough industry to crack and every second girl you meet is a model, so I always question where I fit in. It doesn’t deter me, though.
I’m confident I will make it. I encourage others who are made to feel different not to let it get to them. Learn to love and accept yourself. It has been my childhood dream to enter the Miss SA pageant. I grew scared that if I participated, I’d relive my childhood of being called names. I don’t think like that anymore and so I plan on entering the contest this year.”