Model Thando Hopa rev­els in her al­bino skin

The China Post - - LIFE - BY CLAU­DINE RE­NAUD

Thando Hopa grew up in the shade, her porce­lain skin pro­tected by long sleeves and sun­screen un­til the day the South African de­cided to fight prej­u­dice against al­bi­nos by be­com­ing a model.

Pe­tite and born with an in­her­ited de­pig­men­ta­tion of her skin from head to toe that can lead to dis­crim­i­na­tion and even death, Hopa en­tered the fash­ion world with­out the usual vi­tal sta­tis­tics re­quired of a cat­walk model.

Ghostly, with no make-up bar vivid fuch­sia on her lips and hair sculpted to a mag­nif­i­cent bleached height, she ex­ploded onto the cover of the first Forbes Life Africa back in 2013.

“It’s one of the most beau­ti­ful pic­tures I’ve had taken,” says Hopa, though it took years for her to grow com­fort­able with a bare face, her pale eye­brows al­most in­vis­i­ble.

“I was much younger then. I could never go out with­out makeup... But as time goes on, your con­fi­dence just grows,” she says. “It took years for me to get to a point where I could walk around with­out make-up.”

Hopa is a lawyer op­er­at­ing in the heart of Johannesburg, not far from the of­fices where Nel­son Man­dela worked as an at­tor­ney in the 1950s.

‘The most beau­ti­ful lit­tle girl’

“I had been ap­proached to do mod­el­ing be­fore, but I didn’t go for it be­cause I never saw the ben­e­fits. I thought, ‘It’s such a shal­low pro­fes­sion — why would I want to do that? I am a lawyer.’”

But af­ter cross­ing paths with de­signer Gert-Jo­han Coet­zee in down­town Johannesburg in 2012, she be­gan think­ing dif­fer­ently.

“Gert came to me and asked me if I would like to do a shoot and I said I would con­sider it,” re­calls Hopa. “And then I spoke to my sis­ter. And my sis­ter said to me, ‘Don’t look at mod­el­ing as mod­el­ing. Look at it as an op­por­tu­nity for you to ac­tu­ally change per­cep­tion of al­binism. Re­mem­ber how you grew up. Re­mem­ber how peo­ple re­ally treated you.’”

The third born in a fam­ily of four chil­dren — her youngest sib­ling was also born with al­binism — Hopa grew up with seem­ingly lit­tle to com­plain about, doted on by a film­maker mother and an engi­neer fa­ther who never missed a chance to tell her she was “the most beau­ti­ful lit­tle girl.”

But even in South Africa, where re­ports of al­bi­nos be­ing mur­dered and their or­gans traf­ficked are ex­tremely rare, she en­coun­tered prej­u­dice and misun­der­stand­ing.

Strangers hugged her as a sym­bol of good luck, oth­ers spat to fight her bad luck. Teach­ers mis­read her poor eye­sight — a side ef­fect of al­binism — as her be­ing men­tally chal­lenged.

‘When you were born I was


Hopa uses a mag­ni­fy­ing glass to read, is not al­lowed to drive, and shuns stilet­tos. So her first jaunt down a cat­walk was some­thing of a mir­a­cle.

“The dress was gor­geous — black and green. I can tell you, I have never felt so ex­pen­sive in my life. But I was ac­tu­ally so scared be­cause in essence that was the first time I re­ally walked in heels. I was even say­ing a lit­tle prayer when I was walk­ing, ‘ God, please don’t let me fall on this cat­walk!’ I was ab­so­lutely fright­ened.”

For all it’s brought her now, there was a time when Hopa was dis­tressed by the re­al­iza­tion that she was dif­fer­ent, when as a self­con­scious girl of 12, in­creas­ingly aware of boys and her chang­ing body, she ran to her fa­ther in tears.

“I came cry­ing, and I said, ‘Why am I not like other chil­dren? Ev­ery­body makes fun of me and I have to wear these stupid hats, and I al­ways have to put on sun cream.’ And I was cry­ing and cry­ing.

“And you know, my fa­ther is a won­der­ful man, but he doesn’t re­ally know how to deal very well with emo­tions. So he looked at me, and said, ‘My child, let me be hon­est with you: when you were born, I was also shocked!’”

It’s a mem­ory she can laugh at now she’s 25 and con­fi­dent.

“On that day, more than any­thing, I won­dered if my life would be dif­fer­ent, if peo­ple would have treated me dif­fer­ently. But I could never pic­ture my­self look­ing dif­fer­ent even now.”


South African lawyer and part-time fash­ion model Thando Hopa, right, an al­bino, tries on an evening dress by South African fash­ion de­signer Gert-Jo­han Coet­zee, left, dur­ing a mock-up fit­ting ses­sion at his work­shop in Johannesburg on June 13.

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