“Beautiful” is not a big enough word to describe Thando Hopa — mostly because the word has been hijacked by the poetically challenged to exist only in the context of how someone looks. Hopa is beautiful in face and body, for sure, but she is so impressively beautiful a human being that a bigger word is needed. And beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder, or is it only skin deep?
Skin has been a big issue for the model, prosecutor, writer, and activist who has become well known in South African media. The story of designer Gert-Johan Coetzee “discovering” her in a shopping mall and making her his muse has already become the stuff of fashion legend. Hopa has told her stories of childhood traumas, dealing with teasing, fear and insults so many times that she says: “We have to do this story in a different way. I’ve done it focusing on the negatives of my childhood so many times... and to be honest, it’s exhausting. I want to talk about positive things.”
But she is prepared to start at the beginning: “I grew up in Lenasia South in a predominantly ‘pigmented’ community — it was a mixture of black, coloured, and Indian people — and I grew up with four siblings.
“I had consistently wonderful parents. Before I went out into the world and knew anything about anything; before I knew about albinism or race or anything, I was that four-year-old glory girl. My parents made me feel like I was the epitome of perfection. They made me feel like I could sing when I could not,” she says. “With albinism, you suffer from myopia. So to counteract that, my father, Jongisizwe Hopa, would take a tennis ball and he’d slowly throw it to me repeatedly to try to improve my depth perception. Having to develop a child so different from his own experience into a fully functional human being must have been quite a challenge.”
Hopa says she had experiences of both what you might call a “normal childhood” and an “unusual one”. “I played outside with other kids, but then I also had the experience of kids reacting badly to me because they couldn’t interpret my difference,” she says. “I would walk into a classroom and I’d be the only one who looked the way I did. I didn’t even look like my parents, right? Everybody was pigmented except for me.”
When you’re different, she admits, you receive a variety of reactions. “Some people love the way I look and others take the way I look in terms of superstition. Some say she’s good luck, some say she’s bad luck, and kids — well they’re just honest about their confusion. They’ll call you names... the thing with kids is that they respond negatively to almost any kind of difference. Whether you are a big girl, or you’re short, whatever. And you tend to not feel that there’s anything wrong with you unless somebody points it out,” Hopa says. “I feel the same way about my albinism — my parents never made me feel like I had albinism, so when I went into the world, I only noticed my albinism because it was pointed out... as not so good.”
Hopa had to go through a journey that she calls a “reverse relationship with beauty”.
“I’d been beautiful all that time, as a child. And then, for the longest time, I allowed society to take the beauty out of me and I had to regain it when I grew older,” she says.
She recently returned from a trip to the JohannesGutenberg University in Germany, where she delivered a paper at an international conference on Interdisciplinary Perspectives of the Albinotic Body, examining the perspectives of albinism in terms of culture, policy, and laws.
“I represented the arts, presenting a paper (that they are publishing) and talking about the complexities of dealing with albinism in media with regards to representation — in my case, the intersection of being a woman, being black, being African, having albinism, and how you experience different forms of accountability because of the body that you’re in.”
You experience compounded prejudice because of that body, Hopa explains.
“I feel like I have a loaded body because of having to deal with gender, racial, and albinism-related stratification. I’ve learned that representation needs to be a holistic thing. We all have bodies that are ‘loaded’ with the preconceptions of other people.”
What Hopa’s really pushing for is for us to interrogate the meaning of inclusion; to project images that don’t have to conform to the pressure of the dominant white culture. Sometimes we embrace the uniqueness and authenticity of the image in media instead of including the image, but as another kind of “othering” or tokenism.
“We need to get to a point where we differentiate between inclusion and assimilation,” she says. “Inclusion does justice to the authenticity of the image, but assimilation is saying, ‘We’ll include the image, but on condition that it conforms and behaves in line with the perspectives of the dominant culture.’”
A lot of people don’t understand that if you are a young girl and you don’t see your image anywhere… it’s difficult to understand how invisible you become in that society.
So how does Hopa, who has just signed with New York model management, reconcile modelling with her desire to rectify the lack of inclusivity in popular media?
“My biggest challenge with modelling is not to fall into a stereotype. Prosecuting and modelling are both in the business of representation. Modelling usually implies that you are a prototype of some sort. But I went into modelling not to wear nice clothes or to become famous, but because I had a vested interest in representation,” she says. “A lot of people don’t understand that if you are a young girl and you don’t see your image anywhere… it’s difficult to understand how invisible you become in that society, that community. Your sense of belonging is not recognised.”
For Hopa, the most exciting and rewarding project she’s been involved in is appearing in the 2018 Pirelli Calendar, inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland — and which has an all-black cast, including Adwoa Aboah, Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong’o, Sean Combs, Whoopi Goldberg, and RuPaul, among others.
“I was the only cast member who was requested to write on the calendar. They felt that I was articulate enough to have a voice, and I was the most unknown person in the cast,” she says.
For the calendar shoot, Hopa says nobody asked her to look different from the way she is comfortable looking. “I love my blonde, kinky woollen curls, my pale eyebrows, and pale eyelashes. These things matter to me: they are me,” she says. “Another important thing is that I was cast not as a woman with albinism: I was just cast as me. My character could have been played by anyone. I was the Princess of Hearts — it wasn’t loaded with any kind of stereotype.”
- From the October edition of Wanted magazine.