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ENC SPOTLIGHT | Thando Hopa: Changing Narratives & Transforming Lives

Thando Hopa is a South African lawyer whose now gracing some of the worlds most coveted magazines and media platforms as a supermodel, activist and social change agent. Thando was discovered by South African designer Gert-Johan Coetzee while still working as a prosecuting attorney.

She is the first woman with albinism to appear on the cover of Vogue magazine also gracing the cover of Forbes Life, Glamour, Marie Claire and many more. Most recently, she was featured in the prized Pirelli Calendar 2018 alongside Whoopi Goldberg, P. Diddy, Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong’o and made BBC's 2018 100 list of the most influential women in the world.

Beyond her striking beauty, her eloquence of words and undeniable style, Thando's ability to marry her multi-facet dimensions as a woman and a woman of color with albinism is unrivaled by none.

As a result, her work has stretched beyond the photography studios, fashion houses and magazines reaching socio-political rooms as prominent as the United Nations.

We had the opportunity to talk with Thando about her uncanny ability to be a voice and light not just for those with albinism, but for all humanity.


What was the lightbulb moment that you could continue to use modeling as a platform to change the cultural perceptions of albinism?

I can't say it was one particular moment, I think when I started out, I wanted to impact Albinism in a positive way.

I at first did not understand the complexities of the matter and I myself was oversimplifying it. When I started, it almost felt like the story was being told for me as the story was targeted toward awareness. That came almost like a stereotype to me and I didn't know how to actually speak about albinism without feeling boxed in or consumed by it.

Then I started to realize this is a complex issue.

I had to find different ways to negotiate to represent a full human identity than before. When I had my ah ha moment? I can't really say as it was stages.

There were very interesting parts of my journey like contributing to policy discussion at the United Nations with respect to discrimination against persons with albinism in certain countries. I felt like that was a unique trajectory for a model to take.

It was kind of accumulated.

What are the driving forces behind your success?

One thing I learned in my life through my body is that you begin to understand that prejudice is multi-faceted.

When I'm encountered with different cultures, I started realizing that I can pinpoint in that culture a particular prejudice. I felt that my body was a burden that it had many barriers and I needed to work with myself to create a world that I wanted to live in. I wanted to know that it was possible to be myself with that kind of narrative.

What I have learned is that we tend to have a behavioral defect when it comes to differences in society.

When H&M did the campaign, coolest kids in the jungle, in South Africa there was a particular political party who started to damage the stores in protest. And I know that in the United States, there was a huge backlash. The word for instance for albinism in Xhosa (one of South Africa's languages) is Monkey.

Language is important. I brought it up at a particular summit.

The issues are beyond race, its beyond gender, it's beyond a country or a particular culture because the issue again is the behavioral defect in how we deal with differences.

Addressing these narratives and how we discuss, perceive and communicate differences are the driving forces behind my success.

Thando Hopa and Whoopi Goldberg
Photo by Tom Walker

Would you agree that core values are at the core of how we see differences?

If we had values that were consistent, they would endure social stratifications.

So if our values about gender and equality are consistent, they should be able to apply to race and equality, gender and equality, albinism and equality. We should have value systems that are consistent despite context and social stratification.

But that's not what we do. We say for example, "No, that's not what we are talking about. We are talking about race, it only applies to race not gender. Or oh we are talking gender and it only applies to gender."

I would say, inclusion should be at the core of our value system.

Diversity acknowledges our differences, but inclusion speaks to how we interact with each other's differences.

If we don’t appreciate how we interact with difference and we think that social prejudice only applies to one social stratification, then we start fighting the wrong enemy.

The enemy is not people, the enemy is systems.

For those who want to stand in the gap for others, break barriers and bring light to issues in a creative way, what is the first step to making the first step?

Social media is one of the very places that we have control over our representation and over our stories. And I think that is the first thing to appreciate is its power. When you are working with another platform of influence and you are trying to do something within your purpose, you may not have control over that representation or the story being told.

Appreciate platforms and work with platforms where your story and your representation can be controlled.

Secondly, allow yourself to have readjustments.

It is important to have core values when you start doing whatever it is you are doing.

What is your purpose? It is not always as easy to get it right the first time, it is something that grows with you.

At first, I wanted to represent albinism in a positive way and I knew there was a purpose there. I didn't really understand what I was saying was to ensure there was inclusive representation. I didn't have the language at the time for it, but there was a cord there to work on.

I think the why is always important, but allow yourself to readjust, grow and learn. Just as long as you have your core, your adjustments will not move far away from that core.

Also I think the last thing is it's important to have a value inquiry to what you are doing.

If you can decide the value you are bringing, then nobody can ever define it for you.

No one can ever take it away from you. You will always understand yourself as a person of bringing something from a place of worth. It is important to have a value inquiry and ask yourself, "With everyone doing various things in the world; do I have anything to add?" When you answer the question for yourself, then you have something to build from and you know your existence is always from a place of value. And no one can dictate otherwise.

What have those obstacles taught you about self-esteem and ignorance?

I think one of the things that obstacles have taught me, is that all things depends on how we brand them.

Thando Hopa Glamour Magazine
Photo Courtesy Glamour Magazine

Children can appreciate differences without responding negatively at a certain age maybe like 4 years old and a lot of the times, when something is considered "wrong" [quote unquote] with you, it is only when someone picks out an attribute of you and says:

"Oh you have a big head!"

"Oh you have big lips!"

"Oh you are ugly!"

All the time you've been walking around blissfully not seeing your head as big or your lips as big.

And so somebody points out and then it only affects you when you agree almost sort of like a social contract that you are constantly going through. That's how you need deal with issues of self-esteem.

What are the social contracts you have agreed to?

Somebody gives you an offer, do you accept it?

The offer is you are ugly or you are beautiful. The good things and the bad things what is the social contract between you and the person saying it?

It only means something if you agree, that's the first thing.

And I think the second thing is that normalcy is cultural language. It isn't nature, it is a phenomena.

It's so interesting as human beings we can appreciate the fact that you go to the beach and beach sand is whitish and you never look at the sand and say, "Let's change and make it brown," you never look at a white rose and say, "Let's make this rose red, let's paint it. Why is this rose so white?" You don't try to change nature, you appreciate nature and the fact that it is diverse.

But we don't appreciate that with humanity. We instead create a language that says certain things are normal and certain things are abnormal. For instance, albinism is what they call it a genetic disorder. This is the issue, we tend to decide which differences we can label as abnormal and which ones are normal.

It is how we brand ourselves.

Instead of being different seen as natural, we say, "No you are not natural, something happened and its wrong for you to be this way."

And so why would you call albinism a genetic disorder rather than a genetic occurrence?

A lot of times we describe differences we say you're too tall in comparison to what?

And we say "Too much," of something, too much of what?

So it's how we use our language, it's part of the thing I've been learning on how our language dispels inclusion and diversity.

Nature is diverse.

Even science creates a language and culture of making something abnormal versus something as different, unique and merely a genetic occurrence.

Thando Hopa
Photo by Justin Dingwall

What does “embrace possibilities” mean to you?

Marrying imagination and reality. I think you have to allow your hopes and aspirations to be as broad as your imagination.

If you had to sum up your life’s purpose in 3 words, what would it be?

Socially Transform Narratives

The Narratives Will No Longer be the Same Stories of Old

Thando Hopa has no plans of hiding behind the shadows of any cultural implications that divides humanity.

Her eloquence, passion and love for all people is the fuel that drives her upcoming plans and initiatives.

While Thando's upcoming projects are still in the works, we are 100% certain that the narratives told will be stories of inclusion. The words used will empower diversity and promote social contracts of acceptance and appreciation. And most of all, we all will be inspired and transformed by her light to unify us not divide.


For more of Thando and her transformational work, follow along!


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