According to her Twitter profile Thando Hopa considers herself, “A down to Earth dreamer with her head in the clouds. A Modelling Prosecutor who sneaks in some poetry here and there. Neva a dull moment. lil too bright for that”.
Gert-Johan Coetzee, a South African fashion designer, was due to show his collection at Vancouver Fashion Week but was stuck in a rut. Hopa was just the inspiration he needed.
“As I walked past her, it was almost like a light was shining in my eyes from the side,” says Coetzee.
Hopa had turned down modeling offers before and was indifferent to this one, but took Coetzee’s business card with the promise to find out who he was. The rest, as they say, is history.
Before this, Hopa never considered modeling and never wanted anything to do with it. It was her sister’s words of encouragement shortly before her chance meeting with Coetzee that persuaded her to take his card.
Hopa grew up in Lenasia South and later moved to Walkerville, both situated in the south of Johannesburg. She attended the private St Martin’s High School and acquired an LLB from the University of Witwatersrand.
Two years later she became a prosecutor with the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), the youngest in her Johannesburg group of recruits. Hopa says her biggest challenge was not only to learn to deal with people, but also to set aside her prejudices and stereotypes.
Hopa has albinism, a genetic condition that results in a partial or complete lack of pigmentation in the skin, hair and eyes that affects one in 20,000 people worldwide. The prevalence is much higher in Africa, with an estimated one in 2,000 affected. A recessive gene needs to be present in both parents for their child to be born with albinism.
Hopa was four years old when her brother was also born with albinism. As one of four children, she recalls not being happy because she was used to special treatment and attention, which she had to suddenly share with him. Their bond was strengthened by their ability to relate to each other better than their other family members simply because they faced the same problems. Hopa feels her presence made things, to some extent, a little easier for him but acknowledges that they had to face different social experiences.
Those with the condition are vulnerable to sun exposure and bright light, almost all people with albinism are visually impaired, and the majority are classified as legally blind. Hopa is no exception. She is very short-sighted and has trouble seeing street signs, causing her to rely on cabs most of the time.
She had a very happy childhood and was protected from the sometimes cruel world by her family. She recalls the first time her difference was made obvious. The first day of school provided more than just education for little Hopa. The other children refused to sit next to her or touch her.
“I never felt the burden of being different because every time I went home I was loved, and I never looked different from anyone else. That’s the way they treated me. I never actually saw color,” she says.
Hopa spent her adolescent years questioning beauty and trying to figure out where she fitted . There were no role models that looked like her; she felt she was too different to be beautiful.
“I found myself wanting. Because in terms of media, in terms of everything, the responses I got from friends, from guys, I just didn’t feel like I was beautiful,” she says.
It was only in her university days that Hopa decided to redefine beauty. The determined Hopa set out on a mission to look hot, by her own definition, every day and to work on her confidence. She says she went through many style phases, including rock and Rastafarian.
There is no contractual agreement between Hopa and Coetzee, following her entry into fashion. The two have a friendship that Hopa says was fortified by last year’s South Africa Fashion Week.
Two weeks after meeting Coetzee, Hopa was scheduled to walk in his show for the event as the face of his collection. The only problem was that Hopa didn’t know how to walk in heels. The designer gave her a pair and told her to practice. Hopa says this was an emotionally confusing time for her. Her biggest fear was falling, but she says the support from the team and her family cushioned her.
“Gert must have checked up on me a thousand times that day,” she laughs.
In the end, Hopa felt triumphant.
Hopa’s goal for her modeling career is to stop being uncomfortable with albinism and reject the superstition and prejudice around albinism. She says that people are either in awe or repelled by it.
“We just want to make it another shade of normal,” she says.
People with albinism face harsher circumstances and social experiences in Africa, most severely in east Africa. The persecution of people with albinism is based on the superstition that certain body parts of albinos have magical powers that bring prosperity, while another says they are cursed.
Albinos are abducted, mutilated and their body parts sold.
A report by Canadian charity organization, Under The Same Sun, for the United Nations states that there were 155 attacks, including deaths, documented in Africa between 2006 and 2012.
Hopa says the problem is cultural and that she’s never had to worry about her life because she’s different. All she can do is deal with the social circumstances she’s used to and understands.
Albinism is not new to the international modeling industry; top models include Stephen Thompson, Diandra Forrest and Shaun Ross. The world’s first albino model was Connie Chiu from Hong Kong. She got her first big break with Jean Paul Gaultier in Paris.
Hopa is at ease in front of both the judge and the camera. Her two worlds do not demand too much to require her to choose. So in the meantime, Hopa will remain a prosecutor during the week and a model on weekends.
Hopa’s dignity is her greatest asset and that’s all the NPA asks of her. FL