From the very first interviews about the Pirelli Calendar, I was asked by one journalist after the other whether I felt like a role model for people with albinism. That was the question on everyone’s lips, and it soon dawned on me that they didn't understand the intersectional complexity that came with the body in which I live.
I can’t fully explain my experience as a Pirelli Calendar protagonist without putting you inside my body. It was my body that helped me reflect on concepts of inclusion, diversity, race, gender and representation.
It was my first trip to London and I was a stranger to the city and to everyone I met in it. When I arrived on set, I was welcomed by a lovely crew that greeted me like an old friend before they even introduced themselves to me. This made the cold spring feel a bit warmer.
I was ushered to the hair and make-up room – that magical space where beauty is sculpted. In my experience as a model, little events can occur in this room which remind you that the beauty your body carries isn’t the beauty that the industry was built for. For instance, whenever I am presented to a hairstylist and there are attempts to burn, yank and wrestle my hair into submission, I’m reminded that my hair texture isn’t accounted for. I have my woollen hair all the time, but it’s a harsh reminder of the race compartment of my body every time my hair is dealt with as if it’s not the way it’s supposed to be. When this happens – when a stylist treats my hair like a stubborn child who needs to be chastised into obedience – I often find myself on the defensive, simply to prevent hair damage. And yet, when I met the hairstylist and his team on the Pirelli Calendar set, they were ready with products suited to my hair and combs perfect for my afro.
Then my chair was turned to face the make-up artist. Often when I meet make-up artists, I’m immediately reminded of my albinism, when they rush towards my face with a brown eye pencil to colour away the paleness of my eyebrows. I then arch my neck backwards, ducking their assumptions and letting out a measured, “We won’t be colouring them, thank you.” This time though, the make-up artist’s fingers hovered around her make-up kit… she was anticipating my guidance. She asked me whether I preferred keeping my eyebrows and eyelashes as they are. I nodded, smiled and confirmed that I'll be keeping them bare.
My hair and make-up was done and I hadn’t felt once that I had to fight against a conventional image I wasn’t part of. What a relief!
We talk so much about inclusivity in fashion and media, but I wonder sometimes whether we truly understand the nuances in its implementation. Small acts of consideration such as these break the hold of beauty standards and loosen them into beauty preferences. They cultivate choice, variety and fully allow the concept of diversity and inclusion.
The next place was wardrobe. While we were doing our fitting, I was draped in a yellow dress with a bare back. As her fingers traced my back, the wardrobe artist asked, “Are you comfortable with this being open over here?” I appreciated her use of the word “comfortable”. It took me back to a conversation I’d had with my big sister before I’d left for the airport. She was too big to fit in my suitcase so she ensured that her words of affirmation and advice would accompany me on my journey.
“I know this is big and it’s a great opportunity,” she said, “but don’t ever be afraid to say ‘no’ for anything you don’t want to do.”
These words were intended to remind me that I was housed in the body of a woman. My sister was imparting a sense of resolve that the choice of what I wish to do with my body is and should only be mine. Back in the dressing room, I snapped back into the moment – I hadn’t even noticed that my back was partially exposed. I looked at the wardrobe artist and thanked her for having the consciousness to check my comfort levels, even in a seemingly mundane situation. All was well, I reassured her.
The last act that shone with significance was when Tim Walker cast me as the Princess of Hearts. Diddy explained it so well at the press conference for the Calendar’s launch. Black people shouldn’t only see themselves in handcuffs, he said. What he was speaking about, of course, is stereotyping – the tattooing of only one truth to an image. It’s to see an image and imprison it inside a single, limited narrative. This forms barriers that bar us from exploring our human agency.
I remember this each time a journalist asks, “tell me about the discrimination you faced growing up with albinism in South Africa”. Being asked this, I feel like the black man in handcuffs, being forced into an oversimplification of one story. This is why it is so important for me to get across the importance of representation when expressing myself in public and especially before the media, which wields the power to form and entrench perceptions.
What Tim did is to offer me a role that didn’t bind me to my difference. The role that Tim created was indifferent to whether I had albinism or not. He embraced my difference without sidelining it.
I have been thinking about how Pirelli has reflected body politics over the years. In 1987 it celebrated an all-black female cast. In 2016 the women chosen were celebrated for their substance regardless of their individual expressions of sexuality. In 2017 women were celebrated for how they really looked instead of how the world might want them to look.
Now here we are in 2018, Pirelli’s 45th year, and we are taking ownership of possibilities and dreams belonging to anyone who is brave enough to access them.
“From the moment I fell down that rabbit hole I’ve been told where I must go and who I must be. I’ve been shrunk, stretched, scratched, and stuffed into a teapot. I’ve been accused of being Alice and of not being Alice but this is my dream. I'll decide where it goes from here.”
By Thando Hopa
Thando Hopa is a passionate champion of diversity who has made her mark globally, even contributing to United Nations policy discussions around albinism. Currently on sabbatical from her legal career to focus on her other interests, she is the first black South African ever to feature in the Pirelli Calendar, photographed for its 2018 edition by Tim Walker alongside entertainment icons such as Whoopi Goldberg, Sean “Diddy” Combs, RuPaul and Naomi Campbell. Overcoming the challenges regularly faced by people with albinism to thrive across various professions, Thando is a powerful role model for youngsters who are different, and proudly promotes acceptance of self and others.