Out of a small township near Johannesburg known as Sebokeng, which literally means “gathering place” in SeSotho, hails Wothando “Thando” Hopa, an albino model who has broken barriers in the fashion and modelling industry and continues to tackle male chauvinism as a prosecutor with an LLB degree she attained from University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. And more recently, a Post Graduate Certificate in Practical Legal Training.
Has it always been modelling? How were you discovered?
I was stopped in a shopping mall one weekend by the designer Gert-Johan Coetzee. He asked me if I was interested in a shoot and I was initially hesitant but eventually agreed to collaborate with him. Modelling was never in my plans to be honest; however, in it I found a longtime friend and a greater purpose. Prior to that I focused strictly on my legal career and wasn’t looking to stray too far from that. But now I am reaping the fruits of allowing myself to have an open mind. I’m seeing modelling beyond what I had initially perceived it to be.
Do you recall any time in your life that you despised your condition?
I spent many years of my youth feeling uneasy about how I looked, and I was very concerned about how people viewed me. However, my parents were an enduring force in creating my sense of self and my understanding self-love.
It’s no secret that in many parts of Africa, people with albinism have been hunted for their body parts which are said to possess ‘divine power.’ What do you think we, as Africans can do to permanently rid ourselves of this injustice?
Superstition is not limited to Africa, it’s everywhere, but it becomes an issue when it relates to people who have certain qualities. When ignorance is coupled with desperation then people will believe anything at any cost – that’s why some unscrupulous people can exploit superstition to make money at others’ expense. Education becomes such an important tool. It is not a simple task to make someone unlearn misinformation, but eventually with enough exposure it can be done. We need to breed a culture of learning and of hard work. Those who believe this kind of superstition are uninformed and so fall prey to parasites who trade on this ignorance, and, more importantly, on the perception that one can achieve one’s dreams without having to work hard for it, simply by buying some “charm”. The only way to break down such beliefs is through education, and it doesn’t happen overnight, it is a long-term process.
As a model, what would you like to change about the African fashion industry?
I believe the African fashion industry is dynamic. It is quite receptive to new elements in one form or another. What I do hope is that it keeps growing in its diversity and willingness to explore; I’m finding being part of it very inspiring.
Who is Thando away from the cameras and magazine spreads?
I am a poet who is still learning how to find her own voice, a lawyer who is trying to see how best she can contribute to society. I am a young woman trying to find herself, balancing my artistic side with the rigid lawyer side.
Where do you see yourself going in the next 5 years?
I want to delve into other aspects of law as well as other aspects in the career I have obtained in the media, from the modelling platform. I plan to acquire skills that have enough of an impact to build a nation, but right now, I’m still pulling together the pieces and gathering the knowledge. We are all here as a part of a whole and if we believe otherwise we are in for a big surprise.
Any words for young ladies trying to venture into the modeling industry?
Tell yourself you are beautiful before they do. Also, try and identify and nurture a talent that will assist your modelling career but will not be limited to modelling. One can be in the modelling industry for a long time but not as a model as such – that part of the industry has an age limit.
How do you envision a true African woman?
In ever-changing times it’s difficult to pin down a particular trait, yet I believe there are constant traits that should be there. A woman who is true to herself, and a woman whose core nature is to build – she makes no apologies on how she decides to accomplish the two.
Three things you cannot leave the house without – Sunscreen, parasol/umbrella and, for some odd reason, a pen!
Star Sign – I am all star signs at different times, but I am accused of being a Gemini.
Coffee or tea – Coffee – one may only sleep once one is dead.
Celebrity crush –Maps Maponyane (South African TV personality, model and entrepreneur). He’s hot, chilled and smart. I mean, seriously, who doesn’t have a crush on Maps?!
Guilty pleasure – I love walking barefoot, even in the most inappropriate circumstances. I just feel at most myself when I do.
Other than modelling for phenomenal designers like Gret-Johan Coetzee, and wowing at South Africa Fashion week, Thando recently became the ambassador for international cosmetic line, Vichy’s ‘Capital Soleil’ range.
*Photos by Justin Dingwall and Merwelene van der Merwe.