African Voices is a weekly show that highlights Africa’s most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera. Follow the team on Twitter.
Traditional stereotype of model is tall, skinny and aesthetically attractive
South African Refilwe Modiselle is making waves as the continent's first albino model
Scouted at 13, the 28-year-old wants to change perceptions of beauty and albinism
It’s well known the fashion industry is one of the toughest to break into. To conform to the traditional stereotype of a model you need to be skinny, stunning and have legs that go on forever, right?
Try telling that to Refilwe Modiselle – she’s breaking all the rules while sashaying down the catwalk as Africa’s first albino model.
“I was being tenacious and saying ‘no, wait a minute. This is a different representation of what African beauty is,’” Modiselle tells CNN.
“You’re told that a black child should be brown-skinned, but what do you then call a girl like myself? I’m not tall either. But there I was modeling with the likes of your Adiambo’s, your famous models that have really done well.”
In 1999, Modiselle was just 13 years old when she was first approached to do a five-page shoot for a youth magazine aiming to showcase how the African fashion landscape would change with the turn of the millennium. It was her first taste of fashion, but she got the bug.
Yet it wouldn’t be until she finished her high school education and entered college (at the behest of her mother) that Modiselle found herself in front of a camera again.
The move kickstarted her career and soon the South African student was staring back at herself from glossy magazine pages and gliding down runways at high-profile events, like Mercedes Benz Africa Fashion Week.
“I was defying everything about what society says defines a model. I’m basically saying ‘OK, let’s teach our kids a different definition of beauty, or a definition that’s always been there but has just always been disregarded.”
Albinism is an inherited condition caused by a lack of melanin, a pigment in skin, hair and eyes. While it is fairly common globally – one in every 17,000 people are born with some form of the genetic disorder – albinos across Africa are often subject to discrimination and even, in some countries, hunted and killed because of their appearance.
“People with albinism are often not given the opportunity to get into such industries because we’re not known as extroverts, we’re not given a chance to be identified in society as people who have the potential to represent something,” she says.
But Modiselle doesn’t just have to live with the unspoken threat of discrimination hanging in the air. Born in Soweto, the feisty, young model has, at times, struggled with her identity.
The 28-year-old explains: “South Africa has a history of apartheid, where race is such a big segregation. How do you then place yourself? You are a girl who is born in a black society: the township. And now you have to fit into a world where, you’re told: this is black, this is white and you’re in a country that is constantly fighting these aspects. It’s something that is not easy because people try and place you and identify you in a specific way.”
Cementing her status as a household name, she also spends one day a week filming a current affairs talk show with fellow South African television personalities Masechaba Lekalake and comedian Tol Ass Mo.
Participation in the show allows Modiselle to reveal more of her personality to the country, and to show she’s more than just a clothes horse. Though she’s not even 30, Modiselle is already thinking about her legacy.
“I will teach through the things that I do. (My) plan for the future is just to grow myself as a brand and as an entity: to touch the world in different places and to be able to be a huge representative for Africa.”