You may have seen Sanele Junior Xaba in an ad for Adidas Original, posing in mythical depictions for European artists, or photographed nude, covered by only butterflies in the magazine Label. The up-and-coming model from South Africa is striking, tall, and built to walk the runway. Photographers around the world are captivated by his distinct appearance, confirming what his mother always said– his albinism is a strength, not a weakness.
Albinism is a rare, genetic condition, which prevents melanin production. Since melanin is responsible for creating pigment, people with albinism have very light hair, eyes, skin. Sanele refers to himself as “undercover black,” because his blonde hair and light skin throw people off. People with albinism are at high risk for vision problems and skin cancer. Treatment options are limited. To learn more about this rare condition, click here.
Although Sanele has built fame and fortune out of physical beauty, he used to be self conscious about the way he looked. He tried spray tans, foundations, controversial medications– anything he could find that promised to change the color of his skin. He was subjected to teasing and a slew of nicknames when he was in school, but he grew a toughness. He started standing up for himself, and the bullies faded away.
Shortly after that, with the help of a successful acne treatment, he transformed. He discovered a different version of himself: confident, clear-skinned, athletic, and handsome. He was only 15 when he was first contacted by a modeling agent, but at the time, he wasn’t even interested. The agent insisted he consider it, and not too long after, Sanele’s career took off.
It’s complicated to model with albinism. While many photographers are struck by him, since Sanele stands out, he’s often pigeon-holed into high-art, conceptual shoots. They find the model with albinism beautiful, but at times, it seems like they’re only interested in his albinism. Directors have turned him down, explaining they already have work with Shaun Ross, an American model who also has albinism. This is frustrating– the same directors wouldn’t turn down a white model because they already had photographs of another white model. It’s as if they see all models with albinism as the same person, and are unable to see the things that distinguish Sanele beyond his genetic condition.
Sanele tells the Guardian that people are often surprised to see him drinking a Heineken, since the regular-guy beer is so contrary to the high-art image of him.
While he feels reduced to his condition at times, he also feels a sense of responsibility to others who struggle with albinism. He receives messages from fans who tell him how self-conscious they are about their appearance, and how his work inspires them to see their own beauty. He realizes that the industry he’s in defines the cultural image of “cool,” and he hopes to create a new “cool” that includes people regardless of their genetic conditions.
He works to support people with albinism in other ways, as well. He works with Inside The Same, which advocates for people with albinism, and provides medical treatment and sunscreen to combat skin cancer and other health risks that come with the condition. He will soon visit an orphanage for kids who were left because of the toxic stigma people with albinism face. While he wants to do his part, he’s careful to convey, he doesn’t want his fame to overshadow the work of the people who spend their days tirelessly advocating for people with albinism. With that said, he’s happy to help and eager to change the cultural perceptions of albinism.