Interview: Thando Hopa Never Anticipated Acceptance in the Industry—She Anticipated a Fight
We speak to the South African lawyer, model, actress and activist about her historic Vogue cover, stereotypes imposed on people living with albinism and her work with human interest stories about vulnerable groups as a WEF fellow.
Vogue Portugal's April edition was a moment that caused everyone to hold their breath collectively. For the first time ever, a woman living with albinism was featured on the cover of the magazine in a sublime and timeless manner. Thando Hopa, a South African lawyer, model, actress and activist was the woman behind this historic first. It was not just a personal win for Hopa, but a victory for a community that continues to be underrepresented, stigmatised and even harmed for a condition outside of their control, particularly in Africa.
At just 31, the multi-hyphenate Hopa is a force to be reckoned with across different spaces. Through her considerable advocacy work as an activist, Hopa has and continues to dispel stereotypes and misconceptions about people living with albinism as well as changing what complex representation looks like within mainstream media. In 2018, Hopa was named the one of the world's 100 most influential women by the BBC. After hanging up her gown as a legal prosecutor after four years of working with victims of sexual assault, Hopa is on a mission to change skewed perceptions and prejudices when it comes to standards of beauty.
As a current fellow at the World Economic Forum, she is also working towards changing editorial oversights that occur when depicting historically underrepresented and vulnerable groups. The fellowship programme prepares individuals for leadership in both public and private sectors, and to work across all spheres of global society.
OkayAfrica recently spoke to Hopa to find out about how it felt to be the first woman with albinism to be featured on Vogue, the current projects she's working on and what's in the pipeline for her.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did it feel, especially as a woman who is living with albinism, to be the first ever to be featured on Vogue magazine? Was that some form of validation for you?
Validation is not the word for it. I think when I went through it, the entire time I needed to see it actually, to be honest with you. I needed to see that magazine cover actually happen. What I felt was relief, like a temporary dying of tension, because it was extremely, and still is, difficult to get an international publication to put you on a cover, especially as a minority group. It's difficult just in South Africa, so internationally, it was just too far fetched for me. So I almost felt like I needed to see it and hold it, to believe that it's actually real.
I was going through the processes of the shoot, but I couldn't believe it until I actually saw it. So I'd love to tell you that it was the most beautiful, wonderful experience of my life. But to be honest, I was tense the whole time. And the thing is, is that it wasn't so much an issue of validation, but of expansion because then I knew that my work could expand. A magazine like Vogue holds global influence, and really I think, more than anything, it was to say that we exist, we are here, our humanity is here, it's documented.
Did it come as a surprise for you?
Yes, because also I don't know where it stemmed from. We didn't actively pursue it. I think a lot of milestones in my career came as a complete surprise. I didn't know how to explain it because I never anticipated acceptance in the industry. I always anticipated to fight.
"...I never anticipated acceptance in the industry. I always anticipated to fight."
So when you don't have to [fight], you're like, "What's happening? What am I missing? What's the trick behind this?" And, always just going through this process of always multitasking, asking yourself way too many questions when you're supposed to be enjoying the experience. You always have to look at: Is the representation correct? Is it the kind of representation that I can account for?
When I started out, I would say that I was very receptive to whatever representation people had of me, and moving forward, I started understanding issues of stereotypical representation, tokenism––and it wasn't a theory. I was experiencing issues of harmful representation too, and having to try and mitigate against that. So, whenever something happened and whenever the industry brought flowers, I'd always be looking at them like, "Are there any thorns in these flowers?"
On the topic of representation, what would you say were some of the stereotypes that were imposed on you?
When I started out, I said, "Oh, I want to represent albinism in a positive way," but having no idea what that meant. And if you ask me now what positive representation is, for me, I would say it's complex representation and diverse representation. But then I also think, "Oh, it's us in positive stories," and that's not necessarily correct. If you're a Black woman who has albinism, there's a script to that. I thought that I was controlling my script but then you start realising, interview after interview, that the questions don't change. You start understanding that you're actually being stereotyped, in that any other version of your humanity is not even imagined.
And I just started feeling heavy because it was like a catch-22 situation. In 2008, there was a recognition of the things that were happening to people with albinism. The muti murders just got out of hand. I did want to speak about those things but the difficulty of intersection is that I had not just a local experience, but a global experience.
When you go to European communities and they ask you about those kinds of stuff, they already have a very racist view of Africa. And so, you feel like you're walking in the middle because you don't want to defend actions that are done directly to target you, but at the same time, you look at the context and the context is people who have a history of targeting people who are like you.
Do you think that things have shifted in a major way now versus back then or is what has already happened still negligible?
No, "negligible" is not the word I would use. The person who is heading this particular project at the United Nations is a Black woman from Nigeria who has albinism, and let me tell you about the power of what she's done. In Tanzania, one has not heard of any recent murders occurring when, in fact, that was the most problematic area.
Since she's been there with her policies, I think the past five years or so, one hasn't heard anything with regards to murders in Tanzania. But the issue is they left Tanzania and they moved on to Malawi, which is now having a great deal of issues.
As opposed to 10 years ago, you're beginning to see some resistance on the media front, because you're beginning to see the diverse stories of people with albinism––there is a recognition of humanity in the media space. You're beginning to see how the United Nations has worked with SADC countries, and how there has been policy reform that is more active, not just in terms of the violence or stigma that occurs with regards to people with albinism, but also at concepts like the influence of education.
You're a multihyphenate: a model, activist, actress and lawyer. When you were growing up, what is that you wanted to become?
I think I wanted to become a lot of things. I wanted to sing but I couldn't. I then actually wanted to be an actress. I mean, my father and I had different philosophies on how to move forward in life. He felt like acting was not going to be a sustainable career choice so he wanted me to be an accountant and I was like, "That is not a sustainable choice with regards to my own preferences." So law actually became a compromise between the acting and accounting.
When I became a prosecutor, a different level of consciousness had hit by that time. I think prosecutorial power is highly underrated because usually people focus either on the judge, magistrate or on the police. Actually, one of the most powerful people there is the prosecutor because they decide whether something goes to court or doesn't. They decide whether you go for community service or you don't. And when that docket comes, that is the only person who really has the power to change the trajectory of anybody's life.
"I think prosecutorial power is highly underrated..."
Thando Hopa pictured above. Photo by Elsa Niemoller.
What was a lesson or lessons did you take away with you as a prosecutor?
Prosecution was emotionally difficult. The reason I say that is because you get to see the worst kind of moments with regards to our humanity, and you get to see how often people opt for dehumanisation. But, particularly with sexual assault and gender-based violence, I learned the power of survivors. Survivors move through their day as a form of resistance. They are showing up for themselves in a system that is highly antagonistic towards them, in my opinion. It doesn't matter how nice you speak. It's not about the character of the person because the system will consistently have you go through a level of secondary trauma each time you tell your story.
Women and children are put in these positions where they constantly have to explain themselves almost like they're on trial. "Why didn't you scream? If you really were raped, why wouldn't you scream?" I mean, what the hell is that?
And so, I would always remind myself that there have been people who I've spoken to and who I've worked with who really just stood their ground. They showed up for themselves, and I think that's definitely a lesson I can take from that experience.
You're currently involved in a lot of things. What are some of the projects or the work that you're doing right now that you feel is significant?
Right now, I'm a fellow at the World Economic Forum. The fellowship has really made me realise something that was important to me, and that is editorial oversight of human interest stories in particular, but for vulnerable groups and historically oppressed groups.
What we're doing right now is creating a template that can be a pathway on how to approach human interest stories with regards to vulnerable groups. I strongly feel that you can't have the same editorial policy for the president of the country and a woman who is in highly underprivileged circumstances––or even in a group that is socially oppressed––and say that these people are the same.
I'm going to treat these people in the same way, because I do think that vulnerable groups, particularly because of the power dynamic that they have to experience, need to have more control over their representation. Of course not complete control over their representation, because a media story is supposed to still pursue objectivity, but to have partial control over how they are represented.
Thando Hopa pictured above. Photo by Trevor Stuurman.
What is next for you?
I'm excited to actually move into creating spaces where I can tell my own stories. I'd like to create a space, particularly with what we're working on now, where people who are underrepresented can have a holistic level of representation. Where we can tell stories that people who are underrepresented can see themselves in and not be limited to the stories that people usually see them in?
What do you know for sure?
That love is healing. Such a difficult question. I think what's funny is that the first thing that came into my mind is that old age saying, "If there's one thing we know for sure, it's that we all pay taxes and we all die." There is a truth to that, but I think honestly, in my experience, love and connection are healing. Connection makes you know that you're alive. I don't know anything else.