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#WCW: Refilwe Modiselle on changing the conventional and leaving a legacy

She’s South Africa’s first working albino model, a film actress and TV personality. A powerhouse who has not let her skin condition define her path towards her dreams, she is also our woman crush this Wednesday. Refilwe Modiselle had a chat with TIA’s Khanyo Mjamba about her successes, ideas of beauty and the bright future

TIA: What is the first thing you’d want people to know about you?

Refilwe ModiselleI’m a dynamic individual with lots of hopes and dreams. I wish to leave a legacy one day.

How must society change when it comes to how people look?

I think society needs to revisit its stereotype boxes, in terms of understanding that not everything is the convention of what we have been taught. Society needs to cultivate a more open-minded approach, so we can begin to tolerate what we think is different.

What are some of the good things that have happened in your life because of or in spite of albinism?

I have made history… something nobody can rewrite. Despite my albinism, I would never have made history had I not had the drive and tenacity to just “be,” regardless of society. Best of all are the incredible people I get to meet and engage with along my journey.

Refilwe Modiselle. Image: Refilwe Modiselle
Refilwe Modiselle. Image: Refilwe Modiselle

What are the highlights of your career so far?

I was acknowledged on Oprah’s Power list 2012 as one of fifteen of the most influential women globally to make an impact in my field. To walk a runway or grace an ad campaign is phenomenal… I was a Legit Ambassador 2012. I’ve explored my music side, performing with the likes of RnB singer KB & MC/Rapper Zubz The Last Letter. I’ve dived into some acting roles. I’ve gone from being part of a three-way host talkshow to currently hosting a celebrity, lifestyle & entertainment show. Last year October I did a documentary on CNN about my life and being named officially, “Africa’s first albino model.”

Some of your social media accounts use the name Vanilla Blaq. What is the genesis of this name?

I’m a creative, apart from the intellect in me. When I initially came up with the name it was a combination of vanilla, my skin tone or my albinism, and blaq, being me, the black person. But this gained more essence and embodiment for me when I found out that the vanilla seed is originally black in its pure form… and then comes out white as an end product and in how we perceive it. So this was just the most significant way to describe myself: “Like vanilla, I’m not as you see me, but I am proudly a black being.” Vanillablaq.

And I started using the term “vanilla” to give a sexier descriptive of us people with albinism, instead of the foul sounding term, “albino.”

Photo: Supplied
Photo: Supplied

How old were you when you first realised you wanted to be a model?

I didn’t ask to be a model. It chose me when I was approached to do my first five-page fashion spread. I had no idea what I was getting myself into and what it would mean for my life. Even for the longest time I tried to shelve it… but it kept calling me back. It was only in my mid twenties that I realised the impact of what I was doing and what it meant for my life and those around me. Over the years I was just doing it for fun and because I could, being the slight rebel in me. (Laughs)

I didn’t choose this life, it chose me. 

Was your family supportive of this decision?

My mom wasn’t convinced at first and had been stern about my focus being on my academics. But she warmed up to the idea when she saw the impact it had created, not only for me but for those who drew inspiration from me. My mom as well found comfort in knowing the kind of strength and values she had instilled in me to carry my journey. Overall, my family is supportive in my journey.

Refilwe Modiselle and her mother, Grace. Image: Tracy Lee Stark
Refilwe Modiselle and her mother, Grace. Image: Tracy Lee Stark

What is a normal day for you like, from sunrise to sunset?

There’s never a normal day… I don’t do routine. Although my Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays are dedicated to the show I host… So those will be an editorial meeting, then prep, then shooting days. In between that I do voice overs, then attend to my matters as the ambassador for the Munro Boutique hotel, then admin via interviews and admin. On any given day, I could be asked to MC or do a motivational talk… so my days vary.

You started as a model for Y Mag, then got into advertising, music and now you’ve recently ventured into television with Hush on eTV. Which other industries could we possibly see you conquering?

I’m not one to say much as I like to surprise people by letting them see things as they come, but one thing I can let you in on is a feature film I had a small role in, a romantic comedy called “Tell Me Sweet Something,” done by renowned film makers Akin Omotoso and Robbie Thorpe and to be released later this year on 4 September.

Being albino in an industry as fickle as modeling must surely have had its challenges. Which of those hurdles was the most difficult to overcome?

The obvious case of being seen as the unconventional black girl/woman makes it a challenge for clients to take one into consideration. It takes more convincing and debate it seems. And the stereotype that people with albinism has no place in certain fields, and that we are not individuals and have different personalities and characters. We are always grouped.

Refilwe Modiselle. Image: Refilwe Modiselle
Refilwe Modiselle. Image: Africlectic Weekly via

Do you think governments can do more to bring to light the plight of albino people on the continent?

Yes, I think governments can indeed do more. The implementation of education, especially in schools, hand in hand with society playing its part in terms of parents playing a role in teaching their kids, as our first point of reference before we go out into the world is what we are taught from home. So everybody has a role to play.

You’ve made a name for yourself in South Africa’s media industry. What advice would you give to a young person living with albinism who has ambitions towards successes?

This doesn’t have to be specific to a young person with albinism, but applies to any young person generally. Success is not what you are or what title you hold, but rather what you do that has meaning and purpose with the life you have been given. Success is acquiring your blessings through God’s will for your life and the effort you put in to play your part. Success is not forced… just is.

Photo: Supplied
Photo: Supplied

Over the past few months, we’ve seen some African countries in east and southern Africa adopting a tougher stance on albino attacks. Do you think what they are doing is enough?

At this point it may not be enough, but it is a start. The same as the saying goes,  “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” it’s going to take time for things to take a drastic change because, unfortunately, it’s from the core of society this has to be tackled. For a very long time this was not seen as a issue to address seriously and was set aside, but African countries see the importance of stepping in to address the injustice. I still think harsher measures should be put in place to make an example of how this is serious and how people’s lives shouldn’t be taken away because of miseducation and wrong perceptions around albinism. But that goes hand in hand with education, and also people with albinism defying the odds. I try to educate through the work I do, for people to be able to identify me as another soul doing her thing, no different to the next talented being. I hope I’m a catalyst for change.

Catch up with Refilwe on her Facebook page and follow her on Twitter. Also check her out on the celeb talk show Hush at 6pm (CAT) every Thursday on eTV (DSTV Channel 194).

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