Sanele Junior Xaba makes photographers and stylists get a little carried away. This year alone the South African model has posed naked save for a swarm of butterflies on the cover of Polish design magazine Label and worn feathered angel wings and a loincloth for Dutch art photographer Gemmy Woud-Binnendijk in a depiction of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. Viewed more than 25m times on YouTube alone, the jawdropping pièce de résistance in Sanele’s portfolio is the ad for sportswear brand Adidas Originals in which shirtless Sanele stands in for the wind god Zephyr in a dystopian reworking of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. Here, he writhes on a set strewn with broken computers to a cover of Sinatra’s My Way as Venus takes a selfie inside a giant satellite dish.
It’s all gorgeous, captivating work, and Sanele isn’t complaining one bit, but I wonder whether he might sometimes like to be asked just to stand next to an attractive young woman at a bus stop, or mope handsomely on a staircase. You know, standard male model gigs like those performed by his contemporaries at Boss Models in Cape Town. Jobs where you turn up and pull on a beanie and some jeans, rather than don a ceremonial wreath and pour a carton of milk down your front.
“People have said things to me like: ‘Oh, but you don’t look like the Heineken- drinking guy,’” he says. Today he’s dressed in his favourite black fedora (“I love a hat”), black skinny jeans and black Dr Martens. “But I do drink Heineken,” he continues, “so maybe they need to get out there and look at who’s actually drinking that stuff.”
I can’t fault his logic. But if we’re honest, the reason image-makers seem to go a bit high concept at the prospect of Sanele is because, apart from all the standard-issue stuff – runway-ready 6ft stature, muscular torso, exquisite face furniture – he has what several photographers I speak to refer to obliquely as “a very special aesthetic”. In other words, Sanele has albinism, a genetic condition that results in the absence of pigment in his eyes, hair and skin. This does not make him “albino” or “an albino”, a term that’s unhelpful because, as Sanele puts it: “It implies that we’re a species, or a race apart.” In fact, people of all races can be affected by albinism. Still, the condition seems to be most prevalent in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the UN Human Rights Council is implementing a five-year regional action plan to counter the astonishing discrimination and persecution that continues to exist.
In his professional life, Sanele has encountered tokenism from image-makers of all stripes. “I’ve had situations where casting directors have said: ‘No thanks, we’ve worked with Shaun Ross already” – Shaun Ross being an American model with albinism, who has appeared in music videos for Lana Del Rey and Beyoncé. Does that make him angry, I ask? “Well, it makes me want to say, ‘How many white models have you used this week?’ They’re not all considered to be the same person.” Still, he’s known for being patient and polite: “I realise it sounds a bit Zoolander, but I want to play my part to promote diversity in the industry. The commercial end of fashion is crucial as it dictates what’s cool, and the idea of cool is changing drastically. It feels more inclusive, but it can still do a whole lot better.”
Sanele was due to spend this summer at the most commercial of all the fashion capitals, New York. Several agencies there had expressed interest in representing him and ordinarily – because of his proven track record in modelling – a visa would have been granted in a jiffy. Instead, Sanele’s application was declined twice in the midst of Donald Trump’s chaotic visa shake-up. “The authorities weren’t sure about my intended reasons for coming to the States,” Sanele says, neutrally. I make an unfavourable reference to the example of Slovenian-born First Lady Melania Trump, who was apparently paid for 10 modelling jobs before she received legal authorisation to work in the United States, but Sanele will not be drawn. “It’s fine, it’s OK,” he says. “I’m the kind of person who believes everything happens for a reason.”
Instead of New York, Sanele decided to go to the Netherlands, where he has family, including a great aunt who moved to Dordrecht during apartheid. Nowadays she’s what Sanele calls “a hardcore Dutchie” and she was proud to see him walk in Amsterdam Fashion Week, one of several engagements arranged at short notice by Elite Model Management Amsterdam, the agency that supported Sanele’s straightforward visa application.
While appearing on a popular late-night TV talk show, Sanele met Nicky Libert, a Dutch local and fellow Elite charge who worked on a building site but shot to Instafame after being snapped by a British tourist. The two unconventional clotheshorses hit it off and a bromance began. “He’s Tweedledee and I’m Tweedledum,” says Sanele. Libert invited Sanele to come and live with his family in Almere, just outside Amsterdam, and has been introducing him to Dutch culture, one Turkish and Surinamese takeaway at a time.
“There’s so much variety and diversity,” says Sanele. “It’s rich with culture from all over the world – and I thought that South Africa had a lot going on!”
Sanele was born in a township outside Durban in 1994, the year South Africa transitioned from apartheid into democracy – making him a first-edition “born free”. When he was little, strangers would assume he was a white child in the care of a black nanny. In fact, his Zulu mother, Sithembisile, is a medical technologist who took Sanele’s albinism in her stride, but left the township after an incident in which another child shouted “umhlope” (Zulu for “white man”) and threw a rock at his head. There was considerable bleeding and he still has the peanut-sized scar on his forehead. “That was when my mum decided to move to the city,” says Sanele. His father, he says, was never in the picture – “a rolling stone” with an undisclosed number of kids.
Unusually, given that racial integration was in its infancy, Sithembisile enrolled Sanele at the fee-paying, majority-white Open Air School in Durban (motto: “I can and I will”) where he was, he jokes, “an undercover black”. Although he was acutely aware of the stares that his alabaster skin and naturally ginger hair attracted when he was out in public, he says his mother’s insistence that “I shouldn’t look on my albinism as any sort of disadvantage” bolstered his self-esteem. But with puberty, it collapsed entirely. “When you hit 13 or so, you become self-conscious and you start to want to impress people,” he says. Other pupils began to taunt him about his appearance. “I could give you a whole list of names: Casper the Friendly Ghost, white pudding, milk of magnesia, Tipp-Ex, snow globe…” Sanele’s actual name means “enough” in Zulu. He is an only child.
“I went through a stage of depression during which I did lots of desperate online research on how to get melanin,” says Sanele. Predictably, his attempts to boost the pigment-creating substance came to naught, so he resorted to the cosmetics counter. “I was experimenting with spray tans and very dark foundation,” he recalls, “and it kinda looked really bad, especially because I had braces and terrible acne.” He was already taking Roaccutane, the controversial retinoid drug, to try to get his spots under control. “For four months I had this circumference of heat around my face and it was bright red, like a tomato.”
To make matters worse, it was around this time that Sanele’s father – a perfect stranger – came back on the scene, only to tell Sanele that he was dying. “He apologised to me for everything before he passed,” recalls Sanele, before starting to giggle reflexively. When I listen to the recording later, the peals sound like nervousness bordering on panic. “I’m sure it seemed like I was heartless at the time, but I just couldn’t get emotional about it because I didn’t really know who had died and I was just too confused,” he says.
Back at school, he resolved to toughen up and confront the bullies. “I knew of another kid – not someone with albinism – who had hanged himself at the age of 10 and I just thought: ‘That’s not going to happen to me. I’m not going to let my entire student career go like this.’ I decided to beat the hell out of the next person who called me names.”
The strategy worked (“People learned not to mess with Sanele or he’s going to beat you up. That’s not the kind of person I am, but I had to grow a pair,” he says). In due course, so did the acne treatment. Sanele refers to what came next as his “blow-up season”. Buoyed by the confidence of clear skin, a promotion in the playground pecking order and his newfound athletic prowess as a championship swimmer with the body to boot, he began to socialise with a vengeance.
It was at the age of 15, while attending the Durban July horse racing, that he was approached by a model scout. “I took the card and then I thought: ‘Nah, I’m not going to do that shit,’” he recalls. The scout persisted, tracking Sanele down via Facebook and persuading him that there was money to be made. “As a teenager, scoring a buck is a big thing,” Sanele smiles. So he walked in Durban fashion week and appeared in campaigns for local designers before transferring to a more prestigious model agency in Johannesburg. “They got me catalogue work for Adidas, I did GQ magazine, and that’s when I realised that this industry could use a whole lot more diversity.”
Increasingly, he now sees his Instagram account as a means of owning the conversation, and photos are frequently accompanied by lengthy and heartfelt “believe in yourself” captions.
“At the end of the day, I know there’s an expiry date to what I do and my dream is to make my presence last a bit longer, to leave a footprint in the industry.” Among his 21,000-plus followers are teens struggling to come to terms with their own albinism. “I get messages from people saying: ‘Oh you are so brave for what you’re doing, I’m ashamed to even go outside,” he says.
Things are much worse, he notes, in the parts of Africa that GQ doesn’t typically reach. In some regions of Tanzania, for example, people with albinism live in fear of mutilation and murder because potions made from their body parts can command large sums on the black market. “There’s a whole industry run by so-called spiritual leaders,” says Sanele.
Since he has been in Holland, he has connected with Inside The Same, a charity that campaigns for the rights of individuals with albinism. With them, he’s planning a visit to an orphanage in Tanzania for children who’ve been abandoned as the result of stigma and ignorance. In some communities, children with albinism are believed to be reincarnated ghosts of slave masters, as opposed to what they are: innocents with a genetic idiosyncrasy.
“The charity provides the kids with sunscreen and medical treatment because a lot of them have skin cancer,” says Sanele. “Now that I’ve realised I can use my looks to raise awareness and to challenge the perceptions and stereotypes about the condition, I’ve started to take a lot more pride in my own albinism.”
As I pack up my things and we say our goodbyes, Sanele tells me he would hate for his nascent activism to somehow overshadow the meticulous work done by others: “I’m glad to assist and I really want to learn,” he says. He’s flying back to Cape Town tomorrow for a wedding – a cousin from his dad’s side of the family – so I ask what he’s most missed about South Africa during his summer away. His response is a little more starry than before: “I miss the nightclubs where they give me a private table because I’m a model, and I can take my friends and drink champagne all night without having to open my wallet. It’s fun, now and again, to celebrate your youth.” Good on him, I think. But so much for Heineken.
Grooming by Jade Leggat-Smith using MAC and Elemis; production by Christopher Smith; model Sanele junior Xaba at Boss models