Everywhere he goes people stare at him, transfixed by the almost symmetrical patches of white skin on his eyelids, around his nose and on his hands and arms. But Moostapha Saidi (25) doesn’t mind – in fact, he welcomes it.
“I’m a walking billboard,” he says. And what he’s advertising is himself: a guy who is fast making a name for himself in the modelling world. Saidi has vitiligo, the condition where pigment cells are destroyed, causing the skin to lose colour. But he has embraced it wholeheartedly and is using his difference to his advantage.
When we meet him, the model has just come off the ramp at a fashion show where Edgars showcased their winter range, and he also recently travelled to Paris, France, where he featured in a show that celebrated diversity. He’s proud of his looks and believes his skin is going to make him a star – and he has his family to thank for that pride and confidence.
Zimbabwe-born Moostapha was just nine years old when he was diagnosed with vitiligo. “It started out as two small dots on my lips and at the time I didn’t understand what was happening.”
Neither did his community. People thought the white patches were brought on by evil spirits or that he was contagious, but his family made sure he felt safe and loved.
His grandmother, Epiphania Munava (70), cared for him and his younger sister, Melissa, in Bulawayo while their mom, Eva (43), worked as a hairdresser in Johannesburg.
When Saidi was 11 he and his sister (now 23) went to live with their mom in Joburg as she’d raised enough money from braiding hair to rent a flat for them to live in.
“My family didn’t pity me or treat me differently,” he says. “I was the same Moostapha I was before vitiligo and I’m really grateful for that because the treatment wasn’t the same outside home.
“People would stare and ask my mother why I looked the way I did. My schoolmates wouldn’t say much. They just stayed away from me and the stares were always there.
But I chose to take it as a compliment because they could see I was different and unique.” From an early age he decided he always needed to look good if he was going to be an object of such attention.
“So, I made sure everything about myself was on point. Looking good gave me confidence, so my haircut and outfit had to be perfect.”
Saidi’s road to the ramp started when he was scrolling through Facebook one day and came across work done by photographer Justin Dingwell.
He liked what he saw – unusual, eye-catching portraits of people that showed a depth of imagination and artistic experimentation – so he contacted Justin and asked if might be interested in working with him.
“He agreed and we collaborated on a project called A Seat at the Table.” The project included sticking googly eyes all over Saidi’s face and body to depict the way he has always been gawked at by society. he has always been gawked at by society. “The pictures generated some noise and in September I got a call from someone at Boss Models asking me to come in,” he says.
“It felt so unreal.” Boss Models, one of the top modelling agencies in SA, offered to represent him. “At that stage I didn’t see myself as a model, I just wanted to penetrate the commercial industry by appearing in adverts – I didn’t think of fashion or runway modelling as something I could do.”
But the A Seat at the Table portfolio of pictures continued to create so much buzz he was soon jetting off to Paris – his first time outside the continent.
The photographs were exhibited at an event called “What is Blackness?” in November, which focused on different narratives of what people define as black. Saidi was blown away by the attention he received.
“When I was working with Justin, I just saw what we did as storytelling, so to get a call from one of the best agencies in the country and then to have an opportunity to go to Paris felt amazing.
When he returned to SA the modelling work started to come in and he’s now part of Edgars’ #OwnTheLook advertising campaign.
Strutting his stuff on the ramp and posing for pictures isn’t all Saidi has on the go though. He is also a student at Unisa, pursuing a degree in economics and management sciences. His studies were inspired by his mom, he says, who managed to get a degree in accounting while working as a hairdresser.
She is now an accountant at a travel agency and has her own perfume business.
Saidi is also working on launching his own clothing line for teenagers. “For now it’s just socks, beanies and ties and this is a way for me to penetrate the market,” he says. “Once I have the funds I’ ll branch out more.”
He also wants to give some of his merchandise to a charity “as part of giving back”. “I really want to help wherever I can.” As if all this isn’t enough, Saidi is also a hip-hop musician and says he’s always working on new music and should release something soon.
“I am mostly focused on the development of my brand, being a learner of life and interacting with people from different industries,” he says. “There’s a lot I’m hoping for but I’m taking it one step at a time.”