This article previously appeared in the print edition of Move!
When he was 11, other children were playing hide-and-seek, eating anything they wanted and having fun.
But TJ Ngoma was worried about his weight. Growing up in East London, TJ (now 31) spent most of his childhood dieting. “I became obsessed with my weight. The comments became unpleasant and caused major self-esteem issues.”
Now a plus-sized model who loves his body, he’s standing up against body-shaming because he believes no child should ever feel the way he did.
IN THE BEGINNING
He was close to his parents, Thandi and Mkhuseli MC Ngoma, and three siblings.
“My family is very Xhosa; we love our meat. If there’s no meat, it’s not a meal,” he says, laughing. They went on road trips together. “We’d go to my grandmother or grandfather’s house. We like travelling as a family and watch many series together.”
He says his memories revolve around family and not friends.
“Many people talk about hanging out with friends but for me it was family.” After high school he moved to Cape Town where he studied theatre and performance at the University of Cape Town. “So I’m a professional actor. I worked in Cape Town for a year and did a series called Montana. I was on a show called The Final Verdict produced by Carol Bouwer, a queen.”
He moved to Joburg and did a few Mzansi Magic Bioskop movies including Uptown Girls and Skhwama, SABC1’s Ses’Topla and theatre. “Then work stopped coming and I moved back to Cape Town to figure out where I wanted to take my career.”
In Cape Town he fell into modelling. “I started a campaign called #PlusIsEqual. It was the first plus-sized men fashion show in SA. The designs were by the amazing Jade Campbell.” The idea was to show the fashion industry that plus-sized men can do the same job as mainstream models. “We can walk down the runway, sell clothes and be sexy.
We want to be included in the fashion industry.” After the campaign, TJ was scouted by his now agent Ice Genetics. He went in for a meeting and they loved him. Two days later he got an email asking him to be Ice’s firstever plus-sized model. “I obviously said yes and was excited.”
TJ says when he was growing up the media didn’t represent people like him. He thought to be attractive, he needed to have a six-pack. “The big guy or plussized guy on TV was always the joke, the funny one, the guy who eats too much. Never in my wildest dreams did I think my body type would be sexy and that I’d be a model.”
TJ says he still finds it hard to believe. “It humbles me and blows my mind. I got a chance to change society, to change the way young plus-sized people look at themselves.” He wants to represent his community and show people they can be plussized yet fashionable and in love with themselves. “I’m so happy and proud.”
He was teased profusely, he says. As a result he dieted and even went to gym twice a day to try to lose weight. “I dieted throughout my teens. For a long time I was focused on the way I looked. I was teased from every side – everyone thought they had the right to comment on my weight. It always bothered me.
“Especially my guy cousins. They’d call me sdudla (fat). It only stopped when I made it stop, when I was finally strong and confident enough to say, ‘When you call me these names it really hurts.’ It showed me that they weren’t trying to hurt me.” He says it taught him that plus-sized people shouldn’t take such comments. “We should tell the people who matter to us. If they love us, they’ll stop.” He decided to dedicate a year to loving himself and celebrating his body. “Look at me now, I’m a model,” he says.
“Being beautiful isn’t about fitting in or being skinny, it’s about loving yourself and being confident and loving your own skin. “I want that to be the norm. I want to see other guys taking off their shirts to show off their mkhaba (belly), to say this is my mkhaba and I‘m still hot and happy and sexy.”
LIVING HIS TRUTH
“I know God put me here for a reason,” he says. “I have a purpose to fulfil.” For a long time he thought he was on stage and in the public eye so other people would love him. “But I realised I was put here not to be loved by other people but to teach others to love themselves more. You can be all the things that get so much negativity and still come out on the other side loving yourself.” STAGE
PERFORMING AND MORE MODELLING
He’s just done a shoot with Gareth Batley, who recently also shot Miss Universe. “The pictures look amazing and there’s going to be a lot more modelling. Watch my social media.” He has a few stage productions lined up for this year. “People will see me at the National Arts Festival in June and July in Makhanda. I’m excited about that.”