MY STORY | My disability didn't stop me from pushing boundaries and becoming a model for Gert-Johan Coetzee

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Model and activist Esihle Mhluzi-Mchunu turned heads when she walked the runway for South African designer Gert-Johan Coetzee at this year's South African Fashion Week. (PHOTO: supplied)
Model and activist Esihle Mhluzi-Mchunu turned heads when she walked the runway for South African designer Gert-Johan Coetzee at this year's South African Fashion Week. (PHOTO: supplied)

Her life took a dramatic turn when she turned 10 and contracted spinal tuberculosis. After experiencing complications during surgery to treat her condition, Esihle Mhluzi-Mchunu from Qonce in Buffalo City, Eastern Cape, suffered mobility issues and needed crutches to get around.

Never in her wildest dreams did she think she'd one day grace a catwalk – but that's exactly what happened when she took to the runway during this year's South African Fashion Week, wearing garments from hotshot designer Gert-Johan Coetzee's newest collection.

She shares her story with YOU.

Her life changed when she was diagnosed with spinal TB at the age of 10. (PHOTO: supplied)

"I wasn’t born differently abled but in 2008 I contracted spinal tuberculosis. I had surgery to remove the damaged tissue from my spine but a complication occurred that resulted in the shape of my spine shifting. 

The transition from being an abled-bodied person to being differently abled was challenging.

I use to play hockey and at first I'd go watch hockey games, thinking that by the following week I’d be okay and able to play. My peers at that time didn’t understand what I was going through and I was often bullied.

I also didn’t know what it meant to be in a body like mine, but as time went by I got to understand myself and dealing with bullying got a lot easier. 

From a young age I knew I was brilliant and couldn’t accept the limitations that people imposed on me. I understood my limitations to be nonexistent, I just needed crutches to walk. 

My positive mindset enabled me to adjust to my body and accept it.

Now I can live unapologetically.

She's glad to have attended the Kingsridge High School for Girls because they understood her and never excluded her. (PHOTO: supplied)

Growing up in a community of abled-bodied people was a blessing and a curse because yes, they were uneducated about differently abled bodies but at the same time I was inspired. Whatever they could do, I could too.

I later realised that the stereotypes surrounding differently abled people were a result of society being exclusionary – we always have to jump through hoops and loops to get basic opportunities and exposure. And I wanted to advocate for us. 

The beauty industry isn't known for embracing diversity. I used to look at magazines and think to myself I’d like to be on the cover but the models were always able-bodied, which made me doubt if I could ever stand a chance.

Despite the niggly doubts, I tried to get a foot in the door and surprisingly the lack of representation motivated me to keep pushing. I tried to find a modelling agency but was declined by two. On my third attempt, however, I was welcomed with open arms and given a shot. 

What is spinal tuberculosis (spinal TB)?

Spinal tuberculosis, also known as Pott's Disease, is a rare infectious disease that leads to the collapse of the vertebrae, causing a hunchback. Tuberculosis is an infectious bacterium that typically affects the lungs, but if left untreated, can spread to other parts of the body. 

Symptoms Back pain, back tenderness, stiffness and spasm of the muscles, a cold abscess and a prominent spinal deformity.

I didn't just want to enter pageants for people who are differently abled, though. I entered the Face of Free State Fashion Week in 2019 and I came second, then I did Miss Free State 2020.

With these two pageants I got to work with management that understood my body and focused on my talent, and this made things easier for me. They realised I was more than my disability.

All I can say is when you come looking different but able to do what they can and do it even better then people see you as competition.

Her confidence grew after she was crowned the runner-up in the Face of Free State beauty pageant in 2019. (PHOTO: supplied)

Soon enough I got noticed by local fashion designers and worked with Bloemfontein-based designers TVL, Dafvhonj Designs, Gerhardt Shebe Creations, Rora by Rorisang and Free State Fashion Hub Students.

I was scouted by Gert-Johan Coetzee when he spotted me at Free State Fashion Week where he was showcasing his designs and casting models for his scheduled show.

From the get-go he was absolutely incredible and ensured I was comfortable. He incorporated me into his show perfectly and I'd definitely want to work with him again in future.

Modelling isn't my main priority, though. I studied law at the University of Free State and because I'm a product of medical malpractice, I decided to pursue a degree in medical law.

I took up public speaking, advocating for physically impaired people and joined the university's Universal Access Council, which champions more accessibility for differently abled students.

Esihle is the secretary general of Cecillia Makilwane Hospital where she's an advocate for physically impaired people. (PHOTO: supplied)

I’m also the secretary general of the board of Cecilia Makiwane Hospital in Mdantsane, Buffalo City, and I have my own organisation, HERvoice, which focuses on the empowerment of differently abled people. 

I'll continue to advocate for differently abled people because I want to change our narrative, rewrite the societal exclusions and allow people to see our brilliance over disability.

My advice to other differently abled people is to stand unapologetically firm in your truth and who you are – the world will adjust."


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