KUALA LUMPUR, May 26 — At a towering 5’11” with skinny frame, self-assured smile and seductive gaze, Sonya Danita Charles ticks a lot of boxes on the aspirant model checklist.
Only the 26-year-old from Kuala Lumpur is turning heads for a more obvious reason.
Born to Indian parents, Sonya lives with vitiligo, a rare skin condition that leaves her body covered in pale white patches that stand out against her brown complexion.
She has had the skin disorder since she was eight.
Now she’s pushing more than ever to fulfil her modelling dream.
Models like Winnie Harlow, who gained fame when her vitiligo condition was brought into the spotlight on America’s Next Top Model in 2014, provide inspiration for Sonya, who subsequently sees a path into the industry.
“I really look up to Winnie Harlow. She’s someone who really changed the modelling industry for us.
“After she became a big hit, modelling agencies and magazines were all after her.
“Different types of models are accepted now — plus-size, disabilities and things like that. It’s really nice the industry is open to change.”
Sonya has started to take on low-key photoshoots to help put her image out to the wider public.
She recently shared her story with social media platform True Complexion that garnered a swarm of positive remarks praising her natural beauty despite so-called flaws.
“I’ve had it over 17 years now so it’s harder to get my skin back to how it used to be,” said Sonya about vitiligo, a treatable condition with no apparent cure.
It started out with a small spot on her face, initially mistaken for sunspots by doctors, and gradually spread to the rest of her body, including her limbs and hands.
From childhood, Sonya was forced to manage this unexpected new appearance at a vulnerable age and had no option other than to develop thick skin with it too.
Name-calling was just one obstacle that once contributed to confidence issues she no longer harbours.
“High school was really the hardest time for me,” she said about days at SMK Desa Perdana in Taman Desa.
“Bullies would call me Dalmatian. They would say I have a disease that can be caught just by touching others. There was a lot of nasty remarks that was really hard to fight on a daily basis.
“It was very mentally and emotionally exhausting. Luckily I had very supportive friends who I’m still close with.
She added that her parents tried to find the best medicine for me when I was diagnosed, from Ipoh or even India.
Her father, she said used to drive her to Teluk Intan in Perak — three hours away — just to see a doctor whose medication worked for a while until they found it had steroids in it.
“The moment I stopped taking the medicine, my skin went back to white.”
At 17 Sonya left for California, United States to study fashion and business marketing at Woodbury University.
The US was also where she learned to embrace vitiligo, which affects roughly one per cent of the global population according to the British Association of Dermatologists, in surroundings that helped boost her self-esteem.
Moving to the US was the best thing that happened to her as she said the people were very welcoming and not as judgmental.
“I felt most comfortable when I was there because I was by myself also, so I gained a lot of confidence.”
Back home, things are a little tougher, something that Sonya doesn’t hold a grudge over.
“The Malaysia culture is not the same. Sometimes people aren’t as open to the idea of diversity and people who look different.
“I’ve been back since 2015 and my friends always notice how people stare. I notice too and it’s really awkward. I smile at people to try and ease the situation.
“I tell friends sometimes people look because they’re curious or they don’t often see something out of the ordinary. You can’t really blame them.”
For a period Sonya was very conscious of how she looked, only increasing pressure in her desire to become a model, naturally worried about having their bodies exposed.
Even stepping out the front door could be a challenge.
“There was a time I’d always wear full jeans or full sleeves. I’d always want to cover up even though you can see the pigmentation on my face,” she revealed.
“I have my good days and bad days, but I really push myself out of my comfort zone.”
The ultimate dream is to make a career out of modelling — even her superiors encourage her to move on from marketing — in the hope of, similar to Harlow, leading the way for others.
“People tell me to do modelling but I tell them no, I haven’t really thought about it. But I do think about it, I’ve just been too afraid to step out of comfort zone.
“Even my bosses tell me I’m wasting my time in the company! They tell me to go modelling or do something else but obviously I need a job and this is a good stable one.”
She said breaking boundaries by “doing little things here and there” has helped boost her confidence.
“I’m doing this also for other girls who deal with skin conditions or vitiligo. It’s a confidence thing.
“I often get asked for advice on dealing with my condition. One of the reasons I’ve started to do photoshoots is to help those who feel like they’re not good enough or feel less about themselves.
“As much as I’m building confidence for me, I’m doing it to help others.”