7 Minutes with Sonya Danita Charles on redefining beauty standards
New girl to watch
The recent Kuala Lumpur Fashion Week was arguably the most hyped year for several reasons: One, the array of head-turning looks that were sent down the runway by our local talents; and two, the (good and bad) drama a fashion week is not complete without. But these aside, there was something else that caught our attention too. Enter 25-year-old Sonya Danita Charles. At 5'11, it's not just her towering height that caught our attention. She has vitiligo, a rare skin condition in which the skin loses its pigmentation in patches. The aspiring model had her first taste of the runway when she walked the FashionValet x Min Luna show, and here, Sonya lets us in on her KLFW debut, and gives us more insight into vitiligo.
- When did you first notice you have vitiligo, and how has the journey been like for you?
Sonya Danita Charles: It started off as a small dot on my face when I was eight years old, and since it was so small, we didn't think much of it. It wasn't until we finally decided to consult a dermatologist that I was told I had developed vitiligo. I never really saw myself as someone beautiful due to my skin condition, and it took me a really long time to come to terms with it—until I was about 17 years old. There are still times when I'll feel discouraged because of my skin, but I constantly remind myself that there's really nothing I can do other than to love and accept myself the way I am.
- In other interviews, you mentioned that you were bullied and called "Dalmatian" in school. How did you overcome that as a child?
SDC: This took a long time but the most important thing to do is to speak up. I kept quiet for the longest time because I was afraid. Bullies pick on people because they feel superior over the person, and not speaking up just gives them more power over you. So, whether it's talking to your family, a friend, or even your teachers, it's best to let someone know what you're going through instead of allowing it to continue to happen and to suffer in silence.
- What is the one thing you'd like to educate people who are not familiar vitiligo?
SDC: This skin condition doesn't spread upon contact. There have been countless of times where I've heard people telling their children not to come close to me as I'm contagious, and even people in the service industry who are afraid to interact with me because they're afraid of having any physical contact.
- You walked at the FashionValet x Min Luna's show during KLFW for the first time. How was the experience like?
SDC: It was liberating and thrilling. Honestly, I was really nervous as it's my first catwalk, and I was afraid of the people's reaction. But as soon as I got out there, the response that I received from the crowd was truly unexpected—in a good way. I stepped out of my comfort zone and did something that I would've never done a few years ago. The overall experience is something that I will never forget because for once, I felt like people are starting to appreciate those who are different, and that is something really important to me.
5. Is there a model or someone in fashion whom you look up to?
SDC: I really look up to Winnie Harlow. Since she started her career, more people have become aware of our skin condition, and have also started to be more open to diversity in the fashion industry. It's nice to see big agencies and fashion houses opening up to the idea of having unique models signed to them or model for them on the runways.
- Winnie Harlow started her career by joining America's Next Top Model. Any plans to audition for Asia's version anytime soon, or pursue modelling full-time?
SDC: As of now, I don't think I'm ready for Asia's Next Top Model yet. I do want to pursue my career in modelling full time, but at the same time, there are other things that I would like to venture into as well. Hopefully, it'll all work out!
7. Do you think prejudice and discrimination still exist within fashion?
SDC: I think it does as not everyone thinks the same way. What one person finds beautiful, may not be the same for the other. It's really hard to judge as everyone has their own perceptions. Personally, I've been judged for the way my skin is, especially when applying for jobs at previous fashion companies. They not only look at the way you dress, but also the way you look on the outside overall, which I think is wrong and a shame for them to do so.
8. You actually studied fashion and business in university, and you're currently working with a high-street label as a marketing executive. What are some of your favourite trends at the moment?
SDC: One of my must-haves is denim. From jeans to jackets and shorts, I have them all. Aside from that, I really like everything 80's—bright colours, pantsuits, and florals are also some of my favourite trends at the moment.
9. Apart from fashion and modelling, what are some of your interests?
SDC: I'm actually really into fitness. I train at the gym at least three times a week, focusing mainly on weight training. Aside from that, I also enjoy hiking and travelling on the weekends-it's one or the other. Beauty is also something that I'm really into. I often search for inspiration and ideas on social media, and I enjoy watching hair and makeup tutorials and try to recreate the looks.
- What would you like to say to other aspiring models who don't think they're good enough due to certain conditions?
SDC: I'd say go for it and pursue your dreams! For the longest time, I held myself back from pursuing so many goals because I was afraid of what people would say, and I let my insecurities get the best of me. But as I started getting older, I realised that there will never be a right time. The most important thing is to believe and stay true to yourself. Never let anyone bring you down or convince you that you're not good enough.
- What is your ultimate goal for yourself?
SDC: My goal is to find happiness, whether it's in my career or my personal life. I aspire to keep growing and learning, and to be great at what I do. I also aim to help others out there like me, with hopes of inspiring and motivating them to conquer their fears, step out of their comfort zones, and reach for their goals.