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Fashion

World’s first albino model Connie Chiu on growing up in Kowloon and diversity on the catwalk

A refugee from Hong Kong’s bright sun, Chiu left for Sweden. She recalls the chance inquiry to Jean Paul Gaultier that brought an invitation to model his haute couture collection in Paris, and kick-started her career in fashion

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 October, 2017, 7:15am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 October, 2017, 7:15am

Connie Chiu has fond memories of growing up in one of the hundreds of flats on a housing estate in Kowloon in the 1970s. She lived there until she was seven years old, when she moved to Sweden to escape Hong Kong’s intense sun.

Chiu has albinism and was the world’s first fashion model with the condition. Albinism means she has an absence of pigment in her skin, hair and eyes, causing a pale look and a sensitivity to light.

“I loved standing on our balcony [in Kowloon] in the summer evenings when the popular soap opera [of the time] came on TV,” says Chiu, who will not reveal her age. “I loved the fact that all those families were doing the same thing at exactly the same time.

“I had a vague notion that people lived busy lives, hard lives, but at that moment they belonged to the same community appreciating the same TV show.” Since then, Chiu has lived all around the world, but is currently based in Europe.

Model Thando Hopa helping to defeat prejudice against albinos

Chiu says her parents told her very little about her condition, simply telling her siblings (she has three sisters and one brother) that it was because she had a lack of pigmentation. “That was all,” she says.

Chui says her family understood that her eyes were sensitive to sunlight, a symptom of albinism, a condition that affects people of all ethnic backgrounds and affects an estimated one in 17,000 people around the world.

She says her skin was burned a number of times by Hong Kong’s bright summer rays, a reason why she started wearing sunglasses and using a parasol to protect her from the sun. “I understood that I was different, but I didn’t feel upset about it,” she says.

Her foray into fashion started when, as a 21-year-old radio journalism student in Sweden, she was asked by her older sister, who was studying fashion, to model for an end-of-term fashion show. Chiu was instantly hooked.

Living with albinism is not easy, but it sure makes life interesting.
Connie Chiu

“I discovered that I was a performer,” she says, adding that her sister’s collection was inspired by clothing from ancient China. She took part in 12 shows; some of them open to the public. “I learned the process of waiting around, of pacing yourself and how to perform on cue,” she says.

A decision to send a black-and-white photograph of herself to Jean Paul Gaultier gave Chiu her biggest break; the French fashion designer invited her to model in his haute couture show in Paris in January, 1994.

“I wrote my phone number on the back of a photo and sent it to Jean Paul Gaultier. About four months later, he called and said he wanted me to do his couture show in Paris. That’s how my modelling career started. Don’t get me wrong, I worked hard – I contacted agents, and met with directors and photographers discussing their projects. They appreciated my look, ideas and attitude. That’s how I got jobs.”

As well as gracing catwalks and magazine covers (Chiu has struck poses for some of the world’s top fashion photographers, including Terry Richardson, Paul Burley, Heidi Niemala and Morten Smidt), she has also featured in pop videos, including playing an angel in singer Bonnie Tyler’s video for the 1996 single Making Love Out Of Nothing At All. The following year she was also in Recoil’s pop video Stalker. “I played a woman who was stalked but managed to turn the tables on the stalker,” she recalls.

She says being cast as someone angelic, mysterious and mythical was fun. She has also featured in campaigns to raise awareness about albinism, including one for the United Nations.

Chiu admits her modelling career would be different if she didn’t have albinism. “I would be a different person in many ways, [but] I regret nothing,” she says.

Chiu says she has encountered “resentful, bitter and lazy people professionally and socially – people who are stuck in the past and let it colour their present and future”.

“I decided long ago to make a different choice,” she says.

She says she is a quietly confident and independent individual. She recounts doing a winter fashion shoot for Vice magazine where she was dressed in a blue furry coat. “I looked like a fashionable cookie monster from [the children’s TV show] Sesame Street,” she says.

The shoot had her in a playground on top of a slide. Within minutes, children started playing and sitting next to her. “They just wanted to hang around me. I thought it was nice – most children are not born scared, they are born curious. Or maybe they just wanted to stroke the blue furry coat,” she says.

Adults can be less open-minded. Once Chiu overheard a model at a fashion show talking about her. The model said she was only there because of her white hair and pale skin. Chiu says the model failed to see that all the models were there because of their looks, including her.

Another of Chiu’s passions is singing jazz. “Singing relaxes me, and playing guitar or ukulele does the trick, too,” she says.

The best part of her job is that she gets to work with passionate, talented, and fun people who dare to have a vision, she says. “Jean Paul Gaultier is not just talented, but also instinctive, kind and funny. Shelley Fox is another visionary designer who is fearless in her approach,” she says.

And she loves working on location. “Iceland was great, but so was juggling oranges in the middle of Paris,” Chiu says.

When it comes to the craze for skin-whitening creams in Asia, she is not a fan. “I don’t like them. Well, I don’t need them,” she says. Chiu finds it ironic that some pale-skinned people cover themselves with fake tan while people with darker skin use skin-whitening creams.

“How safe are those creams? Don’t always believe what people try to sell you. Here’s a thought – maybe the colour of your skin is beautiful as it is,” she says.

When she’s not in front of the lens – or clutching a microphone – her guilty pleasure is watching cute clips of cats and other baby animals on the internet. “I have an innate weakness for everything cute, sweet and kind. And that goes for people too,” she says.

As for the future, Chiu says she wants to continue modelling while working on her music. “Living with albinism is not easy, but it sure makes life interesting.”

Other fashion models with albinism

Connie Chiu is one of a number of albino models injecting diversity into the industry. Here are five more:

1. Moscow-based law student Nastya Zhidkova, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Chiu

2. Another Russian, Amal Sofi, has a striking, clean-cut look.

3. Refilwe Modiselle was the first woman with albinism to walk a runway in South Africa.

4. From the same continent, Diandra Forrest is an advocate for albino youth in Tanzania.

5. American Shaun Ross is a high achiever who has modelled for a host of designers including Alexander McQueen. He has also starred in Beyoncé’s Pretty Hurts music video.