As a young girl growing up with vitiligo, Sonya Charles Danita never imagined modeling for top local photographers, fashion magazines, walking on KL Fashion Week, and landing in notable campaigns (Levis, Dove, Maybelline, Chatime and more…). Little did she know that studying in the US and modeling brought out her innate confidence and strength, and provided a life-changing transformation that reflected her personal journey of self-love and self-acceptance.
This inspirational, outgoing and quirky 26-year-old spreads positivity wherever she goes. Sonya is first redefining beauty on homeground before setting sights on the global stage. As a young millennial, she uses social media to reach out to her more tech-savvy audience through her modeling projects and creative writing to spread the message of self-love and positivity.
Here is an exclusive interview about Sonya’s transformation from bullied schoolgirl to one of the most recognizable faces in Malaysia.
1) What were your biggest challenges growing up with vitiligo?
I'd say that growing up as someone who looked very much different than everyone else definitely wasn't easy. One of the biggest challenges of growing up with vitiligo was learning self-acceptance and self-love. Being such a young girl and having to deal with changes that come along with adolescence, I also had to come to terms with the way my skin was constantly changing. It didn't help that I was constantly bullied due to my skin condition, which eventually took a toll on me mentally and emotionally. It felt like a constant battle between the people who picked on me, and my own insecurities. I had to deal with bullies while I was at school, and when I was out in public, I was often in situations where people would stare, make comments, and ask me questions in regards to my skin condition. I often wished that I looked like the other girls around me who had beautiful hair, even skin tones, etc. because I was constantly being reminded that I was different in a negative way.
2) How and when did you manage to overcome your insecurities?
Overcoming my insecurities was something that I gradually worked on over a period of time. It wasn't something that I could do in just one day, but instead required months of self-reflection and constantly pushing myself to embrace every part of me. However, studying in the US played a very big role in this. When I moved to the States, I felt like it was my chance to start fresh and finally be who I am. It was a new place, new environment, new culture. etc and I used this as my ticket to create myself. Being in such an open-minded culture definitely helped especially with the confidence building. Although I am no longer as insecure as I used to be, my insecurities still do come back every now and then, especially when I’m in a situation which is outside of my comfort zone. However, when I am faced with a situation like such, I make it a point to remind myself of how far I’ve come, and everything that I’ve worked so hard on.
3) How do you think modeling has changed the way you view yourself?
Modelling has definitely changed the way I view myself in a positive way, because in some ways or another it has also given me the ‘push’ I needed to really put myself out there and be confident with my skin. Though my confidence did not stem from my modelling journey, I definitely feel like it played a big role in the development of my life. I realised that I was finally able to stand up for so many men, women and children who have also felt like they never belonged or weren't beautiful enough according to mainstream beauty standards.
4) What do you think is the most challenging part of your modeling journey?
The most challenging part in my modelling journey is constantly having to push myself and remind myself that it is okay to look different amongst everyone else. There are times when I do fall back into insecurity, especially when I’m surrounded by so many other beautiful models, and that can sometimes make me feel like I don’t belong. However, when a thought like such arises, I take a step back to return to my core and what I believe in, and remind myself that being different isn't a disadvantage. Aside from that, it is also a lot harder to be a model that's "different". Although the industry is changing, there are still a number of brands/people who aren't quite as open to the idea of diversity. It's basically a hit-and-miss situation because on one spectrum, you have brands who are all about embracing beauty in all its forms, while on the other, you have brands who are more traditional and still insists that models are supposed to look, behave, and be a certain way.
5) Why do you think it is so important to break stereotypes and current beauty standards on homeground?
I think it is so important to break the stereotypes and current beauty standards in Malaysia because there are so many of us who have so much to offer, and yet we are constantly being shut down or shunned upon because we don't necessarily fit into the typical beauty standards. There are so many of us who miss out on job opportunities just because of the way we look. Honestly, i think that from a young age, all children should be taught that beauty comes in all shapes, sizes, and colors. They should be allowed to embrace their beauty without being ridiculed for not fitting into traditional standards. The entire stereotype that exists in this country is a toxic way of thinking, and because of that, there are so many people who are suffering, or who are afraid to pursue their goals because of the way society treats them. For example, I’ve been bullied since I was a young girl, and although I am older now, there are countless times where I still have to face the snares and comments from people around me whenever I am out in public. It's like I am a contradiction to what their idea of beauty is, and so when they see me, they often stare as a response of their disbelief.
6) As a popular model-influencer, how does social media play a role in creating awareness and promote skin positivity to your audience (if at all)?
I think that social media is such a powerful tool, and if used the right way, there is so much positivity that can come out of it. I have been very stern towards how I choose to manage my social media, especially in regards to working with brands on campaigns or ads. Since the beginning of my journey, I have made it a point to always post information that is raw, genuine, and entirely transparent. Every campaign that I have worked on has always been about embracing beauty in all its forms and with every image that I post, I always include thoughts or quotes that promote positivity. The reason I do so is because I want my audience to see that being different isn't a bad thing, and in the end of the day, we are all human too. I have always believed that humans should be allowed to embrace their individualities without the fear of being judged. Ever since I started posting pictures of myself on my platform, I’ve had countless people reach out to me and share their personal stories as well. So many have told me about their struggles to go out in public because of the way people treat them, their fear of chasing their goals, their insecurities, etc. However, they also told me that seeing my posts and the way I have chosen to live my life has inspired them to step out of their fears and do what makes them happy. Now, that is the reason I work so hard towards promoting beauty positivity. Although I have to be vulnerable, it is something I am willing to do because I want to help as many people as I can. I want my future daughter to be able to live her life the way she wants to in a safe and positive environment, where she is able to embrace her beauty and individuality, and live a life that is purposeful and joyful.
7) What is your dream photoshoot?
My dream photoshoot is definitely to be on VOGUE. Growing up I’ve always admired the women I saw on the covers of these magazines, and i always wished that I could look like them. They were all flawless with perfect skin, hair, etc. and I hoped to look that way too because that's the idea of beauty that the industry was selling. However, today, I think that it would make such a difference to so many people out there if we saw more women who looked like me. Women with different skins, bodies, etc.
8) Finally, if you could give advice a younger self from ten-years ago, what would it be?
My advice would be to just be yourself and not worry too much about what other people think or say. It’s easy to get caught up with what we see on social media, or around us, and try to fit into certain standards that people have forced upon us, however, doing so will only make you lose your identity. In the end, you should always do what makes you content and happy. Continue to do good, and those who are meant to be in your life will accept and love you the way you are regardless of your appearances.