[EXCLUSIVE] Sonya Danita Charles and Nadirah Zakariya Talk Vitiligo, Beauty And Their Creative Pursuits In Malaysia

Text and Interview Pamela Choo Edited by Lina Esa Photography Xiang Make-up Kevin Hair Juno Styling Voon Wei Art Direction Mils Gan and Voon Wei Videography Felix Khu

Beauty is subjective. And much like the overused adage — also in the eye of the beholder. We lived through the ages of media saturating our lives with overly-Photoshopped models without a hair out of place. From waif-like models and thigh gaps to the feeds of retouched skins and a heavily-filtered Insta life… What’s new, real, and actually beautiful?

Taking a step back and stripping away the constructs of one, homogenised “ideal beauty” is the first step. Unattainable beauty standards have evolved to accepting the skin you’re in.  And while someone being born with a skin condition would automatically make them “different” — this point of difference imbues them with uniqueness and beauty. 

You may have already heard of these two Malaysian girls. Sonya Danita Charles is a 26-year-old marketer and part-time model. Nadirah Zakariya is a 34-year-old photographer. Although they’d never met prior to when they partnered up for an exclusive shoot with #TeamCLEO, Sonya and Nadirah have a lot in common. Besides both having interests in creative fields which often involves putting themselves out in the public eye, Sonya and Nadirah were born with vitiligo, a skin condition where patches are formed on the skin because of a loss of pigment in those areas.

All smiles under the sun! On Sonya – cropped top and faux leather skirt, H&M; On Nadirah – striped shirt dress and hoodie, Uniqlo

Growing up, they both had similar experiences in that some people around them would make negative comments about their appearances. 

While Sonya struggled with the negativity that came with her skin condition, she worked towards a journey of self-acceptance. She’s keen on changing the perceptions of others on accepting each person for who they are and the way they look. Having always had an interest in fashion, she studied fashion and business marketing in Woodbury University, California and made her passion a reality working in the fashion industry back home in Malaysia.

Nadirah, on the other hand, didn’t let the negative criticisms get to her, and was pretty accepting of herself from an early age. She fell in love with photography as a form of self-expression and decided to pursue her studies in the art form. With a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography and Digital Imaging from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, she’s currently an independent photographer based in Kuala Lumpur.

Here, #TeamCLEO spoke to Sonya and Nadirah to learn more about speaking up against haters, growing with their vitiligo, and how they’re making a mark in their creative pursuits. 

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Sonya Danita Charles, 26, marketer and part-time model

Tell us a bit more about your background?

I was born and raised in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I completed my primary and secondary school education localIy and moved to Los Angeles, California when I was 18 years old to pursue my studies in business and fashion marketing. Since I’ve been back in Malaysia, I have been working in the fashion industry as a marketer. Some of the things that I love doing most during my free time is travelling, working out and hiking. and I’m always looking for new ways to continuously learn and grow as an individual.

When did you first realise that you had vitiligo?

I first realized that I had vitiligo when I was eight. It started as a small dot on my face, which gradually started spreading over time. I’ve had it for 18 years now.

Her smile is contagious! Here, she wears a cropped top and faux leather skirt, both from H&M; denim jacket, Uniqlo.

You have mentioned that you experienced some bullying in school about your appearance. How did you deal with that?

I did not do anything about it at first because I was too ashamed and too afraid to stand up to them. However, it came to a point where I could not bear it any longer, and I reached out to my family, who then helped me resolve the issue.

I then realised that standing up to the bullies was the only way to stop them from picking on me, and since then, I have been very verbal.

In your experience, what are the common misconceptions about vitiligo? 

Some of the common misconceptions about vitiligo is that it is contagious, it hurts us physically, and that we’re incapable of doing things that a “normal” person could. Often, when I come across people with such misconceptions, I’ll be sure to educate them on it, as I genuinely believe that some people are just curious.

By educating them on it, we are also teaching them to be more mindful with their words and actions the next time they come across someone with the same condition. 

“we can start changing people’s perceptions by educating them on the true meaning of diversity. Most people think that diversity only applies to a religion or culture, however, there is more to it.”

You said in previous interviews that you find the Malaysian culture is not as accepting of vitiligo as your experience in the US. How do you think we can start changing people’s perceptions of appearances?

I wouldn’t say that they’re all the same though. There are people who I’ve been blessed to meet who have been so kind and accepting towards me, but at the same time, there are some people who stare at me, make assumptions or comments about my skin, and even treat me differently because of it. It’s only in the more recent years that people have been slowly starting to be more accepting towards people who are diverse in appearance.

I’d say we can start changing people’s perceptions by educating them on the true meaning of diversity. Most people think that diversity only applies to a religion or culture, however, there is more to it. There’s diversity in skin colours, shapes, sizes, personalities,etc. and this is something that more people should be aware of.

You studied fashion and business marketing at Woodbury University, California. Can you tell us more about that?

 It was truly the best years of my life because I learnt so much during those years abroad. While I was studying, I also worked several different jobs in the fashion and entertainment industry, which was such an amazing experience as it taught me a lot in regards to how each industry differs in their own way.

Sonya stood up for herself and dealt with the negativity that came with her skin condition. So admirable! On Sonya: Sleeveless top and leggings, Puma Jaab XT by Adrianna Lima

How did your interest in fashion come about?

I had always been interested in fashion since I was a young girl. I always loved seeing the art in fashion, and how people are able to express themselves through it. I liked reading about all the latest trends in magazines and I knew that at some point I wanted to pursue a career in fashion. There’s something about the art behind it, which I found so captivating.

Would you consider modelling full-time?

I have considered it, however I do not plan to do so anytime soon unless I am certain that it is something that I can [support myself] with. Also, there are other things that I would like to venture into as well, so I’m keeping my options open for now.

“It’s easy to get caught up with what we see on social media, and try to fit into certain standards. However, doing so will only make you lose your identity.”

What would you say is your style?

I’d say that my style depends on my mood. Every day is a new day for me to try something new and to experiment around with the things that I have. And since the way I feel plays a big part in how I choose to dress, I don’t necessarily have a particular fixed form of style.

However, one of my go-to styles is always denim. I love how easy and simple it is. I love my jeans and it’s one piece of clothing which I can’t let go of.

What’s your advice to those who feel insecure about their appearances?

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, and try to fit into certain standards. However, doing so will only make you lose your identity. In the end, you should always do what makes you content and happy.

Those who are meant to be in your life will accept and love you the way you are regardless of your appearances. I personally still struggle with this, but every day is a new day for me to work towards loving myself even more and accepting myself the way I am.

What does she love? Fashion’s always been Sonya’s passion. Here, she wears a blazer, python print body suit, and denim skirt from H&M

“In the end, you should always do what makes you content and happy.”

What are your top goals for yourself?

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.

I believe that knowledge goes a long way, and if I’m able to make a difference in someone’s life, then I know that I’ve served my purpose in this world. 

What is your definition of beauty?

Personally, I think that beauty is not limited or defined by one’s physical traits and appearances. There’s so much more to it. There’s beauty in the sound of laughter, or a person’s personality, etc.

“beauty is not limited or defined by one’s physical traits and appearances. There’s so much more to it.”

What does empowerment mean to you?

Empowerment means helping others to be the best version of themselves. I believe that in this day and age, it’s so important for individuals to empower each other rather than trying to pull each other down. We have to pave the way for a more accepting and positive generation ahead of us.

How would you describe yourself in 5 words?

Mindful, outgoing, quirky, confident, funny.

What’s one thing people don’t know about you?

One thing that people don’t know about me is that I actually spend a lot of quiet time at night. It is during this time when I am at my most vulnerable state, and I reflect on my entire day. Through this practice, I am constantly working towards gaining clarity on matters pertaining to my life.

To know more, follow Sonya at instagram.com/sonyadanita

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