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From orphanage to Vogue: How a child with albinism became a model

Her parents left her outside an orphanage in China as she had albinism, seen as a curse in the country. Xueli Abbing did not just survive the odds but has become a model and inspiration to many.

May 01, 2021 / 07:32 AM IST
Xueli Abbing. Photo courtesy: PicsArt.

Xueli Abbing. Photo courtesy: PicsArt.

Albinism is difficult to live with. The lack of pigment makes a person’s skin and hair extremely pale and leaves them sensitive to light. It can also hamper their eyesight. In China, the condition is looked at as a curse.

Xueli Abbing was born with albinism, and was left outside an orphanage by her parents. She was adopted by a Dutch family when she was three. Today, Xueli is a 16-year-old model and a symbol of hope for many.

“I'm lucky I was only abandoned,” she said in an interview on the BBC, referring to the even worse fates other children with albinism have to sometimes endure.

“At the time I was born in China, the government enforced a one-child policy on families,” Xueli said. “You were extremely unlucky if you had a child with albinism. Some children, like me, were abandoned, others were locked away or if they did go to school their hair was painted black.

“But in some countries in Africa, their limbs may be cut off or they are killed. Witch doctors use their bones to make medicines as people believe these can cure diseases but of course this is not true, these beliefs are myths.”


Xueli, who has only eight to 10 percent vision in her eyes, got her name from the staff at the orphanage. “Xue means snow and Li means beautiful,” she said. “I was adopted when I was three and went to live with my mum and sister in the Netherlands. My mother said she could not think of a more perfect name and she thought it was important to keep a reference to my Chinese roots.”

Xueli’s mother knew a designer in Hong Kong whose son had a cleft lip. The designer wanted to make nice clothes for the boy so that people did not stare only at his mouth. She asked if Xueli wanted to be part of that campaign. That’s how her modelling journey began. Later, she was approached by talent agencies. In June 2019, she appeared on the pages of Vogue Italy.

Xueli wants children with albinism to know they can lead successful lives. She also wants to reduce the stereotyping of albino models in shoots as ghosts or angels.

“People with disabilities or differences are featured more in the media and this is great, but it should be normal. Models with albinism often get stereotyped in shoots to depict angels or ghosts and it makes me sad,” Xueli said. “Especially because it perpetuates those beliefs that endanger the lives of children with albinism in countries such as Tanzania and Malawi.”

Further on, she said, “I want other children with albinism - or any form of disability or difference - to know they can do and be anything they want. For me, I'm different in some ways but the same in others. I love sport and climbing and I can do it as well as anyone else. People might say you can't do things but you can, just try.”
Akshay Sawai
first published: May 1, 2021 07:32 am
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