Skin Deep

African American supermodel Shaun Ross turns his albinism into advocacy

Relapse Magazine

Photographs by David Needleman

It was ten minutes after noon and Square Diner on Leonard Street in TriBeCa started to fill up. Men in suits carried their jackets under their arms or over one shoulder; women wore their hair up in messy buns or loose ponytails, held high off their necks. The sun screamed over the city that day, hovering in the sky like a monster with lungs that never seemed to deflate, waves of heat hissing off the pavement. The bell on the front door of the diner rung and Shaun Ross entered, black, circular sunglasses perched on his nose, his head of tight, white curls catching light through the window. His cream-colored hand removed his glasses. His eyes beamed, a flickering mixture of storm-cloud grey and fish-pond blue. As he strutted down the walkway toward my table, a man released the turkey sandwich from his mouth to take a look. A woman, bent over a Diet Coke, straw wedged between her lips, craned her neck as Ross passed. He sat down next to me, smiled, and said: “Are you ready?” 

    Arguably one of the most unique male models in the fashion industry, Shaun Ross has made a name for himself because of his albinism (he’s biologically African American), a recessive gene seen in less than two percent of the U.S. population, throwing flare into the traditionally mundane onslaught of chiseled frames and lanky limbs that grace runways and advertisement campaigns. He has walked for the likes of Walter van Buren and Bernard Willhelm; has been featured in GQ, Vogue and Elle; has starred in music videos for Beyonce, Katy Perry and the yet-to-be-released Lana Del Rey short film Tropico; and has built a relationship with Tyra Banks, being a subject on her talk show and a guest on the new season of America’s Next Top Model. “When I first saw Shaun I immediately did a double take,” confided Banks, creator of America’s Next Top Model, in an exclusive interview. “I’ve been around models my entire life so when someone stops me in my tracks, you know they’re fierce,” she continued. “What makes Shaun such a great talent is not only his stunning beauty or his ability to take some of the best photos I’ve ever seen a model take, but his flawsome-ness.  Shaun has an extremely unique look that some might consider flawed, but in reality, it makes him a truly awesome fashion and role model.”

    Underneath his head-turning exterior, Ross possesses an even more unique quality of someone with a permanent physical disorder: prideful advocacy. On a plane ride to Miami earlier this year, Ross manifested his desire to inspire people who were physically different, utilizing social media to raise awareness. “A lot of people would send me pictures of their kids with albinism and things like that,” explained Ross. “And I wanted to make up my own hashtag to promote it and get people talking. And then I thought of it: #inmyskiniwin.”

    The campaign, according to Ross, is still in its infant stages, but is already shedding light on physical equality on a large scale. It allows people who are labeled physically different to see that there are many others out there just like them who are making strides in everyday life. This is especially viable for children, where conditions like albinism make adolescents even more vulnerable to bullying and the degradation of self-esteem, something Ross himself fought while growing up as the only “white” kid at school in the Bronx. “He went through a lot, with people calling him names,” said his mother, Geraldine. “I’ve always taught him not be affected by that. He was special, always had a lot of love, and I told him to believe in himself—to always go after his dreams, and I think that always stuck with him. Shaun always had this special swagger since he was small.” 

    With constant support from his mother, Ross overcame the traditional hardships of being different while growing up. “I knew that I had a personality that was bigger than their imagination,” he explained. “And when that personality was not just shown but then accepted, it allowed me to then control situations.” From there, as the onset of adolescence prompted the concept of a career and a plan for adulthood, Ross solidified his passion in the arts. He eventually got noticed on the Internet by a sea of people who believed in him, including, in 2010, Ty Hunter, Beyonce’s personal stylist. “The fact that he was albino, and that he was so comfortable—I thought it was beautiful, the way he carried himself,” explained Hunter in a phone interview. “Once we met, he instantly became my son.” Hunter’s professional and personal mentorship elevated Ross’s tinkerings in modeling and acting into a more legitimate career, eventually giving Ross the opportunity to make an appearance in Beyonce’s “Party” video in 2011. “People are definitely seeing who he really is and that he is so talented,” added Hunter. “He is so passionate. He never has a day where he doesn’t strive for his goals—reaching for the next thing.” 

    Using his past as a blueprint for his advocacy, Ross plans on educating children that it is okay to be different, and that they should embrace their imperfections, all under the self-elevating moniker #inmyskiniwin. “I feel like if a lot of kids knew how to, and were comfortable with, expressing themselves at a young age we wouldn’t run into a lot of the problems that we do. There would be less fighting and bullying.” Transitioning this sentiment from merely a digitized, social-media-based effort that only creates awareness, showcasing the fact that there are plenty of people out there who are considered different, Ross plans to integrate his vision on the ground level, where change is the most crucial. “I want it to be something along the lines of the Gloria Wise Boys and Girls Club—something that is in school and that can be practiced with kids,” he explained. “I want it to be something that is applied. I would like to go to schools and talk to the staff and make it an after-school program—something fun for kids that may need it.” 

    His mother, who said she wasn’t surprised in the least when he started modeling, seemed to be more excited about this section of his career, an initiative that directly helps people, than anything else that put him on a cover of a magazine or in a music video. “I think that his initiative will open a lot of ears to accept diversity,” she explained. “ It’s fantastic—empowering and inspirational. He has lifted a lot of people’s self esteem and has taught people to accept themselves.” 

    For Ross, like with any of his goals and ambitions, it’s all about taking a deep breath. “I’m very patient about #inmyskiniwin,” Ross admitted, taking a page from Hunter’s book, who always taught him that being humble and calm is the key to success. “I know people will start reaching out,” he added, rubbing his hands together in front of his face, staring off out a nearby window. “A lot people have said they love #inmyskiniwin. It’s going to happen. I know it.”