In the space of one day a couple weeks ago, the 21-year-old model Ralph Souffrant landed a modeling contract with Re:Quest, and a spot in the Yeezy Season 3 show. Prior to that, he'd been booking shows all on his own, responding to casting agents for labels like Gypsy Sport with his personal Gmail account.
Just six months ago, a friend of Souffrant's suggested that he stop going to college, where he was studying dermatology, to pursue modeling. He helped him make an Instagram account; almost immediately, people started following him. After seeing Souffrant, it's not hard to understand why. He has a skin condition similar to vitiligo that left him covered in freckles, and he poses with an intense seriousness — the symptom of living a life where nothing comes easy. (Souffrant means "to suffer" in French.)
Born in Haiti, Souffrant moved to Brooklyn when he was nine to live with his family. "Haiti is a hard place to get by," he recalled. "You wake up, and you don't know what you're going to eat. It's your parents' job to go out there and find basic needs. My last name fits my life pretty well."
In Brooklyn, things were easier, but not by much. He was bullied heavily in high school because of his appearance. "People would make fun of me all the time: 'You're ugly. I can't believe you look like that.' It was terrible," he said. "But I'm sure many people have been through this. If you have some difference in you, people find something to say."
Today, the disses have turned into compliments: "Modeling is your calling," "You're beautiful," and "I've never seen anyone who looks like you," read the comments on Instagram. In the fashion world, his nonconformity is celebrated. Designers devote extra time finding the right look for him, and makeup artists opt to not interfere at all. "It's awesome that there are people out there who find me attractive," he said.
Kanye West was one such person. His team spotted Souffrant among the crowd of hundreds at the open casting call. On the day of the show, he finally saw West in the flesh backstage. "The girls were lined up on the left and the guys were on the right. Kanye came in and said, 'I don't like the jacket that you have on this model, can you please remove it.'" And that was it. "He looked serious," Souffrant recalled. He and the other models were then handed a sheet of paper with a long list of rules, including: "NO FAST MOVEMENTS," "NO SLOW MOVEMENTS," "DO NOT ACT COOL," and "YOU ARE A PICTURE."
While the rules confused Souffrant, he took them seriously and stood for the entirety of the show, which lasted over two hours. "I basically forced myself to stand there. I also thought, 'This is who I am.' If I'm here to do something, I'm going to do it well. Just because they're telling me I'm allowed to sit, that doesn't mean I'm going to sit. I felt like the show looked much more professional if I stood up. So, I fought."
On stage at Madison Square Garden, Souffrant wasn't thinking about his past or future; he was focused on the moment. His fated last name isn't something he dwells on either these days. "When I was living in Haiti and I would cry to my mother, 'Mommy, I'm hungry,' yes, I thought about it. But not anymore. It's a part of me — it pushes me."
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