Meet South African plus size model, actor and activist, TJ Ngoma

The body positivity movement is definitely in full force. Plus size bodies are coming out and celebrating their bodies in ways the media has never seen before. Plus size models are becoming visible and encouraging other people of size to do the same. One such person is South African model, actor and body positivity activist, TJ Ngoma.

For years, TJ Ngoma has been building his career as a model and actor in South Africa, modelling for such well-known clothing companies as Superbalist, a very popular online shopping site in South Africa, and becoming the first male, plus size model to be featured on the site. In fact, TJ Ngoma has been called a “trailblazing plus-size model in South Africa” by GQ Magazine. It is no doubt that TJ Ngoma’s work is having a significant impact and bringing body positivity and Black Queerness some much-needed representation in South Africa.

We had a chat with TJ to discuss his journey in modelling, body positivity and activism, and growing up Black and Queer in South Africa.

Kyle Jackson: How did you get started in modelling?

TJ Ngoma: Well, honestly, modelling isn’t something that I initially pursued, because I never really saw models that look like me. So, I never thought it to be possible. It was never something I strived for. I kind of just fell into modelling I was scouted at an open casting for the first ever plus size men’s fashion show in South Africa. It was called “Plus is Equal.” It was there that I met my now agent at the casting. She approached me asked me about my height and what I did. I told her that I was an actor, and she said, “Yeah, I would really like to meet with you and talk to you about possibly signing you and having you be a part of our books.”

I still didn’t realize fully what she meant by that. But, I mean, I had nothing to lose, so I we set up the meeting, I went for the meeting, and then they pretty much signed me on the spot. They said they wanted me to be their first ever plus size male model. So, that’s pretty much how I got into modelling.

KJ: How was it growing up in South Africa for you as a young, Queer Black male?

TJ Ngoma: Well, I live in a country where homophobia and patriarchy are very much a part of the culture and a part of society. So I, I found it difficult at times growing up in that kind of environment, because you’re made to feel less than others and as if what you are is not worthy. You’re made to feel like you’re not going to get far being the person that you are, and that was very difficult for me. I really struggled with finding my sense of self-worth and finding my own identity.

Also, representation and media wasn’t there for black queer men, so I felt I it was extremely difficult. And like I said, we live in this society — in a culture — that’s very homophobic, so I never really envisioned a future for myself that was as rich as it is now. You know, in my head, I thought that I was probably going to grow up get HIV and die. That was literally the narrative that I always heard. I never thought I’d have a full, happy life, a career, or friends, like I have now.

I think a lot has changed since then. But I definitely found it difficult to build my identity and self-worth.

KJ: Why is body positivity important to you?

TJ Ngoma: For me, body positivity is vital to my purpose and my existence. Because honestly, in doing what I do, in terms of my body activism, I am basically showing society that my body is worthy, and that I am worthy. I am beautiful, I am everything that I want to be because I am worth it.

You know, that’s basically what I try to do. I try to show people the full life of a plus size Black male. That’s all I want to show, is that the way society has represented plus male bodies, especially plus size bodies — You know, plus size bodies are always the butt of the joke, or just like not taken seriously. We’re always the fatty best friend, or whatever.

And I just want to use my body and use my activism to show that plus eyes guys can be sexy, attractive and funny. We can be whatever we want to be because we are full humans, and we have the right to explore all the parts of us. We’re not just going to be the one thing that is represented in media. You know what I mean? I’ve never felt like the representation I see for plus size males fit me. It just never made sense for me. So, I always push myself to be more than what I was saw being represented.

So yeah, that’s why it’s important to me. It’s important for me to free myself from that ideal, but also to also give other people and younger people permission to do the same. That’s it.

KJ: What are some of your best experiences in modelling, and what experiences have been not so great?

TJ Ngoma: Honestly, in my modelling, so far, I’ve only had good experiences. I can’t really say I’ve not had a not so great one. I’ve only been in spaces where I’ve been welcomed and cared for and celebrated and loved. But the best experience was definitely being the first plus size guy to model for Superbalist, which is an online shopping platform in South Africa.

I’ve modelled for them like nine times now. And they’ve always been so great. So celebratory of my body and also just so open to hearing what plus size guys need in fashion. They’re open to hearing what I feel about the clothing and just being open to celebrating my body and people that have the same body as me.

So yeah, I’ve only had really had great experiences. When it comes to modelling it’s only ever been a wonderful journey. And I hope to continue to be blessed and lucky enough to have only good experiences.

KJ: What are some of the best things about the Black, LGBTQ and Bear communities in South Africa? What are some of the things people may not know?

TN: For me, the LGBTQ community is very much like a new discovery. I think maybe I discovered the community about three or four years ago when I started really posting pictures of my body on social media. Before that, I was just kind of like in my own world, just like fighting my own fight. But then, as soon as I put myself out there on social media, I found people like me reaching out, DMing me and just embracing me into this community and showing me that there is a whole tribe of people that want to celebrate my existence and my body and my craziness.

But yeah, the best things about it is how supportive we all are of each other, you know, just how much love we have for each other how much support we have each other on social media in real life. It’s just honestly been one of the greatest blessings in this journey of self-love and self-discovery. And body activism on social media is honestly the greatest gift. Like, if I stopped it all today, at least that still have that. So, for me, it was like one of the biggest, biggest life changing achievements when it comes to finding body positivity.

And some of the things that people may not know… People probably don’t know that there is even such a community here, because I definitely didn’t. I think people don’t realize that there are literally men out there who only want to hook up with guys that are more plus sized, or that are hairy. And I don’t think people necessarily know about it because it’s not necessarily something that people talk about, you know? To desire a guy that looks like me is like so taboo in some spaces, especially in like mainstream media. But there’s a whole community of people who are attracted to this type of representation.

I don’t think people really know about that, and they’re actually feeling sorry for plus size guys. And I’m just like — Yo, there’s like there’s a horde of men out there that want to get with all of this. (laughs) So yeah, it’s interesting.

KJ: We see you are also an actor. What acting and modelling projects have you worked on, or are currently working on?

TN: I’ve worked on a few projects here. I’ve been acting for 10 years, and I’ve done a lot of local television shows, local films. I’m very big on doing theatre. I think the last theatre show I did was Modjadji, in absentia, it was a show about the African rain queen and I played a whole horde of characters in there. And the great thing about that story was that, even though this was someone who existed, we also got to bring our own experiences into it. So I brought my experience of being a Black, Queer, cultural man. And for me that that’s peace. And that work will always hold a special place in my heart, because I brought my own story into it.

There’s definitely more coming. I’m currently working on developing a film that’s based around a plus sized guy, which is super exciting. I can’t say too much about it yet. And also, I’m working on a project that I’m going to be constant where I play a Queer character, but very different to what I’ve played before. It’s going to be super, super interesting. And I think it’s going to change a lot of people’s perceptions in the South African society about what Queerness means. So I’m excited about that.

KJ: Who empowers you?  

TN: Honestly, the person who empowers me most is me. For a very long time, I didn’t have people or anyone that I could hold onto or grasp for support. I think a lot of people go through life trying to empower themselves and trying to identify people that are powerful so that they can absorb their power for themselves, I think as a society and as people we’re very selfish in wanting to empower ourselves more than empower each other. So it’s very rare to find people that want to empower you.

So for me, I’ve realized that, because of this, I have to empower myself. I have to feed into myself and build myself out. Because if I’m always looking to be empowered by other people, I’m gonna lose my power. So, if anything, I have to draw that power from within myself and just basically be my own source.

However, I hope that one day I get the opportunity to empower other plus sized Black queer men, because I think that is my purpose. That is what I’m passionate about. And I definitely want to give back the power that I’ve earned for myself and share it with other people who may need it.

Photo by Kyte Dlamini (@kytedlamini)

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Kyle Jackson

Kyle Jackson (He/Him) is Senior Staff Writer at Gray Jones Media, and additionally works as a writer, editor and theatre artist/actor. A native of New Orleans, Louisiana, he studied at Dillard University, received a BA in Theatre from Morgan State University, an MS in Arts Administration from Drexel University, and completed the British American Drama Academy’s Midsummer in Oxford Programme in 2017. Having lived in Baltimore, the Washington, DC area, Philadelphia and New York City, he now resides and works in London, United Kingdom.