Tia Fijalkowski has had her share of bad days because of her vitiligo. Disapproving looks, rude questions and people moving seats so they wouldn’t “catch” the condition. She’s seen it all, and more times than she can count. Yet you wouldn’t know that looking at her beaming photos in Nisa’s latest Instagram posts. Tia recently became a model for the New Zealand-based underwear label sewn by women from refugee backgrounds. The brand not only liked her look, but also embraced her story. Today, Tia shares more about her journey with vitiligo and how she found confidence.
Name: Tia Fijalkowski
Hometown: Melbourne, Australia
Years with Vitiligo: 15
LD: Tell us about yourself – who is Tia?
TF: I am 18 years old, born and raised in Melbourne, Australia. My father is Polish and my mother is Sri Lankan, making me a little bit of both. For the majority of my life I have been up on-stage dancing, singing and acting, having such a strong passion for performing arts. I’m currently studying Health Science at Monash University and hope in the future to pursue a career in the medical field. On the side, I’m also modeling full-time after signing with JR Management this year. I also aspire to be an ambassador, advocate and voice for vitiligo to inspire others around the world also living with this condition.
LD: Congrats on the full-time modeling gig! When did you first start modeling?
TF: I started modeling at the age of 15, enrolling in a finishing course with Tanya Powell and receiving a diploma and the foundational skills required for this industry. However, after one year of modeling, I began to develop vitiligo on my face. It was extremely psychologically challenging for me, so I decided to step away from the modelling industry. After a 2-year break, I had become confident with my skin and wanted to embrace it and inspire anyone who might feel “abnormal.” For a year I was freelancing and collaborated with many photographers and brands such as Kings Cove, GMS X MID, and DRMAT.
LD: We’re glad you didn’t give up on modeling. When did you first get vitiligo and what was that like?
TF: I developed my first patch of vitiligo at a very young age – around three – with a small patch on my wrist. I feel like my true vitiligo journey began at the age of 16 though. My vitiligo spread rapidly and out of the blue, reaching my face around my eyes and mouth. I also developed white patches on my legs, arms, stomach, ribs, feet and neck. When my patches first started to become more noticeable, I often felt as if people were always looking at me oddly. I could see their eyes flicking around my face and onto my white patches. As a result, I started to develop anxiety and depression. I would go to school every day wearing lots of makeup to even out my skin tone and hide my vitiligo patches. I was worried about how my peers and teachers would view me and if it would change people’s perspective of me. I developed the mentality that I wasn’t beautiful. I believed that no one would ever truly accept me for having such ‘ugly’ skin.
LD: You’re in a completely different mindset about your skin today – what changed for you?
TF: Through a school-related event, I became very close to a boy and would see him often before or after school. Although the majority of the time I would go to school with makeup on, some days I would wake up late and not have enough time to apply it. One day I slept in and didn’t have time to put on makeup and this boy started to see my true appearance. I was so anxious and scared of what he would think and how it would affect our friendship. One thing led to another and he became my first boyfriend. I was lucky to come across someone who loved how unique I was, and this led to me starting to slowly accept myself and build confidence. I slowly stopped wearing makeup to school and became more open about my condition, but I still felt uncomfortable in my skin on most days. My friends were so supportive of my choice to show it off and helped me see that I was beautiful, which took a long time for me to wrap my head around. I stopped covering my vitiligo with makeup but it was still very mentally challenging. I would often speak to a teacher who I was very close with about it or even sometimes my school counselor.
LD: It sounds like you slowly started to change your mindset about vitiligo. How has that gotten you to where you are today?
TF: Yes, I knew I wanted to change my attitude about how I viewed my vitiligo. I wanted to focus on self-acceptance rather than how others viewed me. Once I began to embrace it and accept this about myself, I saw that others also changed their views of me. In the end, my vitiligo brought me new-found confidence and enabled me to be proud of my appearance. My vitiligo has become one of my favorite features and I now can gladly say that I am proud to be unique. Getting to the stage of accepting my skin was not easy and there were a lot of bumps along the way. There are days I love my skin and still occasionally days where I want to scream. But ultimately, I want to inspire others and help them see the beauty in this condition.
LD: You are well on your way after being featured by Nisa. What was it like to work with the brand?
TF: Working with Nisa was such an amazing experience and opportunity. They reached out to me through Instagram as they believed I would be a great asset to the brand and loved my unique look. The photoshoot took place in the photographer’s home studio and it was a very warm and welcoming environment. I felt comfortable and supported during the whole shoot. Nisa not only has comfortable and cute underwear that I adore but I loved the background story of the brand and how the underwear is made from women with refugee backgrounds in Wellington. After the shoot I was able to keep the garments I wore and I am constantly wearing them.
Erika Page is the Founder and Editor of Living Dappled. After getting vitiligo at the age of seven, she lost 100% of her pigment to the condition and today lives with universal vitiligo.