“I thought, Try to be a boy and try to be normal,” Pejic says of growing up in Australia. Ralph Lauren trench coat. Michael Kors tank. Chloé pants. Lara Melchior ring.
Photographed by Patrick Demarchelier, Vogue, May 2015
With gender fluidity dominating the runways and inspiring political debate, Alice Gregory meets the model Andreja Pejic and asks, have we reached a transgender turning point?
One Saturday afternoon in February, finally inside and away from the clamor of New York Fashion Week, Andreja Pejic sinks into a velvet settee in the hushed lobby of the Bowery Hotel. Three nearby tourists turn their heads, openly staring at the platinum-haired model—as if the sight of a girl so laughably beautiful was why they’d come to the city in the first place. I’ve caught Pejic just hours before she departs for London, where she’ll appear in Giles Deacon’s fall 2015 show. She’s walked dozens and dozens of runways in her career, but this will be her first as a fully transitioned woman. “I prefer doing shoots,” Pejic, 23, admits in an unplaceable accent. “I get a little stressed with runway. I wasn’t given that much training in the beginning. I was just thrown in with the girls, and the designer was like, ‘Put these heels on.’ ”
Born Andrej Pejic in what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina, just months before the start of the Bosnian War, she fled to a refugee camp outside Belgrade with her recently divorced mother, grandmother, and brother. After the NATO-led bombing began in 1999, they emigrated to Melbourne, Australia, where Pejic would return from school and, to avoid bullying, try to train herself out of the feminine styles of speech, gait, and gesture that came naturally to her. In a sense, Pejic, who is six feet one and wears a size 11 shoe, has been modeling since she was a small child.
“I wanted to stop puberty in its early tracks,” she tells me. “I was worried about my feet being too big, my hands being too big, my jawline being too strong.” She still recalls the relief she felt on her first fashion job. Surrounded by similarly proportioned models, she told herself, “Every girl in fashion is exactly the same. I don’t need to worry!”
It was only last year that Pejic underwent gender-confirmation surgery (the term that has come to replace gender-reassignment surgery), and to hear her recount the facts of her autobiography can be a little surreal, requiring recursive, real-time attention. There is nothing masculine about her. Dressed in a Prada turtleneck and a Phillip Lim pencil skirt, Pejic is as feminine as my sister, as my mother, as my biologically female friends. This is, of course, the product of extreme effort: an adolescence spent on synthetic, puberty-suppressing hormones (taken secretly at first, then with her mother’s support and blessing), and a surgical procedure that took her two months to recover from—not to mention a measure of phenotypic luck. She engages—and dismantles—all one’s visceral perceptions of gender.
Pejic is also, despite a regal bearing and startlingly acute cheekbones, absolutely free of severity. During our hour-long talk, she maintains a serene expression that never once stiffens. “Society doesn’t tell you that you can be trans,” she says, calmly describing the distress she experienced living life as a young boy at school. “I thought about being gay, but it didn’t fit. . . . I thought, Well, maybe this”—the fantasy of living life as a girl—“is just something you like to imagine sometimes. Try to be a boy and try to be normal.”
Three years after being discovered working at a Melbourne McDonald’s at the age of sixteen (the scout didn’t know if she was a boy or a girl, just that she looked like a model), Pejic was in Paris, walking in both the men’s and women’s shows for Jean Paul Gaultier. She’s been cast (as an androgynous model) by Jeremy Scott, Thom Browne, and Marc Jacobs. This year she will appear as a face of Make Up For Ever, making her one of the first transgender models to score a significant beauty campaign.
Pejic’s success neatly coincides with—and embodies—a kind of cultural and political mainstreaming of transgender identity. “There are just more categories now,” she says. “It’s good. We’re finally figuring out that gender and sexuality are more complicated.” Such is the cumulative interest in gender fluidity, in fact, that several people warned Pejic that transitioning might jeopardize her career. “There was definitely a lot of ‘Oh, you’re going to lose what’s special about you. You’re not going to be interesting anymore. There are loads of pretty girls out there,’ ” she says. At times, what seemed to be plainly mercenary input from industry players would devolve into bigotry. One agent told Pejic, “It’s better to be androgynous than a tranny.” She ignored such voices, and she firmly believes that there is more to her modeling career than cynical stunt casting. “It is about showing that this is not just a gimmick,” she says.
“She has done what no other model has ever been able to: toe the line between male and female successfully for a long time,” says Gene Kogan, codirector of the men’s division at DNA Model Management, which until last year represented Pejic. “Andreja had an extraordinary career as a male model, often modeling female clothes; she pulled it off. It opened a lot of eyes and made people see things from a new perspective. We’re going to see her influence for years to come.”
‘There are just more categories now,’ Pejic tells me. ‘It’s good. We’re finally figuring out that gender and sexuality are more complicated’
Gender ambiguity in fashion is nothing new. Think of Marlene Dietrich’s Depression-era tuxedos and jauntily placed hats; the rumpled suits Diane Keatonwore in Annie Hall;Kate Moss in those curve-obscuring Calvin Klein jeans. Over the course of the past few years, the doors of women’s closets have swung open to men as well. Kanye West wears kilts; Lil Wayne raps in leopard-print leggings; both Harry Styles and Justin Bieber are known to buy women’s jeans. Dressing across gender lines now seems like nothing more than an instinctual, sometimes even impromptu, aesthetic choice—as unshocking as facial piercings paired with a chignon or tattoos glimpsed beneath the folds of a couture dress.
Just this past winter, Gucci, Proenza Schouler, and Chanel sent men down womenswear runways. Givenchy, Giorgio Armani, Saint Laurent, Raf Simons, and Moschino did the opposite, casting women in menswear shows. Alessandro Michele, the new creative director of Gucci, says that the choice to dress male models in womenswear was “a pure recording of something that is happening around us: a strong affirmation of freedom, beyond cataloging and labeling.” LadyFag, a queer New York–based party promoter, agrees. “Just as being black isn’t a trend,” she says, “being trans isn’t a trend.” Or, as Proenza Schouler cofounder Lazaro Hernandez puts it, “Nobody cares anymore. The distinction between man and woman is disappearing, aesthetically at least. . . . As a designer, you reflect the culture, and this is a big facet of our culture right now.”
Though cross-dressing and androgyny are obviously not the same thing as being trans, they can be seen as markers of tolerance and acceptance. And Pejic isn’t the only trans model working today. Ines Rau has posed for Alexis Bittar; Arisce Wanzer was featured in an Opening Ceremony commercial; Riccardo Tisci’s assistant-turned-muse Lea T has modeled for Givenchy. When Tisci cast her in his fall 2010 campaign, it was in part to help her pay for surgery. “I also wanted to send a message to the world that though she’s transgender, she’s also just human,” Tisci says. “She could be a banker, a pharmacist, whatever. She happens to be a model.” And now she is a spokesperson for Redken.
For the New York–based trans artist and performer Justin Vivian Bond, such visibility is critical. “Transgender people don’t have role models within our families, so we look outward. Even if you see just the slightest hint of something that says you exist, you’re real—well, it becomes disproportionately important.”
Bruce Weber, who famously photographed seventeen transgender models (including Rau) for Barneys’ spring 2014 campaign, has said the experience changed his life. “It was important that the campaign wasn’t just photos,” Weber says. “We told their story—in the film, in the accompanying booklet—and those stories weren’t fixed up to be commercial. They were the plain facts. You really can’t help but have enormous respect for their courage.”
In political terms, the securing of equal opportunities—access to health care, housing, and protection from workplace discrimination—for transgender people constitutes what many consider to be our nation’s next civil rights movement. Just as attitudes toward gay marriage have changed more quickly than anyone expected, there have been several milestones for trans people in the past year. In his State of the Union speech in January, President Obama became the first U.S. president in history to publicly say the word transgender. This March Wellesley became the latest women’s college to consider any applicant for admission who “lives and identifies” as a woman. Medicare has dropped its transgender exclusions; by one count 62 American universities, including Stanford, Harvard, and Yale, provide hormones and gender-confirmation surgeries for their students. The list goes on.
The distinction between man and woman is disappearing, aesthetically at least. This is a big facet of our culture right nowLAZARO HERNANDEZ OF PROENZA SCHOULER
Meanwhile, shows like Transparent and Orange Is the New Black have helped to normalize the lives of trans people for mainstream audiences. And the interest shows no signs of abating. The TV network Fuse is developing a series about two male-to-female cabaret singers; the actress Laverne Cox, who appeared on the cover of Time magazine last year, has been cast as a transgender Ivy League–educated lawyer in the pilot of a new CBS procedural; and The Danish Girl, a film about one of the first known recipients of transgender surgery, starring Oscar-winning actor Eddie Redmayne, will be released in November, just in time for awards season.
The progress is generational, argues Diego Sanchez, director of policy at PFLAG National, former adviser to Congressman Barney Frank, and the first openly transgender senior staffer on Capitol Hill. “People who grew up with so much more openness about these things are now old enough to be in positions of power.”
The most frequently cited number of trans people in America is 700,000 (from UCLA’s Williams Institute), which is almost certainly a very low estimate. The number of transgender surgeries performed nationally each year—as many as 500—is an equally ad hoc calculation, as many transgender people either don’t want an operation or can’t afford its cost (the surgeries are performed by only a handful of doctors in the United States). A dispiriting set of statistics comes from the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, conducted in 2011, which found that 90 percent of trans people said they have dealt with discrimination at work and almost 20 percent reported being denied a place to live. Forty-one percent have attempted suicide. A pair of recent polls say that 90 percent of Americans report knowing someone who is lesbian, gay, or bisexual, while only 8 percent can say the same about someone who is transgender.
Those numbers suggest an empathy gap, one that as a cisgender person (the recently popularized term for someone whose gender matches the sex they were assigned at birth) I’ll reluctantly affirm. While I can easily imagine that being born into, and forced to live inside, a body that does not feel like your own would be intolerable, it’s much harder, nearly impossible, for me to genuinely know what it would be like to feel as though I were a man. Even as these issues enter the public conversation—even as we have been watching Bruce Jenner’s apparent transition play out in the pages of tabloids—it remains a complicated subject to speak about. Because the terminology is expansive (and heavy with Latin prefixes), even the most well intentioned find themselves afraid of offending. To misspeak about such matters, to confuse a single pronoun, is to disavow an individual’s personhood. Who wants to do that?
And yet among an emerging cohort of designers I spoke to, issues of gender fluidity are acknowledged with little more than a shrug. Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta, the 27-year-old designers behind Eckhaus Latta, whose shows draw a cultish crowd usually more inclined to attend a Chelsea gallery opening than a Lincoln Center presentation, have been dressing in each other’s clothes for years. “It’s never been statement-oriented for us,” she says. “It’s more ‘I like this shape on my body.’ ” Their designs, which typically involve multitextural layers in unexpected color combinations, are often modeled by their trans friends, such as the artist Juliana Huxtable and the actress Hari Nef. “We’re obviously very open to non-normative ideas of what a model should be, but it’s never like, ‘Oh, this piece is about trans identity!’ ” says Latta. “This isn’t novelty for us,” adds Eckhaus. “This is the world. These are people.”
Shayne Oliver, also 27 and the founder of Hood By Air, a CFDA Award–nominated streetwear brand, tells me that he thinks of his designs “as sort of a wardrobe for a new generation” and is at once confident and blasé about the politics reflected in his clothes. “Gender fluidity has a lot to do with it,” he says. “I don’t think my clothes are going to be unmarketable or seem like they’re from outer space.”
And though an America in which people dress in clothes like Oliver’s and roll their eyes at the idea of traditional gender roles may be on the horizon, we haven’t arrived there yet. “Within three to five years, I’d like to see openly trans people be able to serve in the military,” says PFLAG’s Sanchez. “I’d like to see young people who are trans and in school be able to play sports, join clubs, and use the bathroom in accord with their gender. Within ten years people should be looking at trans people the same way they do gay people and people of color now.” It’s the distance between this seemingly inevitable future and where we are right now that makes the current moment so exciting and so fraught. Transgender people may be more visible, but they’re also still objects of curiosity and scrutiny—not yet accepted as individuals with the right to lead lives as uninterrogated as everyone else’s.
When I bring this up with Andreja, she inhales deeply, signaling that this is, of course, something she’s thought about relentlessly. “Being known to the whole world with this transition, I thought, Who is ever going to love me? How am I going to have a relationship with a man if all of this is public?” she says. “Then I got to a place where I was like, ‘I’m successful and happy with what I’ve achieved. There’s nothing I should be ashamed of. You can take it or leave it.’ ”