Written by ALICE GREGORY
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.”