Andreja Pejic photographed by Terry Richardson, styled by George Cortina, interviewed by Neesha Arter
Unfiltered Andreja Pejić talks Single Life in NYC, Fascism & Instagram for C☆ndy Magazine
By Neesha Arter
“The big message has always been “be yourself” — which is a nice message, but the world is more complicated than that,” Andreja Pejić tells me on a Wednesday evening in New York City. Sipping a glass of white wine, the supermodel refuses to sugarcoat her world to her hundreds of thousands of fans around the world, because life is not that simple, especially for any member of the LGBTQ community.
Pejić is just a quarter century old, but the supermodel can tick off more boxes than most people can put on their bucket list. Pejić became the first transgender model to be profiled in American Vogue, the first transgender model to land a major beauty campaign [with Make Up Forever], starred in a music video for David Bowie, and has walked every runway from Marc Jacobs to Jean Paul Gaultier. After being discovered on New Year’s Eve while working at a McDonald’s in Melbourne at 16, she eventually underwent sex reassignment surgery at 23. When it came to being public about the transition, she said, “I just felt like I had to. I felt like there was so much ignorance about it and I feel like there’s a bit of social responsibility on my part. There were all these kids watching what I was doing and got inspired by my story. And before I felt like I revealed only 50%, so I needed to reveal the other half. I needed to let them know about the full T.”
With infinite courage and absolutely no apologies, Pejić sat down with me to expand on that other half.
Neesha Arter: How about we start here with gender. When it comes to gender, you’ve said in the past “the new generation is more fluid,” can you talk about how you perceive gender in 2016?
Andjrea Pejic: I guess that to a certain extent I’ve always perceived gender as being bullshit. In the sense like, why is it even as important as people think it should be? Because ideas don’t have a gender, and I feel like ideas make the human being — the ideas you stand for make whom you are. But, having said that, obviously we’ve gone through a period where gender norms have changed and have broken down or are breaking down. I guess that’s due to the fact that men and women do similar things, we have similar jobs, or are in similar situations/roles. So there doesn’t need to be this huge divide between how a man should act and how a woman should act.
I think it’s like an organic process that you can’t really prevent, and it’s progressive, because at the end of the day: why shouldn’t we all be gender fluid? Or perhaps gender should be simplified and reduced to nothing more then comfort in your own skin.
NA: I completely agree with that, but I feel that so many people aren’t very progressive, but at the same time plenty of things are going backwards.
AP: Culture often moves in an organic way, but there are plenty of forces out there that do want to regress the progress. Some of them can’t, some of them can. We have fascism on the rise on both sides of the Atlantic. The world is disintegrating, there’s a lot of crap being resurrected and a lot of it is coming from politicians. We’re living in a period of economic crisis and there isn’t really a solution to this, or to the huge levels of inequality we face. And when there’s no solution to such things, you have an unstable society. When this happens, you have to find scapegoats, and I feel like immigrants are those. I feel like there’s a lot of poison being thrown at people, there’s a lot of people who are desperate, and some of them are taking in that poison and let it affect their view. It’s impressive that the protests are going on against the president elect, this never happened before. I think young people are starting to wake up and realize that being interested in politics, world politics especially, isn’t an option anymore – you kind of have to be, because the world is moving into a scary place.
NA: You’re right. I find it very interesting how you see gender and the LGBT community on a global scale as well. How was your upbringing, your view on gender and how has that transpired as you’ve grown up and came into the fashion industry?
AP: I guess I had a pretty global upbringing and exposure to the world. I was born in Tulza, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a country that was being torn apart by nationalist forces and imperialist forces, so you could say I was born into a chaos. I experienced being a refugee, then we moved to Australia and there I was an immigrant in the West and on top of that I had my gender issues, so it pushed me become really curious and to Google and learn things about the world. Not just gender, also imperialism and capitalism. It’s easy to just confine yourself to certain politics that affect what you suppose your identity is, for example “I’m a woman, so I only care about gender politics,” you know what I mean? – A lot of people sort of take this stand when they’re starting to get into politics, which is a pity, because you can learn about so many different struggles around the world and you can draw parallels between your struggles and someone else’s. There are a lot of parallels I can draw as a working class refugee and a working class transwoman. The rejection in our society is similar. So yeah, I’ve always tried to look deeper, to look below the surface of things and I feel like I’m starting to be a bit more vocal about my wider political view. In general, people don’t really want models to talk about politics. It’s changing a little bit now, but they rather want you to talk about exercise, or in my case, gender. They often ask me to talk about my personal trans experience, and I’m happy to talk about that, but I just don’t always want to talk about my personal struggles, because there’s just more to the world than that.
NA: Exactly, I think it’s incredible to utilize this voice, because you’re more than a voice of your trans experience or the LGBT community.
AP: Yeah, I have this huge platform where so many people are listening to me, so why confine myself to just one issue? The world is more complicated than that. At the end of the day there’s no unique salvation for trans people, the majority of trans men and women are working class, and their faith cannot be separated from other people in their class. What did we expect? That Hillary Clinton was going to create social programs just for trans people? Inequality is rising around the world; social services are being threatening for everybody. I feel like there needs to be a little bit more unity between these different political struggles and we need to realize that at the end of the day the biggest change and progress has been made with mass movement of people. The mass civil right movement, a mass movement against the Vietnam War – we don’t have mass movements anymore, we have individual based politics, and when you isolate a struggle like that, you’re weakening it too.
NA: When did you know you were transgender and did this affect your decision to become a model?
AP: I knew that I was trans from a young age, I discovered that online, so I started to obtain medication around the age of 13. I was scared if I were to finish a full male puberty, it would be much more difficult for me to transition. Back then, there wasn’t much help for young people, so I kind of took things a little bit into my own hands. I knew that I wanted to transition completely, there was no doubt in my mind, but I just felt like I needed to finish high school before I could to that. My original plan was – finish high school, transition, go to university. But then modeling came up and it was a special sort of opportunity that doesn’t come to an average kid like me, living in an industrial suburb. My mom supported me too, she said “you should take advantage of this, just try it out, take a year off before university”. I ended up doing that, which meant that I had to sort of extend my gender fluid phase for a little bit longer. I didn’t tell my agency that I was planning on fully transitioning, because I didn’t think they would fully understand it. I didn’t even tell my friends, only my mom knew I was taking medication. At the time no one really knew what trans even meant. Being gay was less of a taboo, so I guess a lot of people just perceived me as being gay, like a very feminine gay boy, and I just went along with that. Sometimes I would go to suburban parties with my girlfriends and I would just pretend that I was a girl, to avoid unwanted attention from these macho boys. It was fun; I had a very interesting experience.
NA: Kind of a skip forward, it’s almost 2017, you’ve done so many things in your life already and it’s the age of social media. I can’t imagine how many young boys and girls reach out to you. What is your advice to kids when it comes to gender identity? I know there’s a high suicide rage and kids can be disowned from their families and all these horrible things, I wonder what that experience has been like.
AP: It’s tough. There are a lot of celebrities and people that are getting more into LGBT issues, but the big message has always been “be yourself” — which is a nice message, but the world is more complicated than that. Some kids just can’t. It does depend on class too, if you come from privileged upbringing, your biggest challenge is that you have to come out. You have your parents and your environment that need to accept you, which is a challenge on itself of course, but once you do that, you’re more or less settled.
I know for me, and for a lot of working class kids that come from LGBT minorities, especially if you’re trans, it’s more difficult, because where do you find the money to transition? That’s a very expensive surgery. How are you going to get a job? There are a million things to think about. My advice would be to build a thick skin as much as possible. I educated myself about the world and everything that was going on, what people were going through all around the world and the different struggles they were facing. This helps to put things into perspective, but it’s not easy. Sometimes I feel like I’m expected to sell this fairytale of “you can do it! Anything you put you’re mind to, you can achieve!” but you know, that’s not what society is like, it isn’t that fair, we don’t live in that kind of world. I do think that we can one day, but that’s not the way capitalism works. It’s just that the odds are against you, so you’ll have to work a little harder at the end of the day. You have to know that and fight through it as best you can.
NA: I think that all of those are incredible points. It’s very simple to have someone rise to the top and then give advice and say “oh it was easy” — that’s not true at all.
AP: Exactly, we’re living in a time where there isn’t that much movement up and down. Back in the 60s and 70s most rock stars would come from working class backgrounds. Now, there are Hollywood kids, royalty going into fashion royalty. For me, this is more a lineal movement it’s not horizontal. Things are becoming more sealed, which makes it even harder. Sometimes you feel like you’re expected to “just inspire people”, and I’m like, but what about the reality? Am I not allowed to confront reality? I’ve worked really hard, but at the same time I was kind of at the right time in the right place. I was lucky enough to be born with some physical attributes that the industry found interesting at that time, where there was a cultural shift happening. I feel like if I would have started my career five years ago, it wouldn’t have been the same thing. And there were probably people five years ago that tried, but couldn’t. So I feel like we need to look at the whole context and the bigger picture.
NA: I believe that too, with anything, there’s a little bit of luck.
AP: In modeling it’s even more than with other things. I’ve seen talent involved with modeling as well, most people wouldn’t think that there is, but there is. There is a very creative element and there is a skill that you learn, that you get better at with time. There are models that suck and there are amazing models. However, still, a lot of it is based on your look. And nowadays there’s a shift where it’s more based on your followers and if your mommy and daddy are famous or rich.
NA: How has social media changed from when you were scouted, almost 10 years ago, to now?
AP: Dramatically. A lot of the traditional models feel huge frustration with the social media girls. I’ll tell you where that comes from. When I started out, it was very frowned upon to be a high end model and to be exposed at the same time. I would get a lot of media attention and I would get do a lot of interviews, which actually made me loose jobs. The industry thought it was too cheesy, you shouldn’t talk, you have to be mysterious. They first said that models can’t overexpose themselves, and then suddenly, these girls that are completely overexposed, girls that grew up in fame, are being brought in and become the new supermodels. So in a way fashion is quite oppressive to it’s own good talent. Saying “you can’t do that”, ended up being a complete double standard. For me, the exposure I was getting was very much frowned upon and then it all changed, about 3 years ago, and now it’s the shit. Nowadays clients call agencies and they want to know who the people are with the biggest amount of Instagram followers, they don’t even care what you look like.
NA: Totally switching gears, let’s talk about love. I know you’re recently single, I don’t know if you’ve gone on the record saying that.
AP: I don’t know if anyone has actually printed it, but it’s fine, I can go on the record, I mean there’s no shame in being single, everyone in New York is single.
I’m in NYC and I need to rock it and I need to discover myself. There are plenty of things that I want to do. I want to make new experiences. Dedicating so much to transition also takes up a lot of your life and energy, it consumes your relationships and it consumes everything. Finally I don’t have to worry about that anymore, now I just need to worry about getting married! Lol. I definitely want to use this time wisely or maybe not so wisely and go on road trips, hook up with cowboys and just experience different things and different types of guys. I want to build my confidence and self-esteem. Without being connected to my career, because I grew up in fashion and even though I’m not as famous as many other people, there’s definitely been a public aspect to my career. Sometimes I like to end up having flings with people who don’t even know about my career, who have no idea who I am.
I’ve been single for 3 months now. I guess love is hard for everyone, and in NY it’s a disaster. I feel like NY is where love goes to die, everyone here is obsessed with his or her careers and ‘making it’, and love and friendship take a second place. It’s sad, but it’s true. Being a successful model definitely makes things easier for love. Being a successful trans model is a different story. I feel like most men in NYC want to date a model, but trans models are still an uncharted territory. Maybe it’s my own insecurity sometimes, I think it’s also because I’ve gone on the record and publicly talked about it and there’s something a bit intimidating about that I think, to men. Because they have to not just accept you and your past privately, they also have to become full with everybody knowing publicly. Men are just weak sometimes.
NA: Regarding the fashion industry and pop culture, I feel like it’s become so extreme, the phrase “sex sells” has taken a life of its own these days. I was wondering, how do you view sexuality and the media?
AP: How I see sex? I don’t know, we need better porn for women. We need to have discussions. Men do not purely dominate it; it’s more a certain section of men that think they speak for all men. I think it needs to become a little more democratic. What was controversial in the 80s just isn’t anymore — when Lady Gaga tries to do the same thing as Madonna did back then, it’s just not as controversial, which is a positive thing. I think people are finally starting to talk about sex and sex is healthy. For a long time, people had to pick a category when it came to sexual orientation. Am I a lesbian, am I gay or am I straight? Usually there were just 3 options. There were people that said they were bisexual, but straight people would think these people were just gay and gay people would think they were gay too, so there wasn’t even recognition of that. Nowadays what you like in sex can change at anytime, the type of guy I find attractive has changed over the years as well.
NA: Last year you became part of Taylor Swift her squad, how was that?
AP: It was crazy, we had a mutual friend, we were just going to see her show in Chicago and she found out that I was coming. She had her team contact my best friend in LA that I was with, my publicist, my agency and my mother, just to ask me if I could walk for “Style.” So I was like, shit this is crazy, I was like “fuck this, I’m going to rock this, I’m going to bring on the hair and make up, I’m going to wear a long white dress that I can dance around in”. I just thought, how many times are you going to get a chance to walk for a huge pop star in front of 65.000 screaming people? You might as well go for it and have fun, and it was fun!
NA: Tell me a little bit more about the documentary; I know you’re working on one.
AP: I’ve been filming for about 3 years now. I’m still trying to raise more money to finish it. I know some of the people that donated initially asked me on my Instagram when the documentary is coming out – I haven’t forgotten about it, I’m still working on it. It’s hard, documentaries are a difficult thing to make, because people don’t put money in it, it’s not profitable. We’re still at it, we’re still pushing and I have no doubt that it will happen. We’re still filming and I don’t think I’ve ever been exposed as much in my life as I have in the footage of this documentary.
NA: One of your big career moments has been becoming one of the first trans women to have a beauty campaign. You just got signed for your second year for Make Up For Ever.
AP: Yes, that contract has been renewed, yay! I’m happy about it. You’ve got to remember, this happened before Caitlyn Jenner. Lea T had a contract with Redken and then immediately after I got signed for a beauty contract as well. They’ve been extremely supportive, I’ve learned a lot about make up. It’s just nice to have recognition. I got recognition in the media, because I was doing something very interesting, but it was hard to make money. And I felt like, even now, there are more people outside of the industry that appreciate what I do. So I never felt extremely acknowledged by the industry. There were of course a lot of people that did support me, but the wide industry I mean. Therefore it’s nice to have a brand that big, to recognize what I do.
NA: You recently spoke at Oxford University about your political views and we touched on it a little bit earlier, but I was wondering what you have to say about the current political climate, the results of this election – to young people that just voted and to the LGBT community as a whole.
AP: You know, we’re entering a darker period. As I said, fascism is growing on both sides of the Atlantic and the official left wing isn’t really doing anything about it. It falls onto people to look at what’s happening in the world, to kind of separate yourself a little bit from believing that high up there politicians will save you, or add something progressive to the situation. We have to take stand. We have to educate ourselves on the history of revolutionary movements and it’s so important that we unite across the divides of gender and racism, and of borders too. We’re living in a very international world, yet we have this huge rise of nationalism that is sort of trying to erect walls and barriers between countries. I think we have to resist that. I feel like we need a god damn revolution.
NA: Where do you see the LGBT community in 10 – 20 years? And in some hypothetical world, if you were to leave the fashion industry, what would you want to do?
AP: Well, I don’t know, it’s hard for me to answer that question because in 10 – 20 years time, will we have a WWIII? We could, we could have a civil war and we could even have many civil wars in many different countries. We could have a WWIII and a civil war at the same time… You know, I want to be out there and I want to be fighting for a better world, because there is a way. I do believe in humanity. I believe that human beings can overcome their prejudices. We don’t live in a world free of discrimination, but if you look, the general public has advanced a lot when it comes to racial acceptance, if you compare Americans in the 1950s to today. I do think the general public can overcome their prejudices, but we need more than just that. We need a truly equal society, because that will lay a strong foundation for a world without prejudice. Otherwise, we will just be dragged back. We’ll make progress, but it’ll be 2 steps forward, 3 steps back.
NA: But you do believe in humanity and you believe it’s possible.
AP: Yeah I do, and I’m not a pessimist in the sense that there are people that dismiss humanity, that humanity is just naturally fluid, that there’s no hope and that it’ll destroy the planet or destroy itself. I do think we have the opportunity to be a multi planetary species and we’ve come so far when it comes to scientific achievements. There are so many reasons to believe in humanity. There are much more examples of love and charity and acceptance around the world than there are of horror. But you know, I think it’s going to take people waking up to start mass revolutionary movements around the world. Also for people in the creative industry, it’s time to look outside of yourself a little bit, outside of your personal struggles and look at the world and what’s happening and put that into your work, because truly progressive art and creativity can have a huge positive influence on the thinking of people, it can bring people together and can expose them to truths on a universal level.
Neesha Arter is a journalist, and author based in New York City. Her memoir, CONTROLLED, was published in August 2015 and she is currently a News Assistant at the New York Times.
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