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‘I still believe in humanity’: model Andreja Pejić on why trans rights are human rights

Model and activist Andreja Pejić, in Auckland for Four Days of Fashion in the City, talks fashion, politics and trans issues with Brian Ng.

My first glimpse of Andreja Pejić was a flash of blonde hair and the back of an ecru Surrealism Trench by Karen Walker. She was off almost instantly, clopping away in thigh high velvet grey boots (her own), straight into the fitting room.

Her handler for the day appeared five minutes afterwards to bring me in to watch the fitting; “sorry about the delay, everyone’s been dying to meet her,” she says later when Pejić is taking unusually long to emerge from her changing room, a converted office.

It’s understandable that people are drawn to Pejić: besides her 6’1” frame (and adding on the height of her heels, 6’4”) and cheekbones that make her look almost alien, she’s walked and starred in campaigns for both Jean Paul Gaultier and Marc Jacobs. She’s also incredibly nice – granted, most models are, seeing as mean and uncooperative models don’t usually get hired a second time.

Pejić has been on the world stage for years, having been one of the top male models before her transition. As Andrej, she walked both the menswear and womenswear shows for Gaultier, and was put on both the men’s and women’s boards of Storm, her first London agency. In fact, Storm was the fifth agency Pejić had approached, but it took Storm head Sarah Doukas, the woman who spotted and signed Kate Moss, to recognise she had something exciting on her hands.

Before her transition, Pejić used to say her gender was “open to artistic interpretation” as a way of explaining away the androgyny. Since then, she’s been open about the fact that she’s known she was trans since she was 13 and googled the word “transition” to find out if it were, indeed, medically possible.

Shortly after her coming out, Vogue profiled her, and soon she was back on the catwalk, this time for Giles Deacon at London Fashion Week.

That being said, many inside the fashion world were against her transitioning, reckoning that she would get less work as an open trans model, rather than being able to walk in both (binary) genders’ shows as Andrej. Still, while progress is slow, trans models are slowly making inroads: as well as Pejić, models like Hari Nef and Lea T are now catwalk stalwarts.

Pejić has become a major trans advocate, consulting with the Safe Schools campaign in Australia – her home country – and working with the Human Rights Campaign in the USA. She recently accompanied Caitlyn Jenner to the Vanity Fair Oscars after-party and when asked about how she views Jenner’s contributions to the trans cause, she said, “I feel [Jenner] has taken [trans] to a whole new level that would be very difficult for someone not that famous”.

In her words, Jenner’s coming out was a catalyst for progressing respect for trans people to a new level. After all, Jenner’s story reached far further than just the LGBT+ community and social liberals in general, and showed that a huge proportion of America can accept trans people.

In the aftermath of Obergefell v Hodges, the US Supreme Court case which effectively legalised same-sex marriage, commentators and activists within the LGBT+ community floated the idea of taking the T out of the acronym. Pejić was not pleased. “The LGBT+ community has banded together because it’s stronger that way”, she tells me. “It definitely does hurt” to hear trans hate, particularly when directed at her, when it comes from within the LGBT+ community.

At one point during our interview, Pejić remarked that “personal success is great, but you want your career to mean something more on a wider social level”. So I asked her what she wanted her legacy to be.

“I still believe in humanity … [and I] want the world to be safer, especially for trans [people].”

That optimism is all the more striking given her upbringing. A victim of the Yugoslav wars, she was a refugee twice over, fleeing from Bosnia to her mother’s homeland of Serbia, and then relocating to Melbourne. Her accent reflects that mix – the Australian twang comes through strongly, as does the somewhat neutral accent people who go to international school get, and an American tinge to top it off.

She’s still an Aussie at heart, saying “thanks doll” to the stylist when complimented on the black Karen Walker Metamorphosis dress she was trying on. Always the model, Pejić loved every outfit she tried, from the navy and white striped Helen Cherry reverse shirt that had Vetements undertones, to the final choice of a black Karen Walker Fantasia jumpsuit paired with a sequinned Armani Collezioni bolero jacket.

This is not the first time she’s modelled in New Zealand; her first modelling trip out of Australia was actually to our shores, shooting for BLACK magazine on the black sand beaches out in West Auckland.

Although modelling is how Pejić makes her money, she is most definitely a political activist. “I’m not a politician, but I’ve been going to protests since I was a kid,” Pejić says, mentioning the time she went to a protest with her mum for Aboriginal rights. Her interests are wide ranging: she’s done a TedX talk in Greece, and spoken to the Oxford Union about nuclear disarmament.

Asked about politics, Pejić said the key is for people to educate themselves and to develop their own position. I asked her about the trend of celebrities becoming more outspoken these days politically, and she brought up the ‘60s and ‘70s, when many celebrities were politically active – like the similarly anti-establishment Marilyn Monroe, who was a founding member of the Hollywood branch of the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, and was elected an alternate delegate to Connecticut’s Democratic caucus.

In her Reddit AMA (ask me anything), Pejić wrote “ the only solution is a revolution”. The word “revolution” is tattooed on her left wrist, not that she needs that reminder.

Even when talking about what style is to her, she can’t avoid talk of upheaval. “Style, to me, is a comfort and a confidence. It can be an aid in walking into a room, making a statement, helping to take over.”

It’s obviously also a way for her to put on different personas and to push the boundaries.

Asked about trans being “trendy” these days, she points out the trend is in media, rather than in fashion, and that talking about trans issues and people was an easy way for media to get attention. But it’s a double-edged sword: although this exposure raises awareness, it can also sensationalise the topic and cause pushback. “At the end of the day, it’s one of the biggest cultural shifts of my generation.”

Her belief in the human race floated back into the conversation. People are much more aware now, she noted, and any remaining prejudice stems from ignorance. After all, as a society, the world has managed to overcome racial issues (a debatable point, I argued, but she was right in saying we had progressed), and that people can be more open-minded.

“Trans people are part of the world, part of the community; we alter culture in so many ways. They deserve respect, fun and to be creative. And to walk in fashion shows.”

Andreja Pejić will be walking in the Last Friday of March fashion show at Smith and Caughey’s on Queen Street later today. The show will begin at 12.15pm, but people wanting to attend are advised to arrive before 12pm to ensure they get a seat. The event is free and open to all. heartofthecity.co.nz/fashion

The Fact File

Four Days of Fashion in the City: 25 events over four days Wednesday 29 March – Sat 1 April.

Not to be missed:

  • MAALA live at TOPSHOP TOPMAN, Friday 31 March at 8pm.
  • Carmen Hamilton, Chronicles of Her blogger, live at COACH on Queen St, Friday 31 March at 5.30pm.
  • Andreja Pejic walking in The Show for Smith & Caughey’s, Queen St, Friday 31 March at midday.
  • Fashion Friday in the High St district, Friday 31 March, including: A Man’s World at Barkers from 5pm; Ingrid Starnes AW17 Runway Presentation in O’Connell St at 7pm; Ruby Jelly Bar from 6pm and much more.
  • Hyperreal, an exhibition of contemporary fashion photography and film, free at Silo 6 in the Wynyard Quarter, with live fashion shoots taking place onsite Saturday 1 April.
  • AUT’s Evolving Fashion Designer Exhibition in the Te Wero containers, opens Thursday 30 March from 5pm, with a special fashion show at 6.30pm.
  • The moochi Beauty Sessions, Saturday 1 April in store between 10am and 2pm, with Carmen Hamilton appearing in store between 11am and 12pm.

And so much more…


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