Andreja Pejić’s story is amongst the most unique in the fashion industry. Scouted as a 17-year-old in Melbourne, within four years she had carved out a hugely successful career as an androgynous model, walking in both men’s and women’s catwalks for Marc Jacobs and Jean-Paul Gautier at their Paris shows in January 2011. However, two years ago, Andreja made the decision to undergo gender-confirmation surgery, fulfilling her life-long ambition of living as a woman.
I meet her just before she gives her talk at the Oxford Union last Monday (7th November). For someone used to the scrutiny of the world’s biggest fashion runways, I’m surprised when she confesses to being “a little nervous” about the talk. Everything about her is striking, standing at six-feet tall, with piercing blue-grey eyes, and a shimmering smile.
We begin by talking about her transition. She giggles when she tells me she was just thirteen when she went online and googled ‘transition’. “I discovered what I felt like from a very early age,” she says – she began meetings with a counsellor aged fourteen. Yet, despite discovering this at an early age, undergoing gender-confirmation surgery, particularly under an unfaltering public gaze, was emotionally challenging. “You have to relive a lot of childhood trauma on TV,” she continues. “But I felt like I could inspire so many young people not to feel ashamed, to lessen prejudice. I felt like there was a bit of responsibility. I don’t know it it’s in my personality to be introvert.”
“The fashion is definitely very gay-friendly; it’s run by gay men. When it comes to trans rights, I don’t think the fashion industry was as knowledgeable.”
Throughout her teenage years, and during her transition, Andreja had a supportive family. She talks fondly of her mother, still living in Australia, who she came out to also at fourteen, and went with each doctor’s appointment with her. Andreja, however, is less forthcoming about the support of the fashion industry during her transition. “I definitely faced discrimination,” she recalls. “The fashion is definitely very gay-friendly; it’s run by gay men. When it comes to trans rights, I don’t think the fashion industry was as knowledgeable. I guess, as ignorant on the issue as mainstream society. I just felt like the level of respect for trans women was very low.”
At the start of her modelling career, prior to her transition, Andreja frequently modelled men’s fashion. In 2013, she appeared in ELLE Serbia in a feature called ‘Victor/Victoria’. Within the same photograph are two ‘Andrejas’; one who wears a Jean-Paul Gaultier suit, and the other who wears La Perla and Agent Provocateur lingerie. The photos are a powerful example of Andreja’s work as a gender-fluid, androgynous model.
She recalls how her success in this area of modelling led some to dissuade her from completing her transition. “They would say, ‘Oh you shouldn’t transition completely, being trans isn’t cool’ – it was looked down upon.” Andreja remained determined. “For me, from a young age this was what I always wanted to do. This [androgyny] was just the stage in between. It was a way of expressing my femininity and not having to explain questions, what it meant to talk about gender and being trans.”
After her transition, Andreja had to change agencies, an incident shown in the documentary made about her transition, Andrej(a). She describes the time immediately after transition as “probably the most difficult period of my life”. Work dried up and “for about a year and a half, I didn’t know what was happening, I didn’t know if I had a future in this industry.” Things, however, soon picked up. In May 2015, she became the first transgender model to be profiled by Vogue, and also secured a contract with a cosmetics company. “I think fashion started to realise that this was a cultural shift and something they needed to be a part of. Knock on wood, everything is amazing today. I feel extremely lucky to be living in this time where I can transition, change my name and keep working. Even five years ago, that would not have been possible.”
Despite progress within the fashion industry, Andreja insists there is more to be done. “People say, ‘trans models are having such a moment right now in fashion’,” she recounts with a rare flash of frustration in her voice. “No, it’s rich girls from LA having a moment right now.” Andreja’s humble background is a source of great pride. She proudly describes her childhood in a working-class family, and as a political refugee. Born in 1991 in modern-day Bosnia-Herzegovina, she emigrated to Australia in 2000 as a political refugee with her mother, following the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia.
“I don’t know what’s more important? The end of civilization as we know it…or Kim Kardashian’s ass?”
Our discussion of her background leads us on to Caitlyn Jenner, about whom she feels ambiguous. “She had an ‘in’ because of her wealth and privilege,” she says plainly. “And yes, not just because of her [Caitlyn], but the movement has been glamourised. But that’s what happens in capitalism. It’s just a flavour of the month, a minority of the month, that turns it into this sensationalist show, and doesn’t focus on the real issues facing working trans women.” Andreja also re-iterates her belief that despite the increased visibility of trans women in the public eye, this does little to improve the material situation of working-class or poor trans women. “Just look at the African-American community,” she explains. “We’ve had a black President for two consecutive terms, and the African-American community is worse off materially than it was twenty years ago.” Amongst the most pressing issues for trans people, she cites access to employment, medical care, access to opportunities, education and safety.
Now in a secure place professionally after her transition, she is keen to talk about her broader beliefs. She does not want to be defined by her story. Andreja is deeply critical of capitalism, which she excoriated in her main address at the Union. In a comprehensive talk, which touched on topics as wide-ranging as NATO, the EU, “humanitarian imperialism”, feminism, the US election, and, most crucially, socialism, her political beliefs came to the fore; all, of course, with her own brand of delivery. Near the opening of her speech she mused, “I don’t know what’s more important? The end of civilization as we know it…or Kim Kardashian’s ass?”
On Brexit, she said that, “there are many reasons why people in the UK should dislike the EU, but absolutely nothing can be achieved, nothing progressive, with an exit meaning greater nationalism and the sealing of borders.” Whereas, on the US election she said that she thought neither Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton – or even Bernie Sanders – was the answer to the country’s problems. “Socialist reform,” she claimed, “much less actual socialism, will never come from a big-business party like the Democratic Party.” She described the then presidential candidate Donald Trump as embodying, “the most disgusting form of racism and chauvinism in history.”
Andreja articulates her own story of transitioning with both confidence and humility, and seems acutely aware of the power that her position affords in affecting change. She has plans for more talks of a political nature and given the strength of her public speaking – regardless of whether you agree with her or not – you can definitely see why.