Model Andreja Pejic talks about what it means to open a magazine and see someone like yourself inside
It’s the day after Caitlyn Jenner’s grand reveal on the cover of Vanity Fair, and Andreja Pejic is tired, having been up at the crack of dawn to talk about her on Good Morning America. Andreja is perhaps uniquely qualified to talk about Caitlyn’s gender confirmation, as until a year or so ago she was a successful male model called Andrej. Andrej’s success was based on her ‘androgynous’ look, which is perhaps a misleading term because there wasn’t much androgynous about Andrej at all – she looked like a gorgeous woman, no more angular than the other girls who turn up to castings. During these years she walked as the bride for Jean Paul Gaultier, posed for Vogue Paris, and appeared topless on the cover of New York magazine as ‘Male Model of the Year’. Really, however, Andrej wasn’t male at all, at least on the inside, and the modelling was going to help pay for her transition – or what’s more correctly called a gender confirmation – completing a process she put into motion a decade before.
‘I knew from a young age,’ she says, ‘but I discovered what those feelings meant at the age of 13. From the internet.’ Now, post-confirmation, Andreja retains the hyperfemininity that propelled her into the spotlight, but has gained an almost weirdly serene poise. The only clue that she’s recounting what must have been quite a painful moment of self-realisation is a very minute sigh. ‘And then puberty started, and I was really scared. I figured out that if I went through a male puberty and developed into a man physically, it would make transition a lot more difficult. Irreversible changes would happen. So it was crucial for me to stop it.’ This was a decade ago in Melbourne, Australia – well before awareness in mainstream culture had grown to reach what Time magazine has termed the ‘Trans Tipping Point’ – and medication to suppress puberty wasn’t yet available to people under 16. Demonstrating some of the grit that’s got her to where she is now, Andreja took things into her own hands and procured the necessary drugs online. Around this point, with some nudging from her doctors, she also realised she might need to tell her family. ‘There was a period where I was very feminine as a kid, and then I started to come out of that and was told the message by my family, by society, that it was time to grow up and be a boy. Apparently, I was good enough to convince her [Andreja’s mother].’ At this point, there’s another little sigh. ‘At the age of 14... I told her, “Look, Mum, I’m trans.” The whole phenomenon, a girl being born in a boy’s body. I tried to simplify it as much as possible – she didn’t know about it to be honest.’ After fleeing what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina with Andreja, Andreja’s brother and grandmother after the bombings in 1999, in all honesty she probably hadn’t envisioned her next hurdle being her child’s gender-identity crisis. But after initial misgivings she was supportive. ‘She was concerned that I was going to have a really difficult life. And I had to explain to her that I can be happy, if I have access to treatment.’
Adolescent gender confirmation is becoming a greater part of both medical and public discourse; just look at Louis Theroux’s recent documentary Transgender Kids on BBC Two, and the seminal 2013 New Yorker article by Margaret Talbot which documented a new generation of children beginning their transitions before leaving home. What’s remarkable about Talbot’s work are the affirmative stories of the trans adolescents she spoke to, against the medical testaments that we have very little evidence of how these kids will turn out – until now, most transition has happened in adulthood. Andreja’s story points to the positivity of an early transition, both physically and mentally. ‘As soon as I found out who I was at that age, I never looked back. I decided this is the only way I’m going to be able to live this life. But you know, it took a while. That was just the beginning, and transition is a multilayered process.’
Indeed, part of Andreja’s process involved putting it on hold. While she didn’t feel she could discuss the particulars of her medication with the girls at school, she ‘appeared as a girl, passed as a girl, and I was going to a very liberal school’. This uneasy compromise was the first of several. ‘I had lots of girl friends and was in that world, but I felt like an outsider too, and there were still limits to how feminine I could be.’ It was during this in-between period that she was scouted, and found success in her androgyny. This left her in a sort of limbo. ‘I started modelling as an androgynous boy, and was like, “I can’t do it with significant breasts – it won’t be androgynous any more.” It was difficult. There were times I’d call my mum crying and be like, “I don’t want to do this any more, I’m becoming known.” And I wasn’t interested in becoming known, because I didn’t want the whole world to know me as a boy. I got into modelling for the financial aspect, and this exposure came before any money. I’d say [to her mother], “I want to come home and finish my transition and go to university or whatever.”’ Evidently, Andreja didn’t go home, in part thanks to support from her redoubtable mother. ‘There were times I felt like I was doing something really cool and unique. But it felt like a bit of a compromise.’
Eventually however, it felt imperative that she complete what she’d started. In the lead-up to her transition, she contemplated something common to many trans people’s experience – would she still have a job as the real her? Her career might have been a glamorous one, but discrimination is rife at all levels of society, even in the fashion circles in which she moved. ‘I thought, well, it could mean the end of everything.’ In fact her career continued to thrive. Models are usually deemed to have made it when they get a beauty contract, and Andreja is now the face of Make Up For Ever. ‘It shows that you’ve got a lot of commercial viability and can sell a mainstream product.’ Her management The Society represent such icons as Adriana Lima, Liu Wen and Kendall Jenner, and Andreja sits well among them; when you click her name, a portrait by Patrick Demarchelier from American Vogue appears. This season, she walked for Giles in London, and has been chosen as one of Joe McKenna’s ‘Eleven Women Who Define What’s Beautiful Now’ in the New York Times’ T Magazine. There’s also that Good Morning America appearance. So far, so mainstream modelling success. Beyond that there are some quite brilliant rumours, chief among them that she was set to star in Sofia Coppola’s The Little Mermaid, which would have completed the conventional model-slash-actress career arc. Sadly, that is just a rumour, but she thinks it’s flattering that someone would take the time to set up an IMDb page for her. ‘I did get an audition, but I just didn’t fit the cast. I had two really big auditions last year and I didn’t feel as prepared as I could have been. But it inspired me to take acting classes.’ Listening to her chat happily about her lessons and how she thinks Michelle Pfeiffer is super cool, it’s quite easy to forget the events that shaped her. Which I guess is the point.
There must have been the temptation, post gender confirmation, to slip off back to Australia and live a low-key life. You get the impression that before going through it all that this was very much on her mind. But with her physical transformation came an intellectual one, too. ‘I got a new purpose after my transition, and I realised how things are in the world. Like, I wanted to prove that this was possible, that I could model as well as a female model, and be accepted as a woman in this industry.’ Forever in interviews, celebrities love to talk about being a role model for various communities, but in Andreja’s case it’s very real – role models for trans youth are few and far between. She remembers when she told her mother who she really was, she tried to make a list of trans women who had made a success of themselves, to assuage her mother’s worries about what might become of her. She got as far as April Ashley and Tula, the early trans models who fuelled so much tabloid speculation, and then realised there was no one else she could think of. Now, among others, there’s Andreja Pejic. ‘It feels amazing for me to spread my story, and get feedback from young people around the world. Just access to information is really crucial.’
With that mission carrying her forward, she’s cheerful about the fashion moment that got her here. Androgyny was ‘like the prologue, in a way’. She was grouped with the trailblazing transgender model Léa T, who appeared on both the cover of LOVE and in various Givenchy moments, and they were often put together as a new kind of model. ‘The trans thing and the androgynous thing
was all seen as a gender phenomenon. When me and Léa first came on the scene, everyone was like, “It’s a trend, it’ll blow over.” But I think those people were forgetting that we’re talking about a whole group of people.’ Fashion’s notorious fetishisation of the untypical must be particularly difficult when your greatest desire is to be the same as everyone else. Now she hopes it has reached a point where she’s not ‘in a separate category from other women. Because for me, I grew up wanting to be a woman, that’s how I felt. I do believe gender is a spectrum, and there are people that feel in the middle, but I’ve always felt I was a woman, and I’ve done everything I can do to live life as a woman. I feel I just have to be accepted as who I am and be given the same opportunities.’
The march to equality is slow, but for the trans community in the developed world, it seems to loom ever closer. Andreja has made herself part of that struggle with the public telling of her story, evidenced just by working and existing that a trans woman can find acceptance and success in her chosen field. She thinks back to the start of her transition, and what her 13-year-old self might have thought. ‘A.I. Artificial Intelligence was the first movie I ever cried at. It’s basically about this kid who’s a robot, who feels he wants to be human and accepted and loved. I guess I always felt like a bit of an outsider, and can relate to that storyline.’ So while sharing her own storyline might not be easy, ultimately she thinks it’s worth it. ‘I feel like deciding to be public about it, to have it documented, to spread my story... I’m a private person, I’ve always been more of an introvert, so it’s not in my nature. But taking that step, I feel very happy about it.’