“My life changed in the space of a few weeks,” recalls Hanne Gaby Odiele. “I discovered who I was and then I was discovered by the industry.” The Belgium-born model – whose rulebook-defying personality has always made her one of fashion’s boldest, bravest figures – is recalling the twin discoveries that changed her life: one, when she was told she was born intersex by a doctor, and two, when she was shortly afterwards flung into the fashion universe after being discovered at a music festival.
While the conversation around gender has been changing and expanding, the voices of intersex people have been absent. When Odiele came out as intersex this January, the announcement felt like a revelation, sending waves throughout a culture that still doesn’t seem to grasp what the term really means (Odiele was born with no uterus, has XY chromosomes and some of her internal reproductive structures were ambiguous, though the term covers a variety of bodily variations). Since then, she’s become an unflinching spokesperson, calling bullshit on the “crazy, irreversible and non-consensual surgeries” performed on intersex kids when they are “much too young”.
Off-camera, Odiele defies the unwritten rule that models should be seen and not heard, whether she’s posting pics of herself zombie-walking in head-to-toe Acne Studios on her screwball Instagram, or marrying husband John Swiatek in a dove-white grim reaper cape and bralet designed by Alexander Wang (whose party crew, which also numbers Alice Glass and Anna Ewers, she is a proud member of).
Now, she’s channelling that same openness that entranced the fashion world for the intersex cause. After the announcement in January, she partnered with interACT, a non-profit agency that aims to raise awareness of the condition and issues surrounding it. “I wanted to use my platform to help people like me,” she tells me of her decision some months later, over the phone. “We need a community to strengthen our voice and come out of the shadows.”
What was behind your decision to come out now?
Hanne Gaby Odiele: I was lucky that I moved to New York when I was discovered, where I met my husband and a great group of supportive friends who love me for me, but so many intersex people are kept isolated by shame; it’s so important we lose our shame. I also wanted to campaign for the end of the madness that intersex people can be subjected to by doctors.
You’ve spoken about some of the intrusive medical procedures you underwent as a child. How did that impact on your self-discovery and becoming the person you are today?
HGO: I’m happy to discuss it if it helps to stop this. The surgeries that were performed on me when I was a small child were just about forcing my body into one of the pre-decided categories – there was no medical urgency to it. They tell you it’s a bladder problem or something else. I feel sorry for my parents as well. They weren’t told fully about my condition or about why these procedures were being performed. I just thought I was a weirdo who had to go to the doctor a lot and show my body to doctors and their students. You know, the United Nations now agrees that this is a human rights violation. That’s why I’m working with interACT Advocates for Intersex Youth, a non-profit organisation aiming to support intersex young people and call for an end to this.
The details of your specific intersex condition (androgen insensitivity syndrome) were kept from you. When did you discover this part of your identity for yourself?
HGO: I was reading a Dutch magazine for teenage girls and there was an article about a girl like me in it – I had been told that I would never menstruate or bear children but I had no clue what intersex was. So I took the article to my doctor, who said, ‘Yeah, you’re intersex.’ That was such a turning point for me. I suppose it could have been traumatic but for me it wasn’t – I had a name for my experience and I realised I wasn’t alone. That realisation gave me so much more confidence – I actually think my energy as a result of that discovery is what the fashion industry liked about me. So who knows? If I hadn’t discovered that, I may not be here!
“(Finding out I was intersex was) such a turning point for me. I suppose it could have been traumatic but for me it wasn’t – I had a name for my experience and I realised I wasn’t alone” — Hanne Gaby Odiele
It’s increasingly common to see an ‘I’ in LGBTI activism now, to acknowledge the presence of intersex people. Andreja Pejić and Hari Nef have opened up a discussion as transgender models about what it means to be trans, but do you think intersex people need a political community to identify with in the same way?
HGO: Absolutely. I did go to a support group and meet other intersex people, and then when I moved to America I got a great group of friends who I was comfortable with, but seeing and knowing that other intersex people are out there is so important. The internet has helped so much because it lets people find these things out, reach out to each other and communicate with others in their community. It gives them a place to tell their stories.
You’re an intersex woman, but some people who are intersex identify as men or as neither a man nor a woman. Do you think your voice is adding to the questions about gender that fashion has been posing of late?
HGO: Well, what happens to young intersex people comes from an obsession with pushing people and their bodies into these categories – male and female. We should be trying to be the best people we can be and express ourselves how we want. If you are being your fullest self and you say that you’re a woman – you’re a woman! If you’re not, you’re not, and that’s great too.
Were you concerned that speaking out and engaging in intersex activism would overshadow your work – both as a model and stylist – by drawing the focus on to your self and your body rather than your work?
HGO: As I say, I have a platform and it’s important that I use it – this is my focus for now. There are too many cases of intersex people struggling with who they are for me not to use my career and profile to do what I can.
“I have a platform and it’s important that I use it – this is my focus for now’’ — Hanne Gaby Odiele
If there was a young intersex person reading this struggling with their identity, what would you say to them? What would you want them to take away from your story?
HGO: The most important thing I would say is that intersex people deserve love – we are special, maybe, but we are not freaks. We can be made to feel lonely or shamed into believing we are undeserving of love, in all areas of our lives. When we realise we deserve all that, then it begins to come to us. The shame tells us this is not true, but the truth is we really can lead happy lives as the best versions of ourselves possible.
Hair Jawara at Bryant Artists using Tigi Hair Care, make-up Susie Sobol at Julian Watson Agency, model Hanne Gaby Odiele at Women, set design Whitney Hellesen at Frank Reps, photographic assistant Germano Chu, styling assistant Shawn Lakin, make-up assistant Ayaka Nihei, casting Noah Shelley at Streeters