We go deep with the multi-talented star about the myth of freedom, navigating the treacherous terrain of social media and trying to stay casual
To celebrate our anniversary, we’ve created a series of articles around the idea of freedom featuring some of the cultural iconoclasts who have defined the last 25 years of Dazed. Head here to read them all.
“You think I’m beautiful? Well, great for you. What you’re saying when you say I ‘inspire’ you doesn’t uplift me in any way. It’s fuck all to do with me. It’s about you – it’s all about your feelings, learning something about the world you live in which challenges it slightly...and then you can walk away and you don’t have to feel bad anymore.”
I first learned the name ‘Hari Nef’ in a Berlin nightclub in early 2013. A friend who lives in New York was with me and she was telling me how I should get into Tumblr – I was a keen user of Twitter, but she insisted that I had to try its more visual cousin. I was like, “OK, if I get this thing who should I follow?”. It was loud, so she wrote five names down in my iPhone notes. One of them was Nef’s. Three years later and I have a dormant Tumblr account on which I’ve never posted and I only follow those same five people. But I hardly need to use that platform to track Nef’s world and her career now. Last year she was on Amazon’s Emmy award-winning TV show Transparent. That same year she won the top spot on the Dazed 100 list, voted for by readers. This September, she appeared on the cover of Elle magazine.
Nef is an interesting figure to me on many fronts – she’s only 23, and therefore the level to which she has documented her life since her time as a student is unprecedented by anyone who is much older than her, but behaviour that has become the norm for those who have grown up in the age of Tumblr and Instagram. There’s a huge generational divide in perspective on the relationship between social media and mental wellbeing. Older media tends to ascribe many young people’s anxiety and depression to their reliance on frenzied communications and self-publishing, while younger people see online spaces as offering freedom from both their immediate surroundings and the constraints of an increasingly conservative political landscape, with the digital world a place to work out their thinking on sexuality, gender, race and self-expression. Nef is somewhat of a ‘crossover’ figure in this regard – her career now flirts with more mainstream media where she perhaps has greater reach but less agency in how she is represented.
“Girl!” she greets me as we begin our phone conversation. It’s cheerful but she sounds tired. She’s in Paris for fashion week. For a model I imagine this is like the end of the financial year for business people: a gruelling sprint where one’s work schedule dominates every waking moment. Before I begin, I tell her that I want to be upfront with her. I’m aware that there is the potential for a ‘schtick’ here: I’m a trans journalist interviewing a trans subject – there’s a natural way this interview could go and I want to avoid it. What follows next is an inversion of every expectation I had – fitting for an interviewee who has a knack for almost everything she tries her hand at (it is worth noting that Nef is herself a talented writer).
I’m interested in speaking to her specifically about the concept of ‘freedom’ because whenever I read any kind of media editorial it seems the word ‘free’ is used to describe her. The word seems to have attached itself to her – almost to the point of cliché. It strikes me as somewhat of an odd epithet, and I ask her what she makes of it.
“Free from WHAT?” she interjects. “All week people here – y’know, especially the European people here for fashion week – have been coming over to tell me I look so “free”. It’s such bullshit. Calling me ‘free’ because you think I’m your fucking ‘beacon’ of gender because I don’t look like what you thought a woman looks like, or what a model should look like.” I agree that it’s sensationalist. “Totally,” she replies, “I’m just doing my thing – being me – and when some PR girl comes up and tells me how beautiful or free I am in the most patronising way possible I just think ‘OK you’ve now made me self-conscious, you’ve once again drawn my attention to the very things that actually inhibit that.”
I’m certainly no model but I can relate to Nef’s sentiment. Whether it’s the inevitable girl (there’s always one) who gleefully says “You’ve got better legs than me!” whenever I’m wearing a short dress and heels, or perhaps the PR people who approach Nef, there’s an unintended barb to the sentiment. It sometimes suggests the trans person is a highly accomplished charlatan. Or, as Nef puts it: “It’s saying, ‘Oh my God I love how you’re a freak show and you just don’t even care you’re a freak show.”
A friend of mine recently used the phrase “inspiration porn” to describe this. I’ve had everyone from old classmates to exes message or call me up to tell me I’m “brave” or “inspirational” for transitioning. It’s a weird kind of power play in which successful people from marginalised groups get to be gazed at as dazzling stories of trial over the odds, while onlookers never deeply question what those odds might be. It can be very isolating. Nef’s response is plain: “I just look at these people and think, actually fuck you. It makes me sick.”
“When some PR girl comes up and tells me how beautiful or free I am in the most patronising way possible I just think ‘OK you’ve now made me self-conscious, you’ve once again drawn my attention to the very things that actually inhibit that” – Hari Nef
I wonder if Nef has given any consideration to how she might treat these recurring bouts of nausea, or if she has come to accept them as an unavoidable symptom of the circles she moves in.
“Here’s the tea,” she announces. “I’m in an industry where many people only want you for what you can give them. I have to prove my worth to be here – and I do wonder when I won’t have to, y’know, sing for my supper with all the inspirational stuff. It’s not that I am ungrateful, I’m not – but my focus is on being a great model or a giving a terrific performance as an actress and I’ll work incredibly hard. But you don’t get Gigi Hadid – who I love by the way – having to recount parts of a traumatic psychological history on camera as part of her job.”
It’s clear that she is conflicted here, and she pauses before she revises and nuances her last remark. “I will happily advocate for our community – I am not now going to say ‘I don’t want to do advocacy for the trans community’”. In fact, it’s clear she genuinely means this and perhaps, more accurately, struggles with the concept of ‘advocacy’ itself.
“What’s infuriating is when cis people think celebrating me is celebrating transness. No, “trans” isn’t having a moment, this particular model and this particular actor is having a moment and she’s doing that in spite of the shit that comes with being trans in this world. Dysphoria will always be a painful place. When we say ‘trans is beautiful’ or ‘being trans is the best’, that is a truth we created for ourselves that’s clearly not true in every signal we get from the world around us. I’d prefer that when any of us start speaking about this stuff that cis people just shut up and listen – or, you know, gave money to a charity that supports trans kids or hired trans people. It would be better if they listened and, to be honest, I’d like to see them more ashamed of the world they perpetuate.”
Nef has an unusual platform within the trans community itself. She seems to be almost universally popular among the trans people I know, a community often fraught and rightly angry about issues of representation. “I mean, sure, I read my DMs” she says. “If you want to go there, I’ve had ‘You saved my life’ handed to me on a silver platter.” For Nef herself, however, there is no happiness in such a disclosure. “I just think – what is so fucked up with this world that this mess makes your life seem more worth living? Not that I’m a mess...but you get what I’m saying.”
It’s clear that “freedom” for Nef is maybe more of a maelstrom than the fashion editorials and glossy profiles thus far would want to delve into. As someone who feels I’ve learned much from Nef in the past three years, I’m forced to ask: what is true freedom to her? How does she protect her own mental wellbeing in the eye of this storm?
“You know, several years ago I had a conversation with (American artist and DJ) Juliana Huxtable and she told me ‘to live this life you just have to be casual.’ You know – it’s so easy to get stuck in… well... Being Trans or Being Depressed”. It’s one of those moments where as an interviewer I struggle to contain myself. Both personally and professionally, I am constantly worried that I bang on too much about being trans. “Right?!”, she drawls. “If you notice on Twitter I’m posting much less angry stuff now; I try and avoid using it to complain – I think we can all fall into that constant stream of ‘Someone misgendered me, someone was an asshole, gay guys are weird and rude to me, I’m struggling to stabilise my hormones’ type of stuff.”
I grimace because she’s accurately summarised many of the topics of my own angrier output online. Recently I find myself deleting those sort of posts because it can feel like holding a magnifying glass to my anxiety. “I just don’t want to get lost in becoming that sad, depressed, whiny girl” she says. “I don’t want that to be me – I’m just trying to be casual! That’s my goal, anyway.”
“Look, I have trans women in my life who say ‘Girl, why are you in that industry? This sexist, white, cis patriarchal industry? Why are you trying to negotiate with it? Why are you sucking its dick?’” – Hari Nef
Trying to be casual is a contradiction in terms, however. Surely ‘casual’ is the very opposite of ‘trying’ at its core? Nef once again has a stark answer to this: “The trouble with being a trans woman is people are ready to place you in role as ‘The Beautiful Tranny’ or ‘The Ugly, Sad Tranny’ or ‘The Angry Tranny’ – those are like three of only, maybe, seven roles you’re supposed to assume,” she says. “I suggest that perhaps we – trans people – internalise them and she tells that for her “being casual” is refusing to take part in this grim categorisation.
Nef clearly doesn’t like categories at all. She’s been a style icon for me precisely because she resisted many conventional means of gender presentation for famous women generally, let alone trans women. Her personal clothing choices are often androgynous, even boyish. She has been a vocal apologist for femme aesthetics but she mostly eschews makeup and high femme gloss herself for a subtler look. Last year she walked the catwalk for Gucci in Milan – it caused a stir not least because it was a menswear show.
The man behind that moment was Gucci’s creative director, Alessandro Michele, with whom Nef has a close professional bond. Michele, she says, is something of a kindred spirit. “We had a very nuanced conversation and I just feel he’s like me. He honestly said ‘I don’t care about this being a statement about gender or a moment about gender that’s popular now, I’m focussed on what I am trying to do creatively here.’” Nef says she instantly responded to that because Michele was doing his own thing, “just like I’m just doing me”.
I ask Nef whether she has actually chosen the least casual place to be in the glare of the global fashion industry and the red carpet of the Emmys. “I do it for myself,” she says. “My desire to be an actor or a model precedes my identity.” Nef has frequently written and spoken about both how fashion and acting were a window to freedom for her from a young age – since she was living as a teenager in Massachusetts. From this I infer that she sees a kind of liberation in fashion and clothes themselves. But isn’t the fashion industry itself a conspirator in misogyny, racism, body shaming?
“It absolutely is! Look, I have trans women in my life who say ‘Girl, why are you in that industry? This sexist, white, cis patriarchal industry? Why are you trying to negotiate with it? Why are you sucking its dick?’ to which I answer ‘I dunno.’” She laughs and continues. “Seriously, maybe I’m naïve but I am full of optimism about what this industry is, what it means and what it could be. You know, maybe I would have a happier time on a Radical Faerie, all queer all trans separatist commune, but I love fashion and I want to change it. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like more control in my own representation. I’d like people to know that I am not their bohemian Judith Butler performance piece. I’m so fucking done. I hope I can be a part of some greater change. Whether I get to be or have been quite yet is a different story.”