Through sheer magnetism, Hari Nef has gone from transgender Tumblr icon to heralding an about-face in New York fashion – get ready to meet a new kind of it girl
Taken from the summer 2015 issue of Dazed:
“I want to start the trans mafia one day,” declares Hari Nef. The 22-year-old actress is sitting in the back room of a darkened, wood-panelled cafe in Manhattan’s Chelsea district that looks like it’s straight out of The Sopranos. This power-player might not be cut from your typical mob cloth, but in the right corners of the five boroughs, Nef has the connections of any bona-fide mafiosa – she’s just more likely to be carrying a J.W.Anderson bucket bag than a tommy gun.
In a click of her heels, Nef has gone from club kid at all the right genderqueer parties to the trans fashion muse of our generation. Her rise is unprecedented, but then again, New York fashion hasn’t been this creatively rich or broad-minded in recent memory. Walk into the runway shows of new-gen designers such as Hood By Air, Telfar and Eckhaus Latta, and you’re more likely to see death drops – a move cultivated in the city’s vogue scene – than you are the formulaic step-and-repeat. Taking cues from the city’s trans-genre, globally minded nightlife fringes, a new wave is soaring with a midnight-movie sensibility that might nod to S&M, sexual politics or web simulations. Call it an antidote to the rictus smiles of all that Party Monster glitter of the 00s.
It’s in this fertile space that Nef has thrived. Whether strutting down the Eckhaus Latta AW15 runway in a top emblazoned with ‘My Own Private I Don’t Know’ or wearing a beehive wig like a John Waters-cast misfit for Adam Selman AW15, she has become not just the model of choice for designers who wear their references on their sleeve, but an inspiration for a crew of creatives with a frontier mindset. If she’d been born 20 years earlier, she would have been snapped up by Harmony Korine for a movie in a flash. Perhaps her most interesting moment this season was at a show for Vejas, a Toronto-based designer who presented a unisex collection in Manhattan’s Johannes Vogt Gallery. Here, Nef was one of many models from queer and trans communities in a show inspired by fictional dystopias. At that moment, Nef’s dream of a trans mafia didn’t seem too far off.
With Tumblr as her medium of choice, she speaks directly and authentically to folk that identify as queer, transornon-binary. In among the cult icons, celebrity shade, and memespirational GIFs, Nef writes about her transition with poetic candour. Recently she told her 18K followers that her nipples were hot to the touch because the cells were dividing in her growing breasts (“maybe it’s appropriate that I learn this through warmth”). As such, she makes for an important counterpoint to the trans narratives told in pop culture by the likes of glamorous actress Laverne Cox, septuagenarian actor Jeffrey Tambor’s role as Maura in Transparent, and Bruce Jenner’s coming out interview. To Nef, their contributions are essential, but just cracks in the ceiling compared to the bigger picture. “It’s a lot easier for those people on TV to be understood and loved, even desired,” she says. “I don’t want the same trans story to be told over and over again. I don’t want people to get stuck on this very western idea of what it means to be transgender. What we really need to look at is gender fluidity, and the idea that gender can be customised however you want.”
Hari Nef wasn’t always the formidable woman she is now. Born into a biologically male body, she grew up “a weird, chubby, popular and artsy” Jewish kid in the affluent suburban town of Newton, Massachusetts. “I was this overachieving, over-programmed public school student, but I was also a rebellious teenager doing drugs, sneaking off with boys and lying to my mom.” A Ghost World spirit adrift in a sleepy neighbourhood, it’s no surprise the 18-year-old wanted to “fuck off somewhere fun and glamorous”. Nef set her sights on studying acting at Columbia University, having participated in stage productions since she was 11. The fact that she had blue hair at the time didn’t put her off from applying to the conservative institution. “Did I think I would fit in there? I didn’t know. But I knew if I wanted to take over the world, getting a degree from this school wouldn’t hurt.”
“I don’t want the same trans story to be told over and over again... gender can be customised however you want” – Hari Nef
Nef’s entrance to stage school came a the same time she was finding her feet in NYC’s art and nightlife scene. Exploring new concepts around gender felt natural when she was in club spaces, where she was as likely to shave her head on stage as lip-sync to Barbra Streisand hits from the 70s. It was more of a struggle on campus. “I kept being prompted to play men, because that’s what happens when you’re a male-bodied person who hasn’t confessed otherwise in theatre,” she says. Inspired by her creative community, Nef slowly began to feel comfortable admitting that she was transitioning to her acting peers. “I’m a much better actor as a girl than I was as a guy,” she says with a smile. “I’ve spent so many years feeling dysphoric about my body and gender without knowing it. I would be in acting class, up on stage in front of everyone and I would just start crying. But I realised it was time to pursue this dream, because I finally felt comfortable.”
She may be the toast of the downtown fashion scene, but what’s so striking, iconic and lingering about Nef has very little to do with fitting into a sample size. It’s her big Bambi eyes, petal-soft lips, dewy post-bathtime skin and cute brown ringlet curls that have everyone scrolling down for more. She’s refreshingly candid about the fact she put in work. “It’s hard for a trans woman,” she says. “My metabolism is changing, and it’s not the same as it used to be because of the hormones. I work out compulsively... The pressure is so real. I’m dealing with big bones, bones that did not grow as female. I will never actually have model measurements. I’m shaped like a potato!”
Self-deprecating she may be, but Nef is completely at ease blossoming into her increasingly feminine body. “I got a butt! And my waist got small. But that’s not me, that’s the hormones. It’s crazy! I love it.” In many ways, her love life has changed as a consequence. “My boobs are my new favourite sex thing – it’s so weird. If a gay guy is hitting on me in a club, I do the test. I put his hand on my boob and look him straight in the eye and say, ‘How do you feel about that?’ Then there was this straight guy who couldn’t deal with this (points down there), but he kept sucking my boobs and making out with me – they were raw the next day! My body is, like, being demographically distributed right now.” Is she experiencing a full-on sexual renaissance? “No. I don’t know how to talk to boys or girls any more. I used to be able to secure sex. Last week, I made out with a different person every night, but that’s it. People used to hook me up – that doesn’t happen any more, either. Trans women don’t get hooked up. You don’t have that friend who says, ‘I would totally fuck a trans woman.’”
For Nef, one of the best things about identifying as female in New York right now is being around artists like Petra Collins and Alexandra Marzella, who use their own bodies in their work to create a dialogue about sex and gender, and editors like Sarah Nicole Prickett from Adult Magazine, who create platforms for that very discussion. Nef also adds that the trans community feels less fragmented than it used to. “When I went on hormones, I started noticing other girls I knew were going on hormones at the same time,” she says. “We all started hanging out, hooking up with each other and making art together. Trans women were a lot more underground before, scattered among different scenes, single orbs in the gay community. I want to be friends with all of the trans girls.”
During the interview, it’s hard not to steal glances at Nef’s lacy purple triangle bra, comfortably on display under a sheer layer of plaid Dries Van Noten. Where does a trans girl get her lingerie? From Newton, Massachusetts, apparently. “My mom said to me last Thanksgiving, ‘Hari, I can’t look there any more! It’s time.’” No longer able to deal with Nef’s breasts being in plain sight, Mrs Nef marched her straight down to Victoria’s Secret. “My mom went right in and told them, ‘This is my daughter – we need some bras!’ I was looking around, thinking, ‘Oh God, who’s going to trigger me in here?’ and also, ‘Thank God my mommy’s here to help me get through this.’”
“People used to hook me up – that doesn’t happen any more, either. Trans women don’t get hooked up. You don’t have that friend who says, ‘I would totally fuck a trans woman’” – Hari Nef
While the visit to the candy-striped temple to Candice Swanepoel and padded push-up bras wasn’t much fun for Nef, she got through it with gritted teeth. After all, it’s one thing to show up at a NYFW party as an androgyne princess, but quite another to spend an afternoon shopping for lacy intimates at a suburban mall. “It’s so hard out there for so many girls,” she elaborates. “The rise of trans visibility has coincided with the rise of trans violence. Even the ability to profess a trans identity is a privilege in itself. So I’m building this platform. I want to be a powerful trans woman; I want to be a voice within the community.”
It’s only a matter of time. Nef explains how one day, she’ll use this visibility and public influence to become an advocate for widening the world’s perceptions and acceptance of gender fluidity. “I want to see people challenge themselves and navigate the possibilities of identity in relation to gender. I like to say there is no such thing as being transgender because there are so many different ways to be within your gender. That is what I’m worried about – and focused on changing.”
Hair Holli Smith at Total Management using Bumble and bumble; make-up Kanako Takase using M.A.C; light design PJ Spaniol; lighting assistant Jon Ervin; styling assistants Victor Cordero, Patricia Machado; digital operator Travis Drennen
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