As a child refugee in the Balkans, Andreja Pejić never dreamed of becoming a supermodel. As the trans trailblazer prepares to bare her soul in a new documentary, she shares her journey to womanhood
Taken from the Summer 2015 issue of Dazed:
“For me, it was an option of doing this or living a fake life. Those were the options. To transition and to live life as a woman – what you are! Or to pretend, to live life for other people, to make the family happy, to fit into society’s standards. But that’s not a life. That’s just a performance.”
Andreja Pejić’s answer comes serenely as vapour, delivered while setting down a cup of tea. The question had been: ‘Were you scared?’
No, she wasn’t. It wasn’t an option.
Eighteen months ago, 23-year-old Bosnian-born supermodel androgyne Andrej Pejić became Andreja, undergoing gender reassignment surgery and formally becoming the woman she always knew she was. By her own measure, her life began.
On a spring afternoon, she sits in Manhattan’s Bowery Hotel lounge, wearing velvety thigh-high boots and a solar plexus-cresting blazer. She is a softer vision in flesh than you’ve seen in her sang-froid-oozing editorials, where she can resemble Kim Basinger, Nicole Kidman or Simone 2.0. Pejić doesn’t mind talking fashion these days: she’s just landed her first beauty campaign with Make Up For Ever, which certainly makes a change from the Oscar-nominated actresses in beauty ads we’ve become accustomed to. (“Never thought I’d see the day,” she laughs.) But the Sydney-based model gets more excited when we consider what stories she can create and share in 2015, a year and half into her own biological womanhood and in the wake of Bruce Jenner’s era-defining announcement that he, too, will transition into a woman. Like many people, she watched the Diane Sawyer special with hopeful curiosity, declaring her support on a TV slot surrounding her recent Vogue spread, the magazine’s first to feature a transgender model.
“A lot of people went into it thinking, ‘Oh, it’s a publicity stunt,’” she says. “But I feel like he won a lot of people over because it was pretty genuine and heartwarming and you could relate to his pain. The struggle was real and the pain was real. You couldn’t not empathise. And also, he’s a classic American hero. It’s ironic that the greatest American male sport ideal was a woman the whole time, you know what I mean? If it can be someone like that, it can be anyone! He can expose this experience to a whole new group of people.”
Though clearly touched by Jenner’s honesty, Pejić knows how much work there is to be done in altering wider public perceptions of gender issues. “I think storytelling is very powerful,” she says. “Exposure is good, and discussion is good. But more needs to be done to improve the lives of a huge amount of people.” She now uses her public role to promote inclusivity, awareness and discussion, going beyond the fashion industry into film. “When you’re first in the spotlight out of a whole community of people, you end up representing them. A lot of young people grow up confused and feeling like outsiders, different from their family and everyone around them. It’s a lonely life and I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t like to feel a little less lonely. That’s why I decided to do a documentary.”
Tentatively titled Andrej(A), the Kickstarter-funded film will showcase all aspects of Pejić’s journey from man to woman, including events and feelings surrounding her gender reassignment surgery in January 2014. As an open-minded but private person, the model surprised even herself by agreeing to share certain facets of her life on camera. It probably helps that the director, Eric Miclette, is her good friend, and coaxed her into opening up for the documentary. “I never imagined wanting to get this on camera,” she says. “But Eric said, ‘All this stuff is happening, we should capture it.’ And, with a documentary, you can’t really script it out. What happens to you becomes the story. It was a lot, but I came out on top. It was a risk; I didn’t necessarily know that was going to happen.”
Pejić has always been a risk-taker. After being scouted in a Melbourne McDonald’s at the age of 16, she worked her ass off to become an otherworldly hit with designers and stylists. As a young, beautiful male who resembled a young, beautiful female, the teen shape-shifter found top-tier work in both worlds. Raf Simons was a fan, as was John Galliano. Gaultier loved Pejić so much he put her on the runway as his veiled couture bride in 2011 and made her a central muse. Carine Roitfeld draped her in Fendi for Vogue Paris and officially christened her the editorial star of a new era: the alien god(dess) fallen to earth.
“I tried training myself to behave like a boy – playing football, hanging out with boys instead of girls... It half-worked” – Andreja Pejić
Looking back, Pejić seems bemused by her own blasé attitude towards it all. “My knowledge of fashion was not as good as it should have been,” she admits. “I should have understood how big that situation was at the time. Obviously, I liked the clothes and it felt good. But I entered modelling so I could make money to pay for my transition and get back to my family.”
It’s no wonder Pejić is so pragmatic. Her family found itself in poverty amid a desperate refugee situation in Belgrade during the 90s Yugoslav Wars. Memories of the 1999 Nato bombing, she says, are still “stuck in my mind”. It was the first time she was confronted with her own mortality. “I was with my mother and grandmother at the grocery store. We heard the air raid sirens and we all had to run to the bomb shelter. We didn’t know if the bomb was going to drop. I remember my mom wanted to leave and check on my brother. Everyone was crying a lot. I didn’t want to part with her, but I wanted my brother to be OK. I didn’t know who it would be worse to lose. It was the first time I had ever seen my grandmother in distress... Yeah, imperialism is a horrible thing.” Her laugh is light but loaded.
Granted political asylum in 2000, Pejić moved to Melbourne, Australia with her mother, grandmother and brother. (Her father remained in Europe.) By that time, thoughts of being a girl were a private dream. Her mum, an academic with a middle-class upbringing, was her early and obvious icon. “I idolised her,” she says. “I wanted to grow up and be like her. She was very beautiful – kind of aristocratic.” Her mother was also the only person who let young Andreja-to-be “get away with” her feminine displays. When she was among everyone else, Pejić rehearsed a socially sanctioned version of herself.
“I spent most of my childhood very aware of gender and showing feminine characteristics. When I was young, people thought I would grow out of it, and I think I tried to from about 9 to 13 years old. I tried training myself to behave like a boy – playing football, hanging out with boys instead of girls... It half-worked,” she says with a grim smile. “It was enough to help with bullying and being called gay at school.” But within, the void was growing.
“It was a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week performance,” says Pejić, whose gender roleplay failed to meet with the approval of her brother. “I wasn’t very close with him. He could always see through my attempt at being a boy and it would piss him off. He didn’t understand at the time why I didn’t have a need to be macho. We would watch TV and Christina Aguilera would come on, and he just knew that I liked that song. I wouldn’t even express that I did. He would just change the channel. Growing up, everything was ‘gay’. You know what I mean? Being too intelligent was gay! Being interested in female artists was gay. Boys really suppress each other, that’s the irony of the patriarchy.”
Puberty, with its Kafka-esque physical transformations and locker-room spectacles, posed another huge threat to someone already struggling to reconcile their sense of self and how to express it. “You have a certain amount of freedom as a child, you can get away with more,” says Pejić, who dreaded becoming a man. “I did not want to go through male puberty. I would measure myself every day to see how tall I was. I would look at my father and brother and they were very masculine men. I knew if I finished puberty, I would be so far from what I wanted to be.” She needed to find a way to stop testosterone in its tracks.
“At the age of 13, I was living this kind of half-life and got very curious,” she says. “I would spend hours researching everything from black holes to human chromosomes. Then, one day at the library, I typed ‘sex change’ into Google. From there, I discovered everything about what it means to be trans.” She joined online communities, researched puberty-blocking hormones, started seeing a psychiatrist. She did all of this before breathing a word to her family.
Desperate to stop her body from betraying her, but lacking the funds and family-sanctioned status to attain hormones from a doctor, she researched low-risk medications and resorted to buying the testosterone-suppressing hormone Androcur from an online pharmacy. (“I don’t recommend doing it this way,” she is quick to warn now.) And then, at the age of 14, she finally came out to her mother. “I came to her with a little booklet.” she laughs. “I was like, ‘I’m seeing doctors, I’m doing fine, I’ve got it all covered!’” Even as a teenager, Pejić had a knack for telling people her plans after she’d already put them into action.
“For a lot of your life as a trans woman, when you picture yourself old, you picture yourself alone. But the world is changing” – Andreja Pejić
“It was hard on her at first. She’d already had a difficult life and I felt like I was adding to her tragedy. As a mother, she was like, ‘Oh, I messed up when I was carrying you. I was too stressed.’ She was mainly sad for me. But I said, ‘There is a way to happiness. I don’t have to live a bad life.’” Pejić’s mother soon came around, and when the rest of her family learned the truth, Pejić claims they were surprisingly supportive – even her brother.
A decade later, Pejić looks back at her volatile childhood with gracefully little bitterness. She even credits her older brother for helping her to toughen up as a human being. “He showed me what it was like to live in a boy’s world,” she says. “I felt like an outsider – like an investigator or something. It definitely made me a strong woman today. He wasn’t successful in turning me into a boy, but he was successful in making me a really tough girl!”
For the rest of this year, Pejić will continue filming Andrej(A), even embarking on a homeward-bound trip to the Balkans. Maintaining intimate creative control of the project is essential to her. “We didn’t want to go straight to a network, because when they fund it, you lose control,” she says. “But independent filmmaking is very difficult. It’s hard to raise money because it doesn’t make any money. But now we’ve raised enough to cover costs, and I’m about to sign with a big agent. Hopefully, we can premiere it by Sundance season.”
But Pejić is too busy enjoying imagining all her potential new futures to settle on just one. “For a lot of your life as a trans woman, when you picture yourself old, you picture yourself alone. You don’t picture yourself growing old with someone. But the world is definitely changing and I’ve had very positive experiences so far. There are men out there who are accepting and understanding, which is refreshing to see because for a lot of my life, I was treated as a fetish. Love feels more possible than ever. Maybe one day I’ll say, ‘Pull that Gaultier wedding dress out of the archives!’” This time, you feel she’ll leave off the veil.
hair Akki at Art Partner; make-up Lisa Houghton at Tim Howard Management using M.A.C; model Andreja Pejić at The Society; photographic assistants Chris White, Matt Munson; styling assistants Victor Cordero, Louise Ford, Patricia Machado; hair assistant Takuya Yamaguchi; make-up assistant Andrew Colvin; casting Noah Shelley
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