I’m a big girl,” Andrej Pejic (pronounced “on-drey pay-jeek”) says blithely on the phone. It is a day before the Urban cover shoot and the 21-year-old Australian model is giving us his body measurements so we can source for his outfits.
At 1.88m tall and with size 42 feet, Pejic is neither a woman nor your typical model. After all, not many male models make a living wearing a dress.
In town to walk for five of the seven shows during last weekend’s Digital Fashion Week Singapore, Pejic is, without a doubt, the reigning gender-bender model in the world today, achieving career success modelling both men’s and women’s clothing.
In person, he looks like a cross between 1940s film star Veronica Lake - with his flaxen locks and razor sharp cheekbones - and a young Brooke Shields - with his luscious pout and strong eyebrows.
His climb to the top has been well- documented: He fled war-torn Bosnia and Herzegovina for Australia at the age of eight, settled down with his family in Melbourne and was spotted by a model scout while working at McDonald’s at age 16.
By his 20th birthday, Pejic had already bagged a Marc by Marc Jacobs ad campaign, walked the couture shows for Jean Paul Gaultier and modelled lingerie for a Dutch retailer. Today, he is ranked 25th in the list of top male models on industry portal, Models.com - a spot he shares with British beefcake Rob Evans. He is the only cross-dressing model on the list.
But the rise to the top has not exactly been a smooth ride for the younger of two boys. His mother, a former lawyer who is now a relief teacher, separated from his economist dad when he was two months old.
During our chat with the size 2 model in between getting his hair and make-up done the next day, he says in a slightly coquettish voice: “I have lost some jobs with big fashion houses because I could not fit into shoes or because I’m too tall for women’s shows.”
To get around this, he takes along his own shoes for shoots and fashion shows, including heels and boots, in case he cannot squeeze into the size 40 shoes most women’s samples come in.
But it is not just physical constraints he has had to contend with.
Pejic, whose first modelling assignment was for a spread in Australian fashion magazine Oyster, where he appeared as a woman, would hear gripes from female models who felt that a man should not be muscling in on their turf.
“You do feel a little bit like an immigrant worker,” quips Pejic, who has also modelled menswear Down Under. “But I proved myself. I don’t think I have any less right to this job than a woman. If I have the looks and the talent, why is it not fair?” he asks.
Even modelling clothes for men was a hurdle at first. “It was a risk for brands to hire me to model either menswear or womenswear at first because they did not know how the market would react. There was no other gender-bending model before me who had done it,” he says.
When his modelling agency sent him to London at the age of 18, Pejic had a hard time convincing any agency there to sign him on as a womenswear or a menswear model because they were unsure of his positioning in the market.
Storm Model Management was the fifth agency he visited and Sarah Doukas - the same woman who discovered Kate Moss - took him in. The agency placed him in both its men’s and women’s categories.
He recalls: “I had a lot of doubts. There were moments when I would call my mum and wonder if I should spend more money and time pursuing modelling when I could be at university.”
He has been admitted to read law at a university he declines to name, but is putting his studies on hold for modelling.
Playing with Barbie
Born in 1991 in the city of Tuzla in north-east Bosnia and Herzegovina before moving to Serbia, Pejic always knew he was different growing up. He would play with Barbie dolls and rummage through his mother’s closet to play dress-up in her clothes.
He recounts: “I could see that it was not what normal boys did. When I saw my girlfriends playing with Barbie dolls, I asked my mum for one too. But she would say, ‘What are the neighbours going to think? What is your grandma going to think?’”
Even his older brother Igor, whom he is now close to, could not understand his feminine behaviour at first and the two sometimes fought. “My brother is the opposite of me. He is very masculine. We used to fight and my mum would always plead with him, ‘Don’t hit Andrej, don’t hit Andrej’,” he says, trailing off.
“But he didn’t know anything, he was really young.”
Pejic tried to blend in, “pretending to be a boy by trying out sports and wearing baggy clothes but it all felt awkward”.
After his mother transferred him to a better and more liberal school when he was 14, he decided he would not suppress his feminine ways any longer.
“One day, I decided I was just going to be myself. That was when I started to bleach my hair and wear skinny jeans,” he says.
Surprisingly, he did not face the bullying and taunts one would expect from the boys. Instead, he found himself hanging out with the popular girls in school and was even voted prom queen when he was 18. The year before, he had been voted prom king.
“I was invited to all the parties. No one teased me or anything because I was with these girls. I was very lucky to have been able to avoid the bullying. I guess no one wants to punch a pretty face like this,” he says with a laugh.
Today, female fans who admire his porcelain skin ask him for beauty tips. He says he exfoliates weekly and uses sunscreen and skincare products with antioxidants, mostly from American brand Paula’s Choice.
“My brother grew really protective of me during my teenage years. I look like a girl and I can pass off as a girl and so, I avoid trouble. Luck had a lot to do with it,” he admits.
While he is a favourite of designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier, who considers him a muse, Pejic is still a controversial figure.
Last year, lad magazine FHM Britain insulted him after he was voted by its readers as the 98th sexiest woman on the planet.
It wrote: “The blonde gender-bender has jumped the gun in hoping he might one day be signed as a Victoria’s Secret Model (Pass the sick bucket).” The magazine later removed the comment from its website and apologised.
In May, his sexy half-clad photo on the cover of New York magazine, Dossier Journal, was deemed too risque for news-stands as there were concerns that people would mistake him for a topless woman. Copies of the magazine were eventually covered in opaque plastic sleeves - effectively making him the first man in history to have his nipples censored.
He remains optimistic despite such reactions.
“They are not that common. I receive more positive than negative feedback, so I just let the latter slide,” he says. “What someone very ignorant says will not affect me that much.”
The thing that hurts him most, however, is when critics say he is merely banking on his androgyny as a gimmick.
“When people say that I’m not being myself and just doing this for show and putting on a feminine attitude because I want to please designers and the fashion world, that’s quite hurtful,” he says.
Pejic is fully aware that his looks do intrigue and confuse others. That is why he has stopped using the men’s toilet because he is constantly told by other men that he has entered the wrong loo.
He never developed facial hair, even after reaching puberty at 13, and does not mind whether people refer to him as “he” or “she”.
“I live in between two genders. Some of my friends call me ‘he’, while others call me ‘she’. I’m really not fussy about it. Even my mum mixes it up sometimes,” he says, laughing.
Off duty, he wears women’s clothes with a tough chick vibe, such as leather jackets or jeans.
Pejic, who counts Balenciaga and Rick Owens among his favourite brands, has a naughty side too.
Backstage at Digital Fashion Week last Sunday, he was unabashed about walking around in skimpy black daisy dukes with his butt cheeks peeking out, despite stares from some onlookers.
And in case you wonder how he manages to hide everything while modelling women’s clothes and lingerie, he says he relies on tight knickers from Marks & Spencer, which “push it all in”.
Pejic, who once said he would never change his sex unless he was offered a Victoria’s Secret contract, still does not rule out going under the knife. In fact, he adds, he would love to have C-cup breasts to give him womanly curves, “like model Lara Stone’s”.
While he chats openly about his sexual identity, the New York-based Pejic, who lives alone in an Upper East Side apartment, prefers to keep his romantic life private.
Currently single, he reveals he once dated a girl when he was 16.
“It was cute but I don’t think she would have ended up as the love of my life,” he says.
He is not looking for a partner any time soon. “It’s difficult with this job because you’re always travelling and have no time for anyone.”
He will not date fellow models. He says: “I like people who are a little more concrete, like those in business. Models are too young and behave like kids.
“Most of the time, they’re immature and not serious, and it feels like high school.”
He has many admirers outside the modelling world, who have showered him with gifts such as paintings, scrapbooks and tea. The most lavish gift so far is a necklace from a Middle Eastern man.
“The necklace was sent to my agency in New York. It is a gold chain with a round blue stone. I have yet to take it to the jewellers to verify what stone it is,” he says.
“It came with a note, with a name like Mohamed, saying he is a big fan and asked me to get in touch with him. I never did.”
Then he pauses.
“But who knows? If my career stops, I might just marry a sheikh.”