IT IS, IN FACT, IMPOSSIBLE TO SET ANY LIMITS, PIGEONHOLE OR CATEGORISE ANDREJ PEJIĆ. EVEN TO USE A GENRE. THIS SERBIAN-BOSNIAN-CROATIAN MODEL THAT WAS BORN IN THE MIDDLE OF A MILITARY CONFLICT HAS MANAGED TO SUCCEED IN NOT ONLY THE BEST WOMEN HAUTE COUTURE INTERNATIONAL CATWALKS, BUT ALSO MEN’S ONES. ANDREJ KNOWS NO BORDERS.
In your life, the question of identity is key from the very beginning: a Bosnian-Croat father and a Bosnian-Serbian mother, then you were born in Bosnia, you fled the war and ended up in a refugee camp in Serbia before being granted political asylum in Australia at the age of 8… Can we draw a parallel between your multiple origins and your career as both a female and a male supermodel?
I definitely think that I was born in a world of conflict and transition and it has been a theme that has stayed with me for a while. I don’t think it causes who I am, but you can definitely draw a parallel. Before the war, it was normal that my parents were married, but as soon as the war broke up it was almost like strange for them to be a couple because they were mixed race. My brother and I, half Croatian, half Serbian, we didn’t really fit into Serbian, Croatian or Bosnian. Today I don’t fit in any particular gender boundaries, at least physically.
How would you describe yourself?
I try not to describe myself, even though when I do interviews and I work with journalists it is difficult because they want you to summarize yourself into one thing and I find it very limiting. I would definitely describe my last moments as living between genders. You can’t say it’s one or the other.
How should we refer to you? He or she?
A lot of my close friends say ‘she’. But a lot of people say ‘he’ too and I am not offended by that; when you are in this position living this life in between, you can’t be too offended by anything. Either way is fine, but ‘she’ is fine.
Being a supermodel that embodies both genders, maybe you can help us with the following questions:
- What is it to be a woman? - What is it to be a man?
Sigh. I think to be either one is to be a human being and at the end of the day I don’t think that in reality it is that different to be one or the other, it is just a part of who you are, how feminine or masculine your feelings are. Obviously there is a physical aspect to it and an emotional one.
But you know how to behave as a man or as a woman since you ‘play’ both role, how different is being a woman from being a man for instance?
I have never been really good at playing a man! I can do it for photoshoots very easily, but it is different from living in a man’s world; putting a feminine soul in a man’s world it’s socially mumbo jumbo. I really don’t think it is that different to be one or the other, but society does draw quite a big line. Boys are expected to be a lot less emotional, tougher and, I guess, somehow rough, where girls have a bit more freedom to express themselves, but with little less freedom too because men are obviously the favoured sex. I think women are very sexualised and reduced, at least most of them.
You can often hear that basically you learn to be a woman and that being a man means to be “natural”, “unsophisticated”… but it is as difficult to be a man, or at least to be what is expected of a man, than to be a woman, don’t you think ?
Yes. We are born with a gender identity, as well as a sexual orientation. Most people are not aware of their gender identity because they look in the mirror and if they are female they see a female body; they aren’t even aware. They are more aware of their sexual orientation, who they find attractive. But when the physical part and the mental part don’t match or the match is much more complicated, that is when you become aware of gender identity. A lot of scientists just point out to the fact that it is something we are born with. Of course, later on we definitely learn how to behave in the sense society wants us to behave but there is a biological factor to it. I think that men have definitely as much pressure to be a man, as women have to be woman.
You dress with womenswear, you wear make up… how does it feel for you? Is it a way to be truer to yourself or to ‘play’ with people?
It depends, it is very related to what I feel comfortable in. I didn’t wake up one day when I was a teenager thinking ‘I want to provoke people’. Bleaching my hair for instance, it was a very personal thing: I just wanted to be happy, pretty and comfortable. I was lucky throughout this process to gain a modelling career.
You have experienced war, refugee camp, asylum… what impact does that heavy past had on you? How does it show?
I think it made me extremely political. When I was a teenager I was very inquisitive about life in general, I did a lot of researches to find out why it happened, what happened. I wasn’t so traumatised about it but I saw my mother suffered the consequences; she struggled with depression and anxiety, and obviously my family has been torn apart, so I just went to find out about the facts.
After being uprooted from Europe, what was your first impression when you came to Australia?
It was funny when we moved out from the refugee camp in Serbia; my brother and I were kids and we knew that when we move to Australia he would get a PlayStation and I would get my own room. I really wanted my own room. When we got there we thought we were going to a city because all the postcards were full of skyscrapers, but when you come to Australia it is actually a little bush! In Melbourne there are only skyscrapers in the city but most people live in the suburbs; I remember mum was so disappointed because she is so European, she had always lived in the city and we had to adapt to suburban life. Australian culture is so different from European culture; people are much more private. In Europe people value their terraces and their front yards, the neighbours come and having coffee with each other, whereas in Australia, people look to their back yards, to the privacy, to the fences. It was definitely a culture shock. You are an immigrant and no matter how multicultural Australia is, there is still a level of racism there, so we had to conform and fit in.
Today, where is home for you?
It’s Melbourne where my family is. I live in New York at the moment though, it is my twenties home.
Have you always been attracted to the fashion world?
We’ve heard that for a model your culture about fashion is quite impressive. I definitely have studied the industry I’m in, I wanted to know about it and to be able to make the right decisions about my career, but I don’t think it is an industry I would have ended up in if I weren’t a model. Also, being a model wasn’t my life goal; growing up with a single mother who was also an academic, we weren’t living in the best circumstances. The biggest opportunity she could give us was to educate us; education was a way for us to go up. So I was very much constraint at school, it was a bit like “if it is not a law or medical degree, don’t come home with a degree”. Modelling, acting and stuff like that wouldn’t seem sensible, it was something for people with rich parents who could afford it.
Was modelling a dream for you?
I think it is something everybody thinks about when they are younger. As a child I wasn’t living the life that I felt comfortable in. Before I decided to let go and be myself, I would just lean on my bed and would dream about situations; it wasn’t necessarily about being famous, it was more about being able to be myself. So modelling was definitely one of those things I would think about, but at the time when I was discovered I didn’t think that I could physically.
Who do you look up to? Writers, artists, models…
I am a big fan of Russian literature; I love Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Trotsky, Rosa Luxembourg,… When it comes to my style, people like David Bowie, Boy George, Amanda Lear,… My favourite model today is Kristen McMenamy.
How do other models react when you show up?
I like to think everyone is pretty okay with it. But it is a very competitive industry; a cut through field where so few models can actually make a career and a living out of it. There is a lot less money than people think. I have definitely experienced some negativity from both sides, because I do both and some people think that it is unfair. It is a bitchy industry, you can’t please everybody.
What attracts you?
Confidence, humour, a kind of wildly outlook, creativity and intelligence.
What is beautiful for you?
Linda Evangelista… I think it has definitely changed. I grew up with my mum who was extremely beautiful but her standards of beauty are very high; she saw Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor, those classic beauties, as ultimate beauties. I think she passed this onto me. Not that I think that beauty is so important but I assess. Being in this industry you start finding size zero beautiful too and you start taking on a more modern idea of beauty; you start finding things that are weird beautiful too. For instance, Kristen McMenamy, Gemma Ward, Saskia de Brauw… Not so classic beauty but there is something interesting in their look. It is interesting to see that people that in a normal social situation wouldn’t be considered beautiful in Fashion they are!
Modelling aside, what are your plans?
I don’t know. I definitely want to keep doing this for as long as I can and to try my hand in acting; I’ve just done short film in New York. I am kind of throwing myself in at the deep end to see if I have anything that would point me to that direction, because I don’t want to do anything I’m really shit at. I’m also promoting myself, trying to build the brand and the name to create longevity beyond just high fashion. Maybe I’ll go back to school, who knows, or I’ll end up in a farm.
We’ve heard about a reality show.
We’ve been trying to push that option for a while now and at the moment they are considering it in Europe, actually. I will only do it if it fits with my personality, I would not like to become that crazy person on TV.
We ask this question to everyone interviewed at La Monda. We give you the beginning of the sentence and you have to complete it. “Artistic expression as a way of defending…”
…questioning the world and exposing the truth about life.
Blurring the boundaries between men and women has brought Andrej Pejic international celebrity as a model, writes Caroline Overington, who talks to the 21-year-old and his mother about his career and family life.
ASK any mother what they want for their children, they’ll probably say they want them to be happy. Drill down a little, and here is what they mean:
They’d like their children not be bullied at school. They’d like them to have friends. Also, ultimately, if their children fall in love, they hope that it will be with somebody who will love them right back for being exactly as they are.
It’s probably fair to say that Melbourne mum, Jadranka Pejic, worried a little more than might be normal about her son, the now-21-year-old Andrej.
"Of course I could see that he was different," she tells the Weekly. "I was thinking, what kind of life will he have? Will the world accept him?"
Yes, it would accept him. In certain circles, Andrej Pejic is now the man most-wanted, a model who has strutted catwalks in London, Paris and New York, posed for French Vogue, and appeared on towering billboards in Times Square, all of which means that he’s near the pinnacle of his profession, an amazing achievement, more so when you understand that he has done all this — strutted and pouted and posed - dressed not as a man but as a fine-boned woman.
It’s an extraordinary story , not just because Andrej is so unusual — indeed, beautiful — to look at, nor because he’s making it as a man in a woman’s world.
The background is fascinating, too: Andrej came to Australia with his mother when he was just eight, speaking not a word of English. They were fleeing the war in Bosnia. Jadranka was university educated, but took a series of low-paid, cleaning jobs to put Andrej and his brother, Igor, through school, while trying to find her own feet in Melbourne.
From the earliest age, she could see that Andrej was different from other boys.
"He wanted to play with Barbie dolls and Barbie cars," Jadranka tells the Weekly. "I would try to hide these things from people but because it was my son and it made him happy I would slip his Barbie doll to him under the table and say, here, go and play with it, and bring it back to me when you are finished."
He wanted to grow his hair and wear girl’s clothes. She wondered whether she could, or even should try to change him. She was terrified that he’d be bullied. Then he gained entry to University High, a school with students from 55 different nations, who present in all kinds of ways (it’s got goths, and Geeks, and kids with Mohawks.)
The school’s motto is “individuality, diversity and excellence” - all of which Andrej had in spades.
"It was a sophisticated, liberal school," Andrej says. "They encouraged me to just be me."
Andrej was academically brilliant, cruising through his classes, and he proved popular at University High, where his long hair and make-up was just part of who he was.
Friends told him he was pretty enough to be a model but he was also keen on university. Then one night, he was working late, trying to earn a bit of extra money, when he was discovered by a modelling agency while working the counter at McDonald’s in Melbourne’s Swanston Street.
It was New Year’s Eve, and his life was about to change forever.
Read more of this story in the April issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly.
Your gender bending within the fashion world is truly astounding and groundbreaking. When did you start modeling as both “male” and female”? Do you prefer to model as one gender more than the other?
I actually started out mainly in menswear. It wasn’t until my first few high end editorials for women’s magazines like Vogue Paris and my first couture show, that my career in womenswear truly began, and it has been a happy union ever since. Womenswear is I guess more natural for me, but I think the fact that I serve both is what has made my career quite unique so far.
We read about your amazing story regarding how you started your life to where you are now. How does it feel looking back on your past while currently living such a glamorous life?
It feels like that one in a million rags to riches story. Sadly, I don’t believe that we live in a world where if you simply work hard you can achieve anything. I think first and foremost I was lucky to been gifted with certain physical traits and lucky to have been in the right place at the right time to be able to transcend my socio-economic conditions. I think my personality and hard work also helped greatly so it does feel like an achievement too, but I definitely don’t feel entitled.
While being featured in David Bowie’s “The Stars Are Out Tonight”, you’re presented as a super glamazon type. What was it like acting out a role rather than just modeling and what helped you get into that character?
Its very different. With acting you have to let go completely, you cant give a shit. With modeling, you have to be in control head to toe, always aware of the camera. My character as well as being glamorous was quiet dark, and I’ve always thought that the perfect role for me would be as a witch or a hooker, so it helped that I was intrigued by the character. My preparation included me sitting in front of the mirror screaming “Christina!…Why can’t you give me the respect that I’m entitled to? Why can’t you treat me like I would be treated by any stranger on the street?” while pulling at my hair. Why? Because there is nothing like imitating Joan Crawford to get you in the mood.
You’re clearly a fabulous example and aspirational figure within this idea of being “genderless” – do you ever think of yourself as an inspiration and role model to those around you who are having a hard time becoming comfortable in their own skin?
I think the message that comes with me is pretty universal and that’s always how I’ve wanted it to be. I think it can apply to everyone from transgender people, to that kid in school that just wants to have fun with androgyny. Of course I understand that my success doesn’t necessarily improve society’s backwardness when it comes to the treatment of such issues. That will only happen when all people unite and fight for change, but me sharing my story definitely wont hurt that cause.
Andrej Pejic - Bettina Rheims’Gender Studies (2012)
In her current show at Camera Work Berlin, Gender Studies (she talks about the project at length here), Bettina Rheims displays the portraits of 25 androgynous and/or transgender beauties that defy the usual gender categorizations. All the protagonists are taken frontally and enter into direct eye contact with the viewer. A mull-like fabric features in almost every photograph and serves to conceal relevant parts of the body and surgery scars. In a way, it underlines the fragility of identity in the transitionary state the protagonists find themselves in.
A conversation with Out100 honoree Andrej Pejic on his philosophy of modeling and why he won’t get a boner for a photoshoot.
Out: The press highlights you as an intersection of many things, including a man who can walk in women’s shows (and is super comfortable with it) and Croat/Serb or Australian. How do you define yourself? Is it even along this spectrum?
Pejic: Define, refine, constrict, package, and sell… No thank you. I would like to live in a world where your gender, nationality, sexual orientation, and, above all, financial status didn’t affect the opportunities you are given in life, the way you’re treated by others, and your overall freedom. In a world like that, I wouldn’t be given such a complex definition.
Most people would think that the world of male modeling would be populated by a huge number of gay guys, which in reality is not true. What is it like for you backstage working at a men’s show?
The male modeling industry is like the army, very straight but very gay. Most male models have girlfriends, but backstage, when no one is looking, they like to pinch me. Working with them is fun—I have a lot of male model friends.
Advertising is such a barometer of what the mass market deems acceptable, and you’ve made a major stab into the mainstream with advertisements for Marc by Marc Jacobs and Gaultier. Do you think it’s harder for you to book advertisements as opposed to other male models?
Well, the media has definitely jumped on the bandwagon. The people, it seems, are coming on fast, now we’re just waiting for the clients to catch up. The truth is I have to work twice as hard to be taken as seriously as the top girls. I understand that it will take time for me to prove that I’m actually a good model once you look past the media hype and the uniqueness of my looks. But hey, I’m not the first that has had to fight.
You seem pretty fearless in your career, easily doing men’s and women’s and—to be a bit crude—having the balls to wear a skirt or dress (and wear it well). Is there anything that has been demanded of you at a shoot that you’ve said no to?
My philosophy is “take it and work it!” No matter what! Although, I have been asked to get aroused for a shot. I declined. I like to serve beauty, not porn.
Everyone is going nuts about you meeting the queen and wearing a Versace skirt to do it. How’d you pick your outfit?
I was tempted to wear a suit, like a nice fitted tuxedo, but it didn’t work out in the end. So I went for a ’90s Sharon Stone-inspired look. And the hair added some youth to the situation. The palace was beautiful—I felt right at home. And let’s face it, we all love a good Queen.