Ford Models Signs Andreja Pejić As Their First Transgender Model

Talk about being more than a pretty face. Andreja Pejić is rewriting the rules of the modeling world. She broke barriers as an androgynous supermodel, and since coming out as a trans woman in 2013, she’s become one of the most prominent voices not only in the trans community, but in the world. The war refugee from former Yugoslavia was raised in Australia and was the first transgender model to cover GQ, be profiled in Vogue, and serve as the face of a major makeup campaign. Now she’s accomplished another game changer as the first transgender model to be signed to the legendary Ford Models. Pejić tells us all about it.

How does it feel to be Ford’s first openly transgender supermodel? Ford is the oldest modeling agency and has such an incredible heritage. On a personal level, three years ago, I was dropped by a modeling agency after I came out publicly as transgender. It feels good to go from not even knowing if I would have a future in the modeling business to joining forces with one of the biggest names in the industry, and following in the footstep of Christie Brinkley, Jerry Hall, Alek Wek—the list goes on and on.

Branislav Simonick for GQ Portugal

Andreja Pejić in GQ Portugal

What does your signing mean for the modeling and fashion industries? We’re in a time of flux and the modeling industry is changing; what it means to be a modeling agency is currently changing. What we require is more of a broad management. Managing a model up until now was sitting at a booking desk and showing girls at fashion week season and seeing who fits and they do a bunch of shows and advertisements. There was a structure and now it’s changing in the way you are building up a model; there are many different ways. I think that you have to be more dynamic and more creative. It’s becoming a little bit more like managing an actor or singer and I’ll continue to push forward with Ford to change peoples’ minds in this industry. A lot of people when they look at the whole trans thing, they think, oh you’re transgender and in the fashion industry, which is very pro LGBT, so you don’t have any problems because it’s a progressive place. But that’s not the reality. Just because someone is gay or in the LGBT world doesn’t meant they understand our experiences, so I’ve had to deal with breaking down some barriers, that we’re worthy of respect and other women are too.

How have you seen attitudes evolve over the last few years? I think the public perception has changed. When I was growing up, if you saw a transgender person on TV it was on Maury Povich or Jerry Springer, or it was in the world of pornography—there wasn’t a frame of reference to me growing up. When I told my mom I was trans at an early age she didn’t even know what it really meant. I think that people are becoming more educated and starting to see it more as a human experience and something that just happens in humanity. When it comes to high fashion, speaking broadly, I feel like when I started the industry was very much dominated by teen girls who all had this incredible look but they all looked the same. People didn’t know their names. It was frowned up for a model to be exposed and give interviews and be on TV. I got a lot of attention because I had an interesting career because I was doing both men’s and women’s wear. A lot of designers frowned on that and obviously that’s changed. In terms of the looks they wanted, when I started anorexia was raging. It was all about super, super thin and there was the pressure to have that look. Models have more opportunity based on other things these days. The industry isn’t as obsessed with being 5’11” and having a 23-inch waist—it’s liberating for sure.

Mert Atlas & Marcus Piggott for W Magazine

Andreja Pejić in W Magazine

Is it sometimes surreal to come from a poor refugee family and be launched into the world of fame and fortune? I was working a part-time job at McDonald’s and still in school at the time (I was discovered). It’s everything you think it would be. At times it’s magical, at times scary, and at times liberating. It keeps me humble and more grounded. I remember as a kid my mom had to trade canned food to buy my brother and me chocolate because we were living in Serbia at the time and there were sanctions. If I catch myself complaining about going to a red carpet event, I say shut up. My brother helps with that and keeps me grounded. Every day you have to remind yourself that you can lose yourself, your character and the things that make you special and innocent because it is a cutthroat business and it’s competitive. But at the end of the day you have to know yourself. If you stray from yourself you have to come back to yourself and remember what brought you here.

What did it feel like becoming the first transgender woman on the cover of GQ and its model of the year, given that’s it’s a classic men’s magazine? I’ve definitely had my struggles with the male species as I’m sure most girls have. (Laughs). Love life can be a complicated thing for a lot of trans girls. I grew up around very, very strong women. I would say men aren’t nearly as strong. If you happen to like a girl, and she happens to be transgender, be nice to her and stop worrying about what the bros are going to think. Live your life and people will trust you more because of that. That’s the message I wanted to put out there with that cover.

When you became the face of Make Up For Ever, what did you hope to convey with that groundbreaking role? I wanted to bring attention to the fact that a transwoman can be the face of a company owned by LVMH. People in this industry have this idea that using someone unique who doesn’t represent that large group of people would be isolating customers, but that didn’t happen. The makeup sold really well and they opened their flagship store on Fifth Avenue. It was a very successful collaboration. I think it proved something to the industry on a commercial level.

While there have been huge gains in terms of inclusivity in modeling, how else do they need to improve? I think the next step in inclusivity is getting away from feeling like charity. Sometimes the requests I get for bookings, it’s almost like a charity donation. When it comes to clients and companies wanting to get on this diversity wagon, I find that the jobs, money and opportunities being offered is still very much below what’s offered to traditional talent. I personally would rather starve than accept a client or campaign that doesn’t know my true value or doesn’t want to pay for it because let’s face it—we make them a shitload of money. I have the privilege of saying no to a lot of these things because I want to keep a certain level and I feel like I work hard, but the other girls don’t have the privilege of saying no. I think that inclusivity should just become a normal thing. It’s about looking past color and gender and age and weight, and looking at talent for what talent is, rather than just focusing on the shell. What about the substance the person brings to the table?

You’ve been very open about your personal journey. Why has it been important for you to share this? I started my documentary filming five or six years ago. We’re almost at the finish line but we have a bunch of editing to do, which we probably need the funds for. It was a creative, artistic project. I don’t think it has a political agenda, I just wanted to be as open about my story and as honest as I possibly could. I started it when being honest meant there was a possibility of losing your career because of that. At that time, I was thinking I could just move somewhere and change my name and start my life fully as a woman and marry a construction worker and live in the suburbs, but I thought I’m not done yet, and why should I be done? I wanted to change how my path is perceived by society, change some minds and hearts, and maybe the next generation doesn’t have to suffer the same exclusion. The documentary shows me going from a kid and maturing into a woman in my own unique way.

Terry Richardson for Candy Magazine

Andreja Pejić in Candy Magazine

What topics are you planning to address at this year’s Web Summit? I want to speak about tokenism and what you put on the table for people who represent diversity. They need to value people for their talents and stories and individual traits rather than just a label or grouping certain people into boxes. I think that large corporations are slowly coming to this conclusion about diversity, but I don’t think we’re at a point of equal opportunity. When they say my shoulders are too broad or I’m a little too tall for a certain job, it still happens that I see a cis girl that I know for a fact is taller and broader gets the job. But obviously I feel lucky to be here and everything that I’ve done; it’s very much unprecedented. I want to talk to about nepotism in the fashion industry and how real diversity means not only including minorities but also people from working class populations. My biggest worry with fashion is I feel it’s a little too isolated from what the rest of society is going through. I come from a very humble background and you don’t see a lot of people coming from that background. It risks not being able to respond to things to happening in the world. Sending slogan T-shirts down the runway is nice, but in a time of threat of nuclear war, it’s time to look beyond the Gucci purse.

What are your views on tokenism in the fashion industry? I don’t think tokenism in any industry is an ideal way to approach inclusivity. The fact that I am trans and that I’ve been so open about my story, I’ve been rewarded for those things, while at the same time it’s made it harder in other categories. It’s a double-edged sword but I would also like to be evaluated on my talent and on the work too which I think is of a good standard. It’s about looking past these labels.

What has been the most challenging obstacle in your journey? Coming out to my mom was the most challenging obstacle in my life because I love my mom so much and she’s the one that raised two kids through two wars. She went through so much and I have so much love for her. That day when I figured out who I was at a pretty young age with the help of Google, I was 13 or 14, and it was tough telling her. But the most rewarding thing was forming this eternal mother-daughter bond—it grew out of that.