Damon Baker, a 19-year-old British photographer, went into a dark karaoke bar in Covent Garden last summer. In the back of the smoky club, he saw a woman with high cheekbones, long platinum blond hair, and wide-set blue eyes. She was, as he puts it, “the most beautiful girl you’ve ever seen in your life.” They started flirting. Only a few minutes into their conversation did Baker realize: She was a he.
Gallery: Fashion Model Andrej Pejic
And that he wasn’t just anybody. He was Andrej Pejic, a 19-year-old male model who has taken the fashion industry by storm. He has Cindy Crawford’s face and Kate Moss’ body—give or take a few parts. He debuted in Jean-Paul Gaultier’s Paris show year, and since then has appeared in three consecutive spreads in French Vogue, Italian Vogue, and Turkish Vogue. Last week, he was unveiled as the face of Marc Jacobs’ spring 2011 campaign and will appear in Gaultier’s spring ads alongside his female doppelganger—the supermodel Karolina Kurkova. According to sources, he is on the top of every casting agent’s list for the men’s shows, which begin in Paris next week.
Pejic is part of fashion’s new “femiman” trend, the latest in a new crop of gender-bending models who have risen to prominence in the past few seasons. The most famous is Lea T, Riccardo Tisci’s transsexual assistant at Givenchy, whom he cast as the face of his Fall/Winter campaign. Fashion has embraced the gender-bending model—but Pejic stands for something larger, and is not just the face of a passing trend or a controversial ad campaign. He’s the leader of a new gender fluidity in fashion, in which traditional male and female attitudes are starting to matter less. It’s a message that is being slowly adapted industry-wide—and is resonating with consumers.
Pejic and his family fled Bosnia for Serbia when he was 2 months old. He remembers the NATO bombings of Yugoslavia as a child. At age 8, his family left for Australia, where they settled in Broadmeadows, a rough neighborhood in the suburbs of Melbourne. Pejic says he knew he looked like a girl from the minute he “came out of the womb and looked in a mirror.” His transition to Australia was a difficult one, as he was forced to learn English and integrate with students who weren’t like him. But Pejic insists that for all his physical differences, he was never bullied by his peers—and instead felt only the he was the subject of “curiosity and attention.” “A lot of macho guys did think of me as a girl,” he says of his high school years. “Though I can’t really say that it was ever a bad thing. All I’ll say is…a lot of free drinks!”
In many ways, his career has been just that: capitalizing on curiosity. In 2009, Pejic found his way to Chadwick Models in Melbourne, where he was interviewed and instantly signed. “I knew at the time we had someone potentially very big on our hands,” says Matthew Anderson, manager of Chadwick’s Melbourne office. Even in telling the story of Pejic, Anderson sets it against the backdrop of the global economic crisis—a kid who happened to be in the right place at the right time. He says that Pejic came to the agency in the middle of the meltdown, a time when fashion advertisers wanted “strong men” to convey a message of financial security. “In times of economic prosperity, clients can afford to use people that are using people that a little more interesting,” Anderson says. “We had this really interesting boy on our hands. So we thought let him finish high school first.”
They waited for the economy to recover, and for Pejic to graduate, before sending him to Paris in the middle of 2010. Not long after, Pejic was booked to walk in Jean-Paul Gaultier’s Fall show, where he wore a pair of revealing navy blue hot pants. He was spotted by French’s Vogue’s then-editor, Carine Roitfeld, who promptly booked him for a spread in her magazine. Since then, Pejic has appeared in a slew of editorials, from Italian Vogue to the transgender magazine Candy. His slate is filling up quickly for the upcoming season, but according to Arnaud V., his booker at the New Madison agency in Paris, “some designers are a little scared to go for this image of very androgynous. Some people aren’t ready for him yet.”
Pejic makes an effort to return to regularly visit his parents in Australia, where his mother is a teacher and his father works in tourism. “I would love to bring my mum to see me in shows and travel Europe with me because she has done so, so much for me,” he says. Pejic says he’d like to study law, medicine, or economics at university one day, and also wants to “do a movie and then retire.”
Pejic declined to answer a question asking whether he identified as LGBTQ—and, when asked if he has a boyfriend or a girlfriend, responded: “I have Paris and I have dessert wine.” When he dresses himself, Pejic occasionally chooses to wear heels and makeup. “I like to dress up but I’m not so concerned with looking very sexy, it’s really more the art of dressing,” he says. He has not had any kind of surgery—but wouldn’t rule it out. “I’ve never had any operations,” he says. “I’m not opposed to any plastic surgery, but until now I haven’t had any.” When asked by a Serbian news station if she has a granddaughter or a grandson, Pejic’s grandmother simply laughs: “I have both!”
If this is Pejic’s moment, it’s certainly well-timed. The fashion industry is warming to gender neutrality, and transsexual models and spreads are finding their way into the mainstream. Last month, The New York Times said that “2010 will be remembered as the year of the transsexual.” For Pejic’s part, this translates to steady work. For one thing, he can be cast in editorials and ads as either a woman or a man. But his treatment in print is often a case of art-without-a-frame. Marc Jacobs’ recent campaign featured him in men’s clothes, but Pejic usually appears in women’s apparel—sometimes, without any evidence that he’s really a guy. Often, he’s fully disguised as a woman, and the statement eludes the reader. So what’s the point?
“We were trying to show the nudity of the sexes, that a man could look like a woman and a woman could look like a man,” says Turkish Vogue’s editor in chief, Seda Dominic, who chose him for a spread. “The line between the sexes is becoming more and more blurred. Fashion is all about providing people with choices. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman.”
Pejic is being revered by the fashion industry, but it’s clear that something about him is sticking with the general public, as well. He’s developed a large online following, and there are a number of fan sites dedicated to him. A three-month-old blog called Fuck Yeah Andrej Pejic is run by Carla Mendoza, a 17-year-old who follows Pejic’s exploits in Tokyo and Paris from her home in Canada. “Andrej knows people are not quite comfortable in what he does and he still does it,” says Mendoza. “He affects my perspective of how I think of myself, and my self-esteem, by the way he deals with criticisms in his work. I’m a woman. But because of him, he inspires me to be more feminine myself. If a guy can be more beautiful, I can be more beautiful too.”
According to Elias Bailey, who runs a similar blog called Fuck Yeah Men With Long Hair, Pejic’s surge in popularity sends a hopeful message that beauty is moving beyond gender classifications. “I don’t see him as merely a boy who looks kind of like a girl, but as someone whose physical sex is truly of no consequence to his beauty,” he says. “I really do hope that this trend signals a real shift in the way that people think about androgyny. For those of us who are androgynous and ordinary people, not models or rock stars, it’d be nice if people started being more tolerant of us.”
Isabel Wilkinson is an assistant editor at The Daily Beast.