Rebecca Kamm

Poking a stick at ladies' issues, pop culture, and other cutting-edge curiosities.

Rebecca Kamm: When a man models as a woman

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Model of the moment Andrej Pejic is a man who models as a woman.Photo / AP
Model of the moment Andrej Pejic is a man who models as a woman.Photo / AP

Androgynous model Andrej Pejic has made the cover of a mainstream women's title for the first time this month, in the form of Serbian Elle. In doing so, he's also made history - as the first transgender model to appear on the cover of the high-end fashion magazine.

You may have already heard of the startlingly pretty 22-year-old, or observed his incredulously sharp cheekbones. You might have even flicked through a fashion editorial and mistaken him for yet another impossibly lean model of the female kind. His photos have featured in French Vogue, Italian Vogue, Arena Homme+, Japanese Vogue Hommes, i-D, Numero, W, Dossier, Fashion, and New York.

But there's no mistaking that Pejic is a man. In an age of digital manipulation, there's no covering up of his strong jawline or adam's apple. On the contrary - fashion insiders make much of the fact he is a man, hammering home his ever-shifting, fluid gender identity in both copy and image.

Which begs the question: does Pejic's success signal a movement in the fashion industry towards broader definitions of beauty? Or is the appearance of non-traditional models - 83-year-old Daphne Selfe, for example, or Beth Ditto for LOVE magazine - merely lip service to difference, with the added benefit of avant-garde kudos?

Anomaly in fashion invariably comes hand-in-hand with fanfare, which in turn smacks of tokenism - the enemy of real acceptance. In 2005, John Galliano flung an array of non-traditional models down the runway: fat women, young twins, elderly men, giants and dwarves. It was, undoubtedly, a statement - but about what? The indefinable nature of beauty, the beauty inherent in difference, or Galliano's abilities as a shock-loving showman?

(The designer has since been revealed as a bigoted, mean-spirited man, so to many the answer now seems clear.)

In Pejic's case, it might seem counter-intuitive to question anything about the model's rise. "When I was about 10 years old, I did everything I could to act like a normal boy," he told a Polish magazine, "But it was hard."

Now, thanks to his modelling success, he's traveled from a place of insecurity and uncertainty to the lofty heights of fashion adulation and self-acceptance. Which, don't get me wrong, is a wonderful, wonderful thing. For Pejic, the painful pretence that plagued his youth is clearly over.

But, in its place lies an uncomfortable reality, and that is that his difference is now lit up in neon lights. And that doesn't feel like real acceptance. Because if it ain't no thang that he's a boy who feels like and looks like and works as a girl, there's really no reason to make that thang a selling point. Or employ it as a vehicle to demonstrate broad-mindedness.

Then there's the added confusion caused by the fact Pejic falls neatly into fashion's strict runway model criteria. There's no denying it - he's white, young, and thin. He looks, gender aside, like almost every other catwalk model. So, in a sense, his difference is undeniably 'safe'. The clothes still hang just so, with no breasts or hips in the way. The camera still fawns lasciviously over the elegant angles of his face and figure.

Were it not for those neon lights, there is, arguably, little difference at all between Pejic and his fellow female models.

Which leads many to ask: Is there something insidious about the fact that one of the world's most successful female models is a man? Is this how far fashion's distaste for women's 'curves' has gone - it's ultimate manifestation? Maybe the only people who can fit sample sizes these days are thin 22-year-old boys. And maybe that's thanks to gay designers behind the scenes, with their abhorrence of real women's bodies.

Except, there's something nasty about that argument. It's homophobic. Put simply, models are models because they have a particular body shape that's both extremely rare, and - thanks to social conditioning, or whatever else - seems to display clothing to best effect. After all, models were initially chosen for their thinness because they, quite literally, acted as live clothes hangers.

It could be said Pejic can model as a woman because 99 per cent of women aren't built like models anyway. That the fashion industry is accepting of his difference only because he happens to slot easily into its singular epitome of female beauty. The fact he is a man is really of little consequence, except that it works brilliantly as a bonus selling point for everyone involved: Pejic and his agents at Storm, stylists, magazine editors and designers.

And that's the crux of it, really. Transgender beauty should be celebrated, just like every other kind of beauty that diverges somehow from fashion's narrow paradigm. That's a given. But only when models like Pejic start appearing in magazines without their unorthodoxy shouted from the rooftops - just up there on the page with the clothes, all casual-like - will I be convinced by fashion's embrace of diversity.

So: does the rise of Pejic a sign that the fashion world is changing the definition of beauty, or that it thrives on tokenism? Or, even worse, is his success a darker reflection of how removed the fashion industry is from 'real' women?

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