Australian model Andreja Pejic has undergone sex reassignment surgery to become a woman.
Andreja Pejic, who stands 6-foot-1 in stocking feet, and a good deal taller than that in heels, looks every bit the model. She is possessed of bottle-blond hair that falls past her shoulders, full lips, a wasp waist and a pair of Cindy Crawford beauty marks just north of her upper lip. (Even Crawford has only one.)
On Labor Day, just back in New York from a vacation with her mother and grandmother in Italy, Pejic, 23, arrived at her agency's office in a leather pencil skirt from Ports 1961 and a silk Calvin Klein blouse, a picture of elegance compromised only by the occasional glimpse of a peach lace bra.
It was a far cry from the look she cultivated when she first appeared on the fashion scene typically dressed in a punkish, provocative mixture of men's and women's wear. 'I had fun with androgyny, I had fun being rock 'n' roll,' she said. 'But now it's time to be chic.'
Outside, hundreds of young models, most not as striking or as experienced as Pejic, are wandering wide-eyed through a city many of them barely know, portfolios in hand. They are going from casting call to casting call, rarely knowing their shifting schedules more than a few hours in advance, in the hope of being selected for runway shows. They have descended en masse upon New York for fashion week, which began on Thursday and runs through next week. Later, they will arrive, as if by airlift, in London, then Milan, then Paris, as the international round of fashion weeks moves across the globe.
But Pejic is no longer pounding the pavement. She is taking meetings, exploring collaborations and hoping to secure a spot in a top show. The signal difference between her and every other wraith-thin young woman swarming the environs of Madison Square Park, where a concentration of top modeling agencies have offices, is that she has already had a years long and very successful career as a male model named Andrej Pejic.
And now, after several months away from the business, she is waiting to see whether a major designer - indeed, the entire fashion establishment - will accept her as a woman.
Four years ago, Pejic arrived in Europe and became a fast favorite of editors and designers, especially those with a rebellious bent. Her first professional job landed her on the cover of Oyster, an Australian fashion magazine, and during her first Paris season, she was cast by men's wear designers including Paul Smith, John Galliano, Raf Simons and Jean Paul Gaultier, who became a major supporter. 'I worked a suit very well,' Pejic said.
Androgyny had always been a major part of her (back then, his) appeal. She had alternated in her youth between embracing her femininity and concealing it, first as a child growing up in a refugee camp in Serbia during the Bosnian War, then as an preadolescent émigré to Australia. The Australian agency that signed her as a male model, after a scout found her working behind the counter of a Melbourne McDonald's on New Year's Eve 2007, loved her resemblance to its top female model, Jessica Hart. Australian Vogue later photographed them side by side.
But what Pejic did not disclose to her agents was that her androgyny was caused in part by Androcur, a synthetic hormone she was taking to suppress her development. She had already privately acknowledged her gender dysphoria and had begun treatment, first secretly, then with the support of her family. It was the thought of raising money for an eventual transition that spurred her to model at all.
Her androgyny endeared her to some, but in other corners of the male modeling world, pressure to conform grew.
Andreja Pejic was still Andrej Pejic when she was cast by Jean Paul Gaultier in his haute couture show in 2011.
'When I first went to Milan, my agent said you have to give off a strong, masculine energy,' Pejic said. 'They don't like campiness. They like boys to appear straight and to appear masculine. I quickly learned the game of it, and how to navigate around it.'
Even so, a nagging fear set in: that modeling, initially undertaken to make her transition possible, was taking her farther from it. 'I would call my mum,' she said, 'and say, 'Who's ever going to accept me as a woman if the whole world knows me as a boy?' '
But in following seasons, Gaultier cast her not only in his men's wear show and print ad campaign, but also in his haute couture show, in the coveted show-closing position traditionally known as the mariée - the bride.
From then on, Pejic worked continuously, racking up magazine shoots in both men's and women's clothing. She was featured in ads for men's wear by Marc by Marc Jacobs, Neil Barrett and Martyn Bal, and for women's wear by Silvian Heach and the Dutch retailer Hema, for which she modeled a push-up bra.
Her popularity surged. According to Stephan Moskovic, the founder and editor of Models.com, which compiles unofficial rankings, by 2011, Pejic climbed to No. 11 of the site's list of top male models, and her profile on the site received the most Facebook 'likes' of any model - male or female.
More and more, Pejic was pursued by magazines looking to shoot her in women's clothing, or a combination of men's and women's clothing. An eager press flocked to tell her story and explain, if it could, her otherworldly beauty. New York Magazine put her on the cover of its fall fashion issue in 2011, profiling her as 'The Prettiest Boy in the World' with 'only the faintest trace of an Adam's apple' and peach-fuzzed cheeks. No hormone treatments were mentioned.
The androgynous life might have been satisfying initially; Pejic was working regularly and well-known enough that playing 'masculine' was not only no longer required, but barely sought. But it wasn't enough. Tired of putting off her dream any longer, she decided to undergo sex reassignment surgery.
'I wasn't sure going into this what would happen with my career,' she said. 'There are agents that would tell me: 'Don't ever do it. Don't transition. You'll lose everything.' '
But at the end of last year, she stepped back from the fashion world and found a surgeon to perform the operation. She prefers not to disclose specifics about the procedure other than to say, 'I identify as a woman first but I am also proudly trans.'
Pejic is not the first transgender model to achieve success. Transgender women have appeared on the runway and in fashion magazines (albeit in some cases without acknowledging being transgender publicly) since before the word was coined, including April Ashley in the 1960s, Tula in the 1970s, Teri Toye in the 1980s and Connie Fleming in the 1990s.
Transgender models are now becoming more common and more open. The Brazilian model Lea T, a muse to Riccardo Tisci of Givenchy, appeared in the label's ad campaigns and on its catwalk. In January, Barneys New York debuted an advertising campaign featuring transgender models, with great success. Some already had runway experience; others signed to agencies following the ads' debut.
'It was truly thrilling to see how receptive the media and public was to the campaign,' Dennis Freedman, Barneys's creative director, wrote in an email.
Nor is Pejic the only transgender model hoping to work during this New York Fashion Week. May Simon, a transgender woman represented by Click Model Management, who was one of the models from the Barneys campaign, is in New York attending castings, her agent, Harold Mindel, confirmed, and appeared in the Chromat show on Thursday.
Stav Strashko, who appears androgynous but does not identify as transgender, is male and on the women's board at his agency, One Management, the first man to be so represented. He already has been booked for some New York shows, including DKNY on Sunday, said Scott Lipps, One's owner and president. 'It's become more apparent that people are very open to this idea,' Lipps said.
But Pejic is in the unique position of having transitioned in the public eye. 'In the beginning, I was worried there are too many shots of me as a boy out there,' she said. 'Now I'm at a point where I know my past doesn't make me any less of a woman today. I can be proud of it. I don't have to bury it.'
Instead, she has made her story a key component of her public persona. She has sold a memoir based on her experience to Penguin Books Australia, and hopes to find an American publisher. With a filmmaker friend, Eric Miclette, she is creating a documentary about her experience. They are soliciting support to finish the film via a Kickstarter campaign starting today.
It falls to her new agency, the Society Management, to facilitate what is essentially a rebranding. 'I think that a lot of people would associate her with a niche market, something really cool or even underground,' said Christopher Michael, an executive agent there. 'I think that she represents so much more than that ... she herself is much more interested in a global audience.'
Unlike her former agency, DNA Model Management, which has men's and women's boards, the Society Management represents only women.
'There were some people who were a little bit uncertain going into that meeting initially,' Michael said of the agency's decision to represent Pejic.
Their strategy for Pejic is different from the one she pursued as an alternative, androgynous male model. Michael said the Society instead is hoping to attract 'classic American brands like a Donna' (meaning Karan); powerhouse European labels including Céline, Chanel, Fendi, Roberto Cavalli and Prada; and lucrative cosmetics endorsements. He acknowledged that this would potentially require turning down edgier designers and companies that had supported Pejic in the past.
But will mainstream companies be willing to invest in a transgender woman to represent their brands, on the mostly untested assumption that she will inspire consumers to identify with her, and to spend?
Casting directors seem sanguine about Pejic's chances. 'I think a lot of people would probably be willing,' said James Scully, who casts fashion shows for Carolina Herrera, Derek Lam, Jason Wu, Tom Ford and Stella McCartney. 'I don't think it would be now so far-fetched, if it really truly were a beautiful girl I could put in front of a client.' He paused to add: 'Depending on who the client was.'
He noted that he was 'not aware that she's being marketed this season for show season,' and that such conversations would likely have already taken place. (He estimated that shows across the board are 70 percent cast in advance, with 30 percent happening during castings, mostly for new faces.) He guessed that she would appear exclusively for one or a small handful of major houses.
At press time, a representative for the Society was not able to confirm any bookings, citing ongoing negotiations. 'I would not rule it out, that's for sure,' Scully said of the likelihood of Pejic's success. 'She could be the Laverne Cox of the modeling world, really get out there and turn the tables.' (Cox is the Emmy-nominated transgender actress and star of 'Orange Is the New Black' who appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in June under the headline 'The Transgender Tipping Point.')
Pejic, who said she returned to modeling after her transition in part to be a role model for young trans people, is game to find out.
'It's definitely a different strategy now than it was before,' she said. 'I want to go for something more classic. To show the world I can be approachable, and not have them think of me as an alien. I feel that for a lot of my career, I had success, I was adored, but I was also this alien creature. I want to show that I have the skill like any other female model, and I'm asking for the same equal treatment and equal respect as any other female model.'