One evening in late July, a fashion model in very short shorts was walking down Lafayette Street when a middle-aged guy in a baseball cap, pudgy and plodding, stopped dead in his tracks.
“Hey! Hey, you!” he called out in a thick Brooklyn accent, sidling up. “Are you a model?”
The model peered down at him and gamely grinned. “I am.”
“You’re gorgeous.” The man whistled through his teeth. “Shoot! Where are you, you know, illustrated in?”
“Oh, different places,” the model demurred.
“Well, you got my vote,” the guy said. “Man!” He shook his head in amazement and reluctantly continued down the street, completely unaware that the woman he had just encountered was not a woman at all but was in fact Andrej Pejic, a male model who has garnered much attention in the fashion world for his recent success modeling women’s clothing. That day, in addition to the shorts, Pejic was sporting a lacy black blouse over a black tank top, long blond hair, and smoky eyes. He had just come from a shoot for a Spanish magazine where he had shown to good effect a number of items generally considered to be in women’s domain: a floor-length wrap dress, a fur coat, a wide-brimmed felt hat, and, toward the end of the day, a rosy lip stain.
“What color did you use on his lips?” one of the women milling about the studio had asked the makeup artist.
“It’s sort of a berry,” he’d answered, at which point she ducked into the changing room and began dabbing the same shade on her own pout.
And so in moments like the one on Lafayette Street, when Pejic is the object of a clearly heterosexual advance, he does not usually choose to disabuse the potential suitor of his confusion, in part because he knows that the mistake is a fair one. When he first showed up at the Chadwick agency in Melbourne, Australia, the town where he grew up, he was quickly signed and just as quickly told he would be unlikely to find much work in the relatively macho Australian market: He was too beautiful to be an obvious choice for men’s campaigns, but he was not actually a woman. The next year, after Pejic graduated from high school and moved to London, his extreme androgyny made it difficult for him even to secure a British agent. “I remember it was raining and horrible,” he tells me. “I was walking in a street without an umbrella—it was a really dramatic, kind of movie moment—and I was just like, ‘Oh my God, I came to London, I spent my mom’s money, I’m not even gonna get an agency.’ ” He giggles in a low register and continues, “It was like Madonna going to Hollywood.” At Storm, the fifth agency he visited, owner Sarah Doukas—known for discovering Kate Moss—decided to take a chance on him. “When I first met Andrej, I didn’t think, What a beautiful boy or girl,” Doukas says. “I certainly didn’t want to put him in one particular box.” The agency posted him not just on the men’s board but also on the women’s.
In Europe’s fashion world, where the masculine ideal is a good deal less masculine, Pejic found some work, but he didn’t become one of the industry’s coveted items—the modeling world’s version of the Birkin or the Spy Bag or the Muse—until Carine Roitfeld, then editor-in-chief of French Vogue, decided to dress him as a woman for an editorial shoot. “Carine Roitfeld was just like, ‘Put him in Fendi!’ ” Pejic explains before adding, “My agency did ask me if I was comfortable with it, but I’ve been dressing in skirts since I was very little, so for me it was, ‘Of course.’ ”
Since then, “I guess professionally I’ve left my gender open to artistic interpretation,” he says. This past year, he walked in both men’s and women’s shows for Jean Paul Gaultier (who describes Pejic as an “otherworldly beauty”), and was cast as Gaultier’s bride—traditionally a line’s pièce de résistance—in his Spring 2011 couture show. For New York’s Fashion Week in February, he modeled in five shows for men and four for women. Even at men’s shows, Galliano put him in “a skimpy little singlet” and Gaultier dressed him as Betty Catroux, Yves Saint Laurent’s androgynous female muse. He’s been photographed by Steven Meisel and Juergen Teller. His mother has been on Australian television to talk about her son. He is now famous enough in that country that he wears sunglasses to go outside.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Pejic invites me along to a shoot he’s doing on the 32nd floor of a sleek apartment building in Tribeca. When we enter the main room, light is beaming in from a huge wraparound veranda with a view of Manhattan’s southern tip. The shoot’s creative director, Rushka Bergman—who for three years was also the stylist for that bygone pinnacle of androgyny, Michael Jackson—is wearing sunglasses the size of saucers and conferring with the makeup artist while another male model lounges about in an open leather shirt, occasionally flexing his pectorals. Music blares. Assistants flutter. Pejic is hustled into hair and makeup.
For even a moderately vain female, spending time with Pejic is like losing a race to someone who’s not even running: If he were not a man, he would be the most beautiful woman I have ever seen in the flesh—which, in his case, is flawless and poreless and has an English-rose luster. His mussed blond locks and the rounded width of his cheekbones bring to mind a young Brigitte Bardot. At 19 years old, he is six-foot-one, thin as the stroke of a paintbrush, and wears a women’s size 11 shoe, which he says is hard to find in couture but is sometimes carried at DSW. He is fey but not flamboyant. His only apparent physical imperfection is a pair of moles that hover gracefully over his lip on the right side of his slightly feline face. They are sometimes, albeit rarely, Photoshopped out.
For the shoot, Pejic is to channel a young Judy Garland while dressed in a short brown wig, ripped fishnet tights, an A-line skirt, and a tuxedo jacket. “Do you want, like, a drunk Judy Garland?” hairstylist Raymond McLaren asks of Bergman, who does not deign to answer. McLaren begins stuffing Pejic’s hair up under a wig cap. “If I didn’t have a wife and two kids and a pit bull, I’d ask you out,” he ventures.
Pejic smiles politely. “And I might say yes.”
“What did you do before you were you?”
“I was cleaning toilets in a strip club,” Pejic replies, not missing a beat.
“Really?” McLaren fingers a hairpin. “Fuck yeah, man.”
Pejic was born in Tuzla, Bosnia, several months before the start of the Bosnian war. His family was middle-class—Pejic’s Serbian mother was a lawyer, and his Croatian father an economist—but the war put his parents’ nationalities on opposite sides of the regional divide. When his mother, Jadranka, fled to Serbia with Pejic and his older brother, Igor, his father stayed behind. The family was granted refugee status when Pejic was 8, and Jadranka moved with her mother and children to Broadmeadows, a working-class suburb of Melbourne, and went back to school to become a teacher. “I was like, ‘I’ll go if I get a new PlayStation,’ ” says Pejic. “That’s how you think at that age.”
“I want to look like me. It just so happens that some of the things I like are feminine.”
Though he remembers the NATO bombings, he describes his childhood as fairly carefree. He liked to play dress-up with the girls, pretending to be the Gypsy woman from his favorite South American soap opera. When he came to realize that his behavior was no longer viewed as acceptable for a boy, he says, he “closed in” for several years, but by age 13, “I just went, ‘Fuck it.’ I let the platinum blond out.” He dyed his hair and started wearing skinny jeans, which gave way to shopping in the women’s aisle and putting on makeup. “The way I need to look, it’s a very personal thing,” Pejic explains. “When I started experimenting, it was to make myself feel happy, to look in the mirror and be satisfied. I never did drag or anything like that. It was always that I wanted to be pretty, to look beautiful, as a girl would want to.”
Pejic was initially worried about how his family would respond, but quickly learned he needn’t be. Igor proved protective of a brother who, more and more, was acting like a sister. Their father was a continent away (Pejic says they talk on the phone, but rarely). As for his mother and grandmother, he explains that “both of them sacrificed their lives for their children, so to just turn their back on them because of a natural thing would be quite strange.” His mother’s main concern was his safety, but high marks earned him a spot at a selective high school in central Melbourne known for being artsy and progressive (Olivia Newton-John is an alum), and elsewhere he found he could actually pass as a teenage girl. “Even walking in this industrial area, people just didn’t notice,” says Pejic. “That was kind of my little escape.” His current success is a source of pride: “My mum follows everything and posts everything on Facebook and tells all her friends.” When Jadranka saw images of her son as the Gaultier bride, she told the Australian program Sunday Night, “He’s the most beautiful girl I’ll ever see in a wedding dress.”
By now, Pejic has fully embraced a look of gender-bending, rocker couture: ripped jeans and cut-up T-shirts and shorts that would seem to leave nothing to the imagination except that, in his case, they obviously do. “It’s not like, ‘Okay, today I want to look like a man, or today I want to look like a woman,’ ” he says. “I want to look like me. It just so happens that some of the things I like are feminine.”
In fact, to even describe his look as androgynous feels somewhat misleading; most strangers who encounter Pejic do not seem to doubt that he is a woman. He has only the faintest trace of an Adam’s apple. His jawline has remained delicate, and he shaves his legs but has no chest or facial hair to speak of. (“Feel my face,” he says at one point, grabbing my hand and bringing it up to his cheek, which indeed had only a light dusting of peach fuzz.) While I was with him, waitresses asked if we “ladies” needed anything else. People at shoots referred to him as “her.” “I don’t feel the need to explain myself,” says Pejic, who has nicknamed his androgyny and its concomitant confusion “the situation,” as in “they didn’t notice the situation” or “the Japanese just loved the whole situation” or “I like having a level of mystery to this whole situation.”
And though he may not exactly bristle at the gender distinctions made by others, he does question their underlying assumptions. “In this society, if a man is called a woman, that’s the biggest insult he could get.” He arches his eyebrows skeptically and asks, “Is that because women are considered something less?” Later, he tells me, “I know people want me to sort of defend myself, to sit here and be like, ‘I’m a boy, but I wear makeup sometimes.’ But, you know, to me, it doesn’t really matter. I don’t really have that sort of strong gender identity—I identify as what I am. The fact that people are using it for creative or marketing purposes, it’s just kind of like having a skill and using it to earn money.”
Androgyny has been a selling point in the fashion world at least since Coco Chanel jettisoned corsets in favor of sailor suits, but it’s always been a trickier, and more sexualized, endeavor with men. In the sixties, April Ashley’s career was destroyed when she was discovered to be a transsexual. Since then, there has generally been a level of campiness to men who modeled as women: Teri Toye, Connie Girl, and Candy Darling, Andy Warhol’s transgendered muse, all had a quality Pejic refers to as “We’re fabulous; fuck off” and which he views as less progressive because it drew attention to gender rather than moving beyond it. What he and others like the transsexual runway model Lea T (who was in a recent Riccardo Tisci campaign for Givenchy) are doing is sidestepping the gender issue altogether by not only passing as women but even managing to be a more ideal version of the impossibly hipless and curveless women the fashion industry fetishizes. Designers can use them and feel progressive without having to actually challenge the aesthetic norm. “I think it’s the first time that it’s becoming so mainstream,” says Cator Sparks, the editor-in-chief of Lookbooks.com. “I don’t think it’s a shtick anymore. The white girl is dead—or at least she needs to amp it up a little bit.”
Pejic does acknowledge, however, that there is a difference, if only a subtle one, in how he models the clothes: With men’s, his movements are simpler, he tries to be stronger; with women’s, he can be more fluid and dramatic. And for womenswear, he has had to lose weight to make sure that his arms can fit through the sleeves of sample sizes; as narrow as his frame is, he still has the bone structure of a man. He does cardio and is careful not to bulk up. “Not that I’ve ever wanted to,” he shrugs. “But most female models don’t have any muscle mass. It’s a delicate state to be in.” Still, he has the metabolism of a college-age boy, which one can tend to forget is what he is. Just before the shoot, we’d dined at an Italian restaurant where he’d ordered shrimp scampi over a large bowl of pasta and eaten every bite. It did not seem to slow him down at the photo shoot.
“Boot-ee-fool, boot-ee-fool,” Bergman, who happens to be Serbian, calls out as Pejic swivels his hips and thrusts out his arms and widens his mouth like an old-school chanteuse. “I want you to feeeeeel this!”
Soon fog machines are brought out and Pejic is put in a sequined gown and top hat. He morphs from Judy Garland into a snarling dervish in a matter of moments, lashing his head around and baring his teeth at the camera, disappearing into a cloud of fog and then reappearing in a beautifully contorted new pose. His ability to transform himself—a handy skill for any model—is impressive but not surprising, if one considers that changeability has been his constant.
“He is a chameleon, a genius,” Bergman murmurs. “There is nothing more boo-tee-fool, Andrej, than you!”
As sheer elation over what is being captured on-camera spreads throughout the room, Bergman and McLaren rush into the foggy frame to grasp Andrej about the shoulders like two proud parents before calling the shoot a wrap. Slowly the smoke clears, the makeup and wigs are packed away, and the cast of characters dissipates.
“Oh my God, it’s like working on a Tim Burton film!” Pejic says as the elevator rushes 32 flights down.
A few days before, Pejic had attended a party at the James hotel, arriving in a cloud of flowery perfume with Kendall Werts, one of the younger agents at DNA Model Management, the firm that provides Pejic American representation. The agency had signed him sight unseen, Werts told me, or, rather, after seeing only his book. Pejic showed up at the agency in head-to-toe black and a Gaultier jacket so tight that it appeared to be swaddling him, “as if he’s like, ‘This is what a New York woman looks like,’ ” says Werts. “When the door opened, it was like, ‘Oh my God, he’s everything.’ ”
Though no one seemed to know exactly what the James-hotel party was for, it was a swanky affair. Waiters circled with bottles of Champagne and canapés. A collection of photographers and reporters were flocked at the entrance to the roof terrace to catch the more esteemed guests on their way outside. In the glow of the flash, Pejic pursed his lips and narrowed his bedroom eyes, enjoying the scene. “I like to party,” he’d told me earlier. “You know, quite hard-core partying. I feel like at this age, it’s appropriate.” At the bar, he was introduced to another male model from DNA who looked him up and down.
“He thought you were hot,” Werts laughed, after the guy walked away.
“My whole life is controversy. What can I do? I’m like Britney Spears!”
“He thought I was a girl,” Pejic pointed out.
“He’s a model and a power broker. You want a date with the most eligible bachelor in New York City?”
Pejic smirked. “I want to be the most eligible bachelor in New York City.”
Pejic is surprisingly cagey about his love life, and especially so about his sexual orientation. He says he tends to attract straight men and bi-curious women, “like the wilder girls,” but in keeping with his philosophy that, for him at least, gender is irrelevant, he won’t get specific about who attracts him. “You know, I wouldn’t say that I’m really a sexual person,” he said—a statement that’s almost impossible to believe. “But I do appreciate love, and I would love to experience it someday. I don’t think I have yet.” When pressed, the only trait he’ll admit he finds alluring is humor. “I find myself to be quite sarcastic, and I wouldn’t want to be with someone who didn’t get that.”
Later, standing by the pool on the hotel terrace, he told Werts about a stunt he pulled at the airport in Brazil. “You know how those Victoria’s Secret models, they have a baby and then they pop it out and then the next week, they’re skinny and they’re shooting and they’re on the runway?” Pejic paused for dramatic effect. “Well, I was going to do it in a day. That was the idea.” Having told his agents to alert the press to “a surprise,” he’d arrived at the airport with a foam-filled baby bump, only to be apprehended at customs by officers who thought he might be smuggling drugs in his belly.
“And then did they let you keep it?” Werts asked of the phantom child.
“They let me keep it!”
“Well, that was nice of them.”
“One of them was like, ‘You could have fooled me.’ ”
“I think that’s kind of genius,” Werts marveled. “I mean, it’s crazy.”
Not all of Pejic’s efforts at subverting gender have been met with such approval. This past spring, Barnes & Noble allegedly required an issue of Dossier in which he appeared bare-chested on the cover to be wrapped in opaque plastic, fearing that customers would think the image was of a topless woman. The bookstore later denied making such a request. Then FHM issued a formal apology after referring to him as a “thing” when their readers voted him the 98th sexiest woman in the world. The controversy only augmented his career. “I was kind of like, Mmm, I’m getting all this press,” he said. “My whole life is controversy. What can I do? I’m like Britney Spears!”
Initially, Pejic was fashion’s best cut-rate deal: Clients could have him model women’s clothing while not paying him the full women’s rate. Now that he’s a known quality, he’s commanding pay based more on his reputation than his gender, but he still has not made as much as a woman in his position might. “I don’t get out of bed for less than $50 a day,” he deadpanned. “I want to make that clear to America. This is a new age of androgynous supermodels. We don’t get out of bed for less than $50 a day.”
He said it took him seven months of working to become self-sustaining. In the year since reaching that milestone, he’s worked all around the world, never staying longer than a few weeks in any one place. He’s lived in model apartments, slept on friends’ sofas, been put up by agencies. “You can only have so much of a base in this job because it is very transient just by its nature, but it would be nice to have a place to put my stuff, kind of call home,” he said. He hopes in the next few months to be able to settle in New York—“I mean, all the big girls live here”—but plans to live with roommates.
Though he once joked to a reporter that he’d get a sex change if that would secure him a Victoria’s Secret campaign (“You’d kind of have to, wouldn’t you?”), he knows his look will never become commercial enough to command that kind of money, nor is a sex change something he’s really considering. “Obviously, as a kid you’d think about it—What would life be like if I was born a girl? and stuff. But at this point, I’m happy with the situation as it is.”
Already, Pejic’s success has prompted copycats, agencies scrambling to fill their rosters with sweet-faced boys with peroxide hair. “Since we have him, we are inundated with requests,” Werts said. “People think the floodgates will open.”
Knowing the fashion world’s obsession with the perpetually new, Pejic is saving his money and contemplating how to parlay his good fortune into something else: maybe a reality-TV show, maybe a book, maybe Hollywood. Still, on the hotel roof that night, with the cinematic view and the flashing bulbs and the jobs booked well into the future, there was at least the whiff of longevity.
“Everybody wants to be a part of the moment,” Werts said emphatically. “And he’s very good at prolonging every moment.”
“Yeah,” Pejic added. “When you think I’m going down, I’ll come back with a sex tape, do you know what I mean? I’d bring in latex, make it really fashion, really artsy. Do a proper sex tape.”
“You would have a stylist involved.”
“Oh, I would bring it out,” Pejic said, raising a glass of pink Champagne.