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.