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Munroe Bergdorf: ‘The more trans models become visible, the more they become normalised’

I started in modelling around 2011 at a time when the fashion industry was really interested in androgyny, but there weren’t any conversations going on about trans models, apart from maybe Lea T, modelling for Givenchy. She was the exception to the rule. I didn’t have any trans role models but when I knew I wanted to transition, around the age of 19, Isis King was on America’s Next Top Model. She was the first trans woman I could relate to. Then, when I was 26 and a few years into my transition, Laverne Cox and Janet Mock came out, and all of these amazing women started sharing their stories. It made me feel a lot less alone.

I became an activist by accident. I got booked on a job for Uniqlo in 2016 – my first big campaign – and they wanted me to speak about my experience of being transgender and black in Britain. I hadn’t come across that before; I had always just been cast as the token trans model. That opened my eyes to how I could use this platform to make change happen.

My experience with L’Oréal in 2017 taught me to be more mindful of the companies I become involved with. It was a diversity campaign that used my appearance but didn’t allow me my voice, and I was dropped after making comments about systemic racism on social media. Even so, it’s hard for me to say I wouldn’t do it again. What came out of it has been greater than what it was intended to be in the first place.

It’s also important to have a dialogue with people who might oppose your views, as I did with Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain. It’s not really about him, it’s about the viewers and getting them to think, and exposing a different point of view. If you’re only speaking to people who think the same as you, you are just existing in an echo chamber.

Sao blue denim jacket, £741,
Isabel Marant.
Styling: Jo Jones. Fashion Assistant: Penny Chan. Hair: Edmund Bossman. Make-up Bianca Spencer. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

I remember when you could just enjoy images or music and not know what the model or pop star’s political beliefs were – but that is not the way we work now. It’s a good thing; people want to know what their money is going towards and who they’re investing in. Just look at Naomi Campbell: she’s been hugely vocal about the rights of black people and being a dark-skinned model. She’s paved the way for so many black models. Even if you don’t want to use your voice, you can still use your platform and your privilege. It’s a waste if you don’t.

Inclusivity within modelling is increasing but there’s still a long way to go. I am seeing so many more trans women in shows and it’s great that it’s not that big a deal now. I also think it’s important that your team is as diverse as the people you’re putting in front of the camera. New York fashion week this season was awash with trans models: Dominique Jackson, Leiomy Maldonado, Carmen Carrera, Chella Man. It feels so good to see a trans brother or sister up there killing it. It’s working towards a true reflection of society.

But there are also still occasions when trans women are excluded outright, as they were with last year’s Victoria’s Secret show. [The brand’s chief marketing officer Ed Razek commented that he didn’t think trans models should be included in the lineup “because the show is a fantasy”.] It’s a real shame. I know so many trans people who got their first bra from Victoria’s Secret. The brand does set a standard of what is deemed sexy and fashionable within the industry – they could harness that power to make positive changes. However, they seem insistent on hiring only extremely skinny, toned and tall women. Those models are undoubtedly beautiful but that is not an accessible body type to market as the standard for all. I would love it if they included all shapes, sizes and gender identities.

Pink cropped top, £150, Acne Studios from
Matches Fashion.
Styling: Jo Jones. Fashion Assistant: Penny Chan. Hair: Edmund Bossman. Make-up Bianca Spencer. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

At the start of my transition, my idea of beauty was very performative. The more feminine I looked, the more I felt validated in my gender identity. As I’ve grown, navigating my sexuality, I’ve become more comfortable embracing the masculine elements of my identity. I don’t have to wear a dress and makeup all the time, I’m often a tomboy, but it’s taken time for me to be comfortable with who I am and how I look. I think we will get to a place where trans women – and men – are accepted into the mainstream idea of what is “sexy” but ultimately it will involve taking the power away from the male gaze. Women don’t just want to be sexy for men any more, we want to celebrate ourselves the way we are.

I always say that if you can’t see it, you can be it – but it’s 10 times harder. The more trans models become visible and vocal, the more they become normalised in the eyes of wider society. And, of course, it is normal – we’re a super-small section of society but that doesn’t mean our rights aren’t valid or necessary. Our experience may seem a lot more “otherworldly” than it actually is, but we get up, we work, we have ambition, we have drive – probably more than most because there’s so much we’re up against.

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