How Andreja Pejić Fashioned Her Own Version Of Womanhood
"Do you want to spend the rest of your life wondering what it would be like to feel completely comfortable in your own body?"
When she was 13 years old, Andreja Pejić googled the word "transitioning." Puberty was approaching, and she was loathe to see her body grow into something even further away from what she wanted to see in the mirror. Google helped her find the answers she needed. "I discovered it was a national community, and there were doctors, and medical help. It wasn't something 'freaky' or 'bizarre'; there was a system." She describes herself as a "geeky boy" eager to become physically female.
The visual of a "geeky boy" is hard to reconcile with the ethereal supermodel we see draped in couture fashions today. Known for her ability to conquer the runway dressed as a man or woman, androgyny has been her schtick since Andreja was known as Andrej. In 2011, New York magazine named Pejić "The Prettiest Boy in the World," a title Pejić wasn't altogether comfortable with. "The plan was to enjoy modeling, then get out, and transition. The more and more known I became, the harder that goal was. The whole world already knew me."
Well before the world knew her name, Pejić lived with her family in a Serbian refugee camp. Despite their living conditions, she describes her childhood as carefree. "I remember playing in the street a lot. I adored South American soap operas and pretending to speak Spanish. I had a happy childhood, but not a lot of material things." Pejić's mother, Jadranka Savić, had been formally educated as a lawyer, but took a series of a rural jobs to support her children, Andreja, and her brother Igor. Pejić's parents were divorced, and even with the help of her own mother, Jadranka found it difficult to provide for her family.
"I think my mom and grandma struggled a lot to provide for us. There were almost no jobs. We could barely afford honey."
Once the family immigrated to Australia, they found slightly less financial hardship, but now had to deal with assimilating. At 9 years old, Pejić did not blend into her new surroundings seamlessly. "I was a very shy child. I was learning how to navigate a different world in several ways: a whole new language, a whole new culture. It was very different from European culture. Even things as simple as asking your grandmother to pack you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, instead of a lasagna. I did that just so I could fit in with the other Australian kids."
What Pejić found hardest to assimilate to in her new surrounding wasn't the culinary fare, but gendered expectations she was reluctant to take on. "I could no longer get away with playing with dolls. I had to integrate into a boy. In order to not be bullied, and not be seen as weird, and not be an outsider. I learned how to behave like a boy and suppress my natural characteristics, the way I walked and the way I talked. It was just about getting through the day without too much trouble. It wasn't the best time in my life."
Pejić believes she survived this particular time in her life due to a rich fantasy life inside her own head. "I was saved by my imagination. I would imagine what it would be like to go shopping with my mother as a girl. Some would say these were really mundane things, but I would dream about what life would be like as a girl, and it made me very happy."
Pejić's decision to transition was not as sudden as it seemed. She's been transitioning since she was 13 years old. "I ordered medication online, saw doctors, and I came out to my mom. Once I had the support of my family, I had more confidence. Then, I started going to a liberal high school." It was at University High that Pejić first embraced an androgynous identity. "Androgyny became a way of expressing my femininity, being pretty, and wearing girly clothing or unisex clothing. I didn't have to explain things about gender identity, sexuality, or genetics. It didn't have to go that deep and I felt like my peers wouldn't understand what it means to be trans."
Still, it was her androgynous look that first got her noticed in the fashion industry, and ultimately catapulted her into a career as one of the most sought-after high fashion models, something Pejić says she never saw coming. "I didn't expect to become famous. I didn't expect to have the career that I have. I became kind of a poster child for androgyny. In the beginning I wasn't ready to talk about wanting to transition or my internal feelings about gender dysmorphia, because it's one thing to come out to your mom; it's another to come out to the public."
Pejić notes the intensely image-conscious fashion community as just one of the reasons she didn't initially come out as trans. Despite her involvement in the community, few knew about her desire to transition. "Some people were very supportive and some people thought I would lose something, that I would no longer be special. I'm still the same person with the same ideas. But I had to do it for myself. I couldn't worry about doing it for anyone else." So how did she get to the point where she felt safe to tell the world she was a woman, and have the surgery she'd wanted since she was 13? "At the beginning of last year, I sat myself down and stared in the mirror and said, 'Do you want to spend the rest of your life wondering what it would be like to feel completely comfortable in your own body?'"
Pejić felt she was at a place where she had a lot to lose if her industry would not accept her as a trans woman. While recognizing this could be true, Pejić decided she didn't care. "You can't let your career decide anymore when you're going to do this. If I didn't do it then, I wouldn't have done it. I would have put it off for way too long, and I would be miserable. There was a need. A constant internal need. It was always there."
Nearly 10 years after searching Google for a way out of her body, Pejić decided to have sexual reassignment surgery. She slowly let her close friends know what she was planning to do and received their loving support. One friend, filmmaker Eric Miclette, went even further than support and immediately encouraged Pejić to film the process of her transitioning. "We've worked on small projects before, and when I said, 'I'm going in for SRS in a few weeks,' he said, 'You need to get some footage. You have one chance and you need to tell your story.'"
At first, Pejić was reluctant. "I can't say that I wanted to capture that or that having a camera around was the way I dreamt of it being. It was a very personal thing and I wanted it to keep it that way. I'm a very private person, and yes, very shy. It wasn't my dream to have a camera there. But he really changed my mind about that. He asked me to think about the people who've had to hide their whole lives and who will find inspiration because you decided to go public with this." They decided to collaborate on an intimate documentary, with Pejić insisting she didn't want a lot of cameras involved, just Miclette.
For his own part, Miclette asked for access into the model's life, past and present, though neither of them wanted the documentary to be a "vanity project." In their commitment to this shared goal, Pejić is in no way involved in the film except as its focus. "I remain a subject of the documentary. I'm not a producer or a director. I think in order to create a critical work, an objective work, I needed to be a subject with no creative influence. I had to show the true me, and allow [Miclette] into my life completely, and not worry about looking good all the time or saying the right thing. I had to let go of all of that."
For now, Andrej(a) is still in production with a Kickstarter campaign that has already raised over $25,000 to see it come to fruition as a distributable film. Since the launch of the campaign, Pejić has been most excited to see messages and mail from the people she believes need to see this film most. "We've been getting all kinds of incredible messages, many of them from parents. I think parents are a big target for this because I was lucky to have a family, and to have their support. Too many kids in the LGBT community are being abandoned. It's not right. Everyone should have their parents' support. I hope this film brings parents understanding."
Pejić says that while her mother was supportive, she was also concerned about the quality of life her child could expect to lead as a trans woman, something her daughter worried about as well. Ultimately, it was the desire for a life lived most authentically that gave Pejić the confidence she needed to "feel comfortable in her own skin." That happiness is something she thinks all parents want for their children, and something more trans folks can have access to with more understanding. She said, "Transitioning isn't just physical, it's also social. It's not enough to just change your looks and your body; you also have a need to be accepted by society and the people around you in the gender role that you feel you are. I definitely feel like I'm more comfortable. I feel like I can live the life of being a girl I've always wanted."