At the Paris men’s fashion shows in June 2010, there was one question everyone was asking: ‘Who’s the blonde girl?’ It was Andrej Pejic, the 19-year-old Broadmeadows boy who’s taken the fashion industry’s breath away; whipping up a storm of delight, confusion and anticipation about androgyny in fashion.
Whippet-thin with impossibly long legs and a cascade of bottle-blonde hair, Pejic naturally turns heads. His striking Slavic features (he was born in Bosnia; his mother is Serbian and his father is Croatian) give him an astonishing beauty, but it’s his penchant for playing around with feminine clothing, accessories and hairstyles that has really captured people’s attention.
The look is Pejic’s own. From the age of 14, he started experimenting, bleaching his hair and trying different kinds of women’s clothing. ‘As a kid, you get to the stage where you realise the gender barriers that exist in society, and what you’re supposed to do and not supposed to do,’ he told the UK Telegraph earlier this year. ‘I really tried being someone else during that period. It was hard for me – not being able to express myself and feeling I had to be someone else. But now I’m comfortable in my skin, and for my look to be celebrated is great.’
Pejic was discovered by Chadwick Models in Melbourne just before his seventeenth birthday, and whisked off to model in Paris, Milan and New York as soon as he finished school. Jean-Paul Gaultier designed his autumn/winter 2011 menswear show entirely around Pejic as the keynote model, ‘James Blond’. A week later, Pejic brought down the house at Gaultier’s haute-couture womenswear show, utterly mesmerising as a sensual, show-stopping bride. Today, he’s the hottest thing on two legs – a designer’s dream who walks in high-end shows for Givenchy, features in ads for Marc by Marc Jacobs, and stars in fashion spreads for Vogue and i-D – wearing dresses, stilettos, corsets, skirts, and sometimes nothing at all.
I’m not exactly what you’d call a fashionista. There’s something too clumsy and unpolished about me, too inherently un-glamorous to ever be a part of that world. I admire fashion from afar, grabbing on to ideas or trends as they attract me instead of following it feverishly. But like most people, I’m dazzled by beauty – that surprising, utterly enthralling kind of beauty that touches something inside you and actually makes you ache.
The things I find the most beautiful are often the most unusual. And that’s what’s so intriguing about Pejic: he makes you look twice. At first glance of his milky-white figure, he has the same lithe, ethereal beauty we’re used to seeing in magazines. Then you notice there’s something different about his bone structure, something that isn’t quite the same as all the girls. In some pictures, the incongruity of his look – the flatness of his bare chest, the delicacy of his facial features – is emphasised to striking effect. It challenges the viewer to wonder: how is it that someone can look so excruciatingly pretty and still be a man?
Sociologists use the term androcentrism to describe the more complex form of sexism we see today, where instead of simply favouring men over women, it’s masculinity that is so often placed above femininity. It explains why, in general, we think it’s pretty cool when women play sports and drink beer, but it’s usually not considered equally as awesome for men to knit or get manicures. A little girl who likes to climb trees tends to cause less concern than a little boy who likes to play with dolls. While being a ‘tomboy’ is usually a fairly innocuous label these days, being a ‘sissy’ or looking or acting ‘like a girl’ is still an insult designed to shame.
The problem can be summed up by the exchange between two teenage siblings in the unsettling 1993 film The Cement Garden, an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel of the same name. When Jack walks in on his sister Julie dressing up their little brother in girls’ clothes, he thinks the situation is disgusting and ridiculous. Julie, with her cropped hair and practical clothes, calmly asks him, ‘Do I look ridiculous dressed like a boy?’ Jack struggles to explain why that’s different, but she’s got the answer. It’s acceptable for girls to adopt elements of boys’ clothing because masculinity is considered admirable. It’s only ‘degrading’ she says, for a boy to dress like a girl because femininity itself is seen as degrading.
The mainstream reaction to Pejic reaffirms this way of thinking. There are plenty of people who believe his look is not only degrading and ridiculous, but disgusting. Earlier this year, the UK edition of men’s magazine FHM posted a snarky article on its website ignorantly referring to Pejic as a ‘professional crossdresser’ and suggesting that ‘thing’ would be a more accurate way to describe him. Interestingly, the profile was written because readers had voted Pejic as number 98 on the list of the 100 Sexiest Women in the World; FHM complained of needing to reach for the ‘sick bucket’.
There are many men, of course, who want to explore a different side to themselves. In that disturbing, sexually charged moment in The Cement Garden, Julie, playfully tying a ribbon in a bow around Jack’s neck, teases, ‘Secretly, you’d love to know what it’s like, wouldn’t you? What it feels like for a girl?’
Nobody would ever quite mistake writer Jon-Jon Goulian for a girl. Bald-headed, muscular and covered in tattoos, he seems to have been sculpted out of a mould clearly marked ‘Man’. But in his midriff-skimming tank top, high-heeled boots, and signature grey flannel skirt (clasped, endearingly, with a shiny rhinestone buckle saying JON-JON), he’s the ultimate fish-out-of-water. His utterly lovable memoir, The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt, is a bittersweet account of his endless, flailing search for a place in a world that doesn’t quite know what to do with him.
Like Pejic, Goulian started experimenting with feminine fashion, accessories and grooming when he was in high school. At the time, he wasn’t aware of any meaning behind it. But now, aged 40 and with the benefit of hindsight, he explains that fashion was a shield. Plagued by an endless list of phobias, deeply insecure about his appearance and paralysed by his family’s high expectations and the shining examples of his two older brothers, Goulian’s retreat from traditional masculinity was an attempt to avoid judgment:
If I threw people off my scent with a ‘getup’ too sexually ambiguous to decipher, then people would have no way to judge me. If I was uncategorizable, so my reasoning went, I would be uncriticizable, because there would be no obvious standards of behavior to which I was supposed to conform… From a sexually neutered androgyne, wearing earrings and skirts and makeup and pearls and God only knows what else, we expect nothing.
This is all well and good, in theory. But unfortunately we still live in a society of categorisation and strict codes of gender and sexuality. ‘People hate to be confronted with indeterminacy. The uncategorisable is unsettling,’ Goulian quickly realised. ‘If I were a man in drag, people would know exactly what I am, or at least they would believe they know exactly what I am, and have fewer problems with me.’
Goulian happens to be heterosexual, which makes his clothing choices even more challenging. His grandparents, for example, are convinced that he is a ‘faygeleh’ (a Yiddish word loosely translating to ‘queer’ or ‘fairy’) and an ex-colleague branded him with the label ‘half a fag’. An entire chapter in his book is titled ‘Are You Gay?’ But to him, dressing in high heels and sarongs is a way that he can feel beautiful and special. Obsessed with his (mostly imaginary) physical flaws, adopting feminine ciphers of beauty was his solution to empowerment and happiness.
In the same way, Andrej Pejic naturally provokes curiosity about his sexual orientation. When you type his name into Google, one of the first search phrases suggested is ‘Andrej Pejic gay’. Pejic, wisely, evades the whole question. ‘People interpret me the way they want,’ he told G1 magazine. ‘Some girls want me to be their prince, while some boys want me to be their princess.’ To Italian Vanity Fair he said: ‘For me, love has no boundaries. And I have to confess that I really enjoy raising all this interest, so I will not tell you what side I’m on.’ On Twitter, he announced he was in a romantic relationship with his new Givenchy heels.
Fashion has always existed in a kind of alternate universe, where girls are stretched tall and wafer-thin and boys are beguilingly slim and athletic. All models look somewhat otherworldly, and while that’s problematic on a number of levels, it’s also what makes them so fascinating.
When I look at images of Pejic, I’m filled with a curious mix of admiration, envy and attraction. The first two are a familiar combination. A beautiful girl always evokes that kind of wistfulness in me, an admiration tinged with a longing to look as alluring as she does, despite the fact that I’m generally not sexually attracted to women. With Pejic, I’m captivated by his exquisite human form, almost as if it’s an artwork. At the same time, I’m wildly jealous of his beautiful cheekbones, his endlessly long legs, his perfectly tousled blonde hair. There’s also something about him that gives me butterflies.
All this is a strange feeling, but the tension between admiring his feminine beauty and finding him sexy as a man is precisely what makes him so enthralling. It makes me look for longer, and actually think about what I’m seeing, instead of just flipping the page.
Androgyny like Pejic’s presents a challenge and, although it provokes a lot of hostility, it also opens up discussions and ideas that are exciting. Pejic has become such a cult figure not just because he’s so freaking pretty, but because he embodies a different version of masculinity, one that suggests you can be a man, and still proudly embrace the fun and playful elements of femininity. In his own small way, he’s bridging the gap between the genders; the fact that his version of masculinity has been celebrated by the fashion world – if not quite by the real world – is a small step towards pluralism. And if nothing else, anything that beautiful can’t be a bad thing.