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 factAndrej 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.