Model and activist Munroe Bergdorf is not one to mince her words. Passionate, forthright and focused, she’s a “role option”, as she puts it, with a message. When she’s not busy turning out looks on the catwalk, Munroe Bergdorf is using her voice to provoke conversation surrounding the issues close to her heart. Her activism covers everything from race relations to trans rights along with a whole gamut of justice-related issues in between. Her politics and passions are blended; she brings her principles with her wherever she goes. As stylish as she is articulate, Bergdorf transcends the norm: she’s carving out a space for greater visibility, not just for trans women and people of colour like herself but also for anyone who has been traditionally overlooked and underrepresented in the media.
Bergdorf has been a bright, authentic voice for some time but her public profile rose dramatically after a whirlwind “scandal” involving major cosmetics brand L’Oréal. After tapping the model to appear as the first transgender ambassador in a campaign championing diversity, the brand quickly backed out of the partnership with Bergdorf when an old Facebook post of hers, excoriating systemic racism following the tragic Charleston shooting, was published out of context by The Daily Mail. In the furore that ensured, rather than support her unapologetic stance on racial discrimination, L’Oréal distanced themselves from the very identity they’d tried to market in the first place. This didn’t deter Bergdorf. Instead, the brand’s misstep only propelled her to new heights. She appeared on everything from the evening news to breakfast chat shows to defend her position. Since then, the London-based activist has gone from strength to strength, harnessing the unsolicited publicity to amplify the voice of trans people, to champion diversity with an uncompromising dedication to inclusivity. Material caught up with Bergdorf in the midst of London Fashion Week to talk make-up, magic and the transformative power of standing up for what you believe in.
You’ve just got back from making your début at New York Fashion Week. What set you on the path to becoming the model and activist you are today?
My trans activism came out of frustration. I was transitioning and there were no voices out there that I could relate to. The race activism also came from frustration; even before Donald Trump, I could tell what direction we were going in. Things were getting progressively worse; I could see how the media talked about black people, about those who practice Islam. I was frustrated about general injustice and the lack of empathy for other people. If we really want any change then we need to be concerned with things that don’t affect us at all and to be able to stand up for people when we see things that are wrong happening to them. I think with my trans activism, I was in the right place at the right time and I’m able to articulate my words in a fairly succinct manner most of the time [laughs] so I think that caught people’s attention! I don’t mince my words, so people started listening.
These days, the media seems more willing to focus on issues like trans rights but coverage can feel quite myopic, with the focus purely on a person being trans. What’s missing from the coverage of the discussion of trans issues?
One of the most frustrating things is that trans people—in the British media anyway— aren’t afforded the luxury of just being a person and being good at something. It always has to be “trans journalist” or “trans athlete”. And sometimes I think the most exciting thing is just being visible! In my journey, I’ve been able to speak about race and politics and my gender has been an afterthought—it wasn’t what I was there to talk about. Obviously I enjoy talking about it and I think it’s important we do talk about it—that’s part of my job. But it’s not everybody’s job. Gender really isn’t that big of a deal to a trans person day to day. It becomes a big deal because it’s a big deal to other people.
It’s like how female musicians are constantly asked, “what’s it like being a woman in music?”
Yeah—it’s like saying someone’s a female lawyer. In a specific context, that’s a great achievement since law is such a male-dominated field but at the same time it has no bearing on that woman’s capabilities or the fact that she’s a lawyer. I’d like to see more celebration of trans people’s achievements simply for their achievements, not just because they’re trans.
Do you see it going that way now?
Visibility is a huge topic at the moment. I do see it largely in how I’m referred to as well. The liberal press is more likely to just refer to me by my profession rather than gender, which is always put in front of my name: “transgender model Munroe Bergdorf” rather than just “model Munroe Bergdorf”. I get frustrated with that sometimes because it has nothing to do with anything. But we’re in a time where language is adjusting and people are starting to figure things out.
Young people are more exposed to a broader array of people and identities through social media. Do you think there’s a generational gap in how accepting people are?
I do and I don’t. It comes down to the want to understand someone who’s different to you. I think it’s a lot more normalised for younger people, the fact that gender and sexuality are social constructs, and that there’s unnecessary emphasis on heteronormativity. Ultimately it boils down to a willingness to understand others, which the older generation have had to do anyway when it comes to race. I don’t think you can blame prejudice on age, it’s something in the human psyche and empathy is hugely lacking in today’s society.
You’ve worked with a lot of brands, like Illamasqua. Make-up is often dismissed as a superficial, female thing but it can be so transformative for the wearer. What does make-up mean to you?
It used to definitely play a part of covering something up but now I feel it’s a bit of a boost, to enhance what’s already there. And I’ve had to work for that. We put enormous pressure on women to be perfect in all aspects and one woman’s relationship with make-up is never going to be the same as another woman’s relationship with make-up, so to just blanket dismiss it is really harmful. To say a woman should feel comfortable in her own skin is ridiculous. It’s a vicious circle.
Make-up has traditionally been marketed to cis white women and yet it’s always held such a strong place in LGBTQ communities. Do you think social media stars like shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race have made make-up more accessible to LGBTQ young people who are interested in experimenting with it?
It makes me laugh actually because a lot of make-up techniques came from the LGBTQ community in the first place! Cis girls are looking more and more like drag queens these days! [laughs] There’s been a merging of the two experiences—overdrawn lips, big bold statement eyes, the strong eyebrows. I think the magnifying glass has been passed over the LGBTQ community and we’ve got a chance to shine because people are realising that we’re as talented as everybody else. Up until now, brands have just taken parts of people’s cultures and appropriated them for a different audience. Now, brands are realising that that’s not good enough; that it’s time to give people in the LGBTQ community a chance to shine.
We’re seeing an embrace of this customer base as brands are realising it sells to be “woke”. Having worked on various make-up campaigns, do you think there’s a line between authentically raising social awareness and simply cashing in on diversity?
You can definitely tell who cares by looking at how much they let the people they employ talk and who they employ as well. If they’re employing people just for the way they look and want them to keep quiet, then that’s not authentic, it’s tokenistic. But if they’re actually employing a wide range of women, supporting them and allowing them to use their own voice and not stick to a script, then you can tell it’s authentic. Brands are tuned into the fact that women don’t want to see models gagged in the process—it’s not just about visuals, it’s about voice. That’s kind of what happened with me with L’Oréal: they wanted everything I represented but they didn’t want me. I could really have been anybody as long as I was black and trans. As soon as I said something that related to why I was there in the first place, it was a bit too much for them.
Is that how you choose whether you’d like to collaborate with a brand or not?
I think I’m in a unique position now where if a brand wants to work with me they kind of know what they’re getting just because [the L’Oréal scandal] was so highly publicised, I can’t really hide from everything that’s out there about me, the good and the bad, so I’m a different case. As a piece of advice to anyone who is getting involved with brands, though, I would say look at their history, especially big brands. Look at what they’re doing in the rest of the world. L’Oréal might be marketing diverse products in the Western world but in the Far East they’re marketing skin lightening creams to dark-skinned women. So you need to look at the whole brand and where you fit into that. Does it align with your politics? Are you willing to sacrifice your politics for a paycheque? It’s a bit like selling your soul if they aren’t going to allow you to thrive.
Rihanna has gained a lot of recognition for catering to an incredibly wide range of skin tones with Fenty Beauty while many other younger brands are working with drag queens and boys who wear make-up. Do you think the future of the industry is in the hands of these new-gen companies, rather than the old guard?
Yeah, I feel like all that’s on the way out. Certain brands are afraid to alienate their primary audience. You can tell they are mainly or only bought by older cis white women because the products aren’t marketed to anybody else, they’re not appealing to anybody else. And obviously there’s nothing wrong with older cis white women. But the fact that they’ve been exclusively marketed to is problematic. I think brands realise they have no other choice but to go that way but there’s a certain way you need to do it. That’s what’s so amazing about Rihanna’s line—you could tell that she was so excited about it, you could see her wearing it herself and it looked amazing. And I wanna see more of that: products that people are genuinely excited about themselves.
Genuine excitement seems to be lacking these days from so many industries. The common theme when Beyoncé dropped “Formation” or Rihanna with Fenty Beauty or Black Panther is that people are genuinely excited and it’s infectious.
I think the excitement shows how much people have felt they’ve been missing out. There are black Marvel fans who haven’t been able to get that excited about anything because they haven’t felt they could relate to the characters—one or two token black characters, that’s not that exciting. But a whole cast of black people of all different personalities, genders, roles —that’s really, really exciting.
Self-care is a bit of a buzzword now but originally Audre Lorde coined it as a means of self-preservation, an act of “political warfare”. In both your roles as a model and an activist, you face a lot of stress; how important is self-preservation to you to transcend that?
Oh my god, it’s the most important thing to me! I’m an introvert, even though I don’t come across as such. I get my energy from being on my own rather than being around people which is difficult because I’m around people all the time. But I’m also into witchcraft. I dabble in all different kinds—a bit of Wicca, crystal magic, Voodoo, Brujera. I’m a great believer that we’re all trying to tap into the same energy. I refer to it as “source”—I think we’re all trying to find that source energy. I’ve got an altar in my bedroom which I just upgraded, actually, it’s covered in crystals and candles and different goddesses from different religions— Oshun, Aphrodite—and I just interact with it depending on what I need from the universe and also what I can give, because I don’t think you can just ask for things, you have to offer something up.
When did you get interested in witchcraft?
I always have been, since primary school. I’d read witchcraft books at my local library, I always gravitated towards it. Every time I went to a school trip I’d bring my parents a big slab of agate or amethyst. I think the occult is a great way of focusing your energy and what you want from the world. And I love ritual—it allows me to just do everything I can about a situation. Rather than sitting and worrying about something, I’ll do a ritual, because that way I’ve actually done something about it.
For young activists or trans kids starting out of their own journey of transformation, what’s some advice you wish someone had given you right at the start?
Know your boundaries; don’t feel like you have to give everyone everything. Take your time and don’t put everything out there because not everyone will understand and also, you don’t even need to make people understand. I’ve held onto that: people don’t really know anything about my relationships, my family, my close friends—I like to keep my private life private. It’s important to know exactly who you are without having everyone know who you are. Hold something back for yourself.
This interview first appeared in Material Magazine No 34, “The Trans___ Issue” – get your copy here!