munroe bergdorf wants brands to get radical and stop thinking about themselves
Ahead of next week’s Needs x UN Women HeForShe event, model, activist and HeForShe advocate Munroe Bergdorf opens up about the gender politics of beauty and power of radical social change.
Photography Dimitris Theocharis
“It’s 60% about what I have to say, 40% the way I look and what my body represents,” says Munroe Bergdorf, weighing up her newfound fame as a model and activist. It’s been quite a year for Bergdorf: back in September she made headlines when cosmetics giant L’Oreal announced her as the first trans woman to front its all new inclusive range of foundation, True Match. Three days later she was dropped, because of comments she’d made online about the racial violence of white people -- a decision that led to national outrage. How could a brand that championed her for her views simply drop her because of them? Instead of shying away from the public debate that ensued, Munroe used her platform to talk about the problem of white privilege and the importance of trans visibility on a much wider scale. Intelligent, passionate and authoritative, her message of equality across the board is abundantly clear -- qualifications that have seen her be asked to sit on a new LGBT+ advisory board for Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, Dawn Butler MP of the Labour Party, on issues affecting the LGBT+ community.
A key voice in the fashion and beauty industry, earlier this month she took to Instagram to reveal the result of her facial feminisation surgery with an empowering message about self expression. This season, she also made her catwalk debut, strutting her stuff for the likes of Gypsy Sport and Teatum Jones. Next up, Munroe will be taking part in an upcoming discussion on gender equality, as part of next week’s Needs x UN Women HeForShe event. But before that, she sat down with us to offer some notes on the gender politics of beauty and power of radical social change.
"My earliest beauty memory is stealing my mum’s lipgloss. My mum had this red lip-gloss which I stole and would wear all the time to primary school. Obviously it got confiscated as the school didn't approve of a little child who was presenting as a boy wearing lipgloss. My teacher put it in his desk but I managed to steal it back from him. My mum never minded, she was really chilled. At the beginning she tried to dissuade me from wearing it, but then eventually she just accepted that that's who I was.
“The make-up I’m wearing on my face is temporary. I take it off at the end of the night. It has nothing to do with my gender.”
I had quite bad skin as a teenager which made me really insecure. I never felt beautiful. It wasn't until I went to university that I finally had free reign over what I looked like because I wasn't living under my parents’ roof. I went hell for leather and started experimenting with my looks which is when I first started feeling comfortable with how I looked.
I think the most important thing is feeling free to be who you are. I'm glad I went through an ugly duckling phase of being really awkward and not knowing who I was. I'm not saying everyone should go through hardship, but if you do go through it you should use it as a tool for progression. I had a mohawk at university: I was really into punk, it was just the manifestation of who I was at that moment.
I used to use make-up as a crutch, to mask my insecurities, now I use it to emphasise my features. Now I'm more comfortable in my skin, I feel like I don't need a full face of make-up to go down to the shops. I wear some foundation to give myself a little glow, but I think that comes with time and confidence. You’re allowed to look like yourself without make-up on. It's just you being you.
I also don't associate make-up with being a woman anymore. Today, kids of all genders are wearing it. Make-up should be about expression; if I have a full face of make-up on, it’s because I'm expressing something about myself, if I wear a vampy face, it’s not because I'm expressing my womanhood -- because that's underneath -- it just means I'm expressing a vampy side of my personality. The make-up I’m wearing on my face is temporary. I take it off at the end of the night. It has nothing to do with my gender.
I fell into modelling via DJing in nightclubs. People would take photographs of me and they’d appear in all the right paces. Then it snowballed. I started speaking about my experience and about who I was as a person -- that grabbed people's attention because, I think, they could relate to it. But, truthfully, I don't really count myself too much as a model. It's more important to me to focus on what I say. I'm lucky that I can put my thoughts into words which I think is quite a rare thing for people.
"Brands need to be supporting people who are a bit more radical, they’re the ones who are going to be shaking things up."
The role of a model is changing: with commercial ventures people want to invest in brands whose message they identify with. I think people can see past the tokenism now. If a brand is just using black models to make a statement then that’s tokenism; diversity has to run deep, it has to be organic and it has to be truthful. We’re not asking for all brands to be using all black models all the time, neither can the use of black models be seasonal, because then it makes people seem disposable, which doesn't do much for progress.
I’d love to see more brands get behind people that are actually doing stuff to change the world. I think it's happening, but as you saw with what happened with me and L’Oreal, brands get scared.They want to use tastemakers, but they want everyone to be “safe”. We’re living in a time that is politically scary. Which is why brands need to be supporting people who are a bit more radical, they’re the ones who are going to be shaking things up. And by that I mean, working with people who are not just commercially successful, but who are genuinely groundbreaking and exciting.
If you play it safe, you’re only going to get safe. If you put your money behind people who are really gritty and groundbreaking, then the outcome will actually be something that changes lives, changes minds. I didn't ask to be out here doing what I'm doing at this level but I’m glad I can be doing it as myself. I'm just looking forward to just doing my thing and not having to worry about living up to others people’s image of me. I'm looking forward to finding new things about myself. I'm excited for this year."
The Needs x UN Women HeForShe event will be taking place 11-12 March at the Oval Space