Photography by Giles Duley
All it took was a simple question for Munroe Bergdorf to put the past two years of relentless public scrutiny into perspective. It came from a journalist—a black woman journalist, she stresses—who knew exactly what the fashion model and activist needed to hear.
"Are you okay?" the journalist asked. With that question, the British-born 31-year-old realized that, for once, she was being seen by the media as something more than a soundboard; the woman’s empathy taking her by surprise. “I just burst into tears,” Munroe tells me now, reliving the experience with a smile; her eyes getting glassy as the memory floods back.
It would be easy to paint Munroe as a victim. After all, she’s a queer, trans woman of color who’s spent her life encountering and fighting back against all kinds oppression, and her position as someone who battles bigotry might have lead many to mistake her hardiness for emotional strength. But instead of being visibly damaged by the world around her, in person the incredible woman is even more funny, soft, and warm than the viral videos, where she stands up for trans kids—or the game-changing catwalk appearances for brands like Art School and Gypsy Sport—might suggest. She might need a shoulder to cry on sometimes, but Munroe is not going to let the torrent of hate, for being who she is so proudly, get to her.
Her resilience in the face of scrutiny and her desire to do something powerful with it has transformed her into a lifeline for young women, queer people and trans kids today. Here, in conversation with L’Officiel USA, Munroe discusses the invigorating power of Paris is Burning, why activism isn’t activism without wide-reaching inclusivity, and how fashion’s greatest anarchists have formed vital safe spaces for the trans community in the modern age.
Your career has come so far in what feels like such a short space of time. Do you feel like you’re trying to catch up with your life right now?
Sometimes I do feel a bit brain fried! I don’t really know what to do with myself, but that’s only when I’m in really surreal settings saying ‘How did we get here?’
I never think I, because it’s not really about me, it’s more about what I embody. Even if it isn’t about that, it’s about my team and the people that believe in what I have to say. I’m really mindful of acting self obsessed. It’s important to wind it back. Honestly, I’m a pretty low-key person. I like going to fancy events every now and again, but I’d rather just be at home with my friends eating pizza and watching Netflix!
Did you consider yourself an activist before you were expected to be one?
Kind of. I was always frustrated about the way the world was going. I was asking myself: Why isn’t anybody talking about racism? Why wasn’t anybody talking about transphobia other than trans people? In the UK, the attitude was ‘We’ve liberated gay men’—but where is [gay women’s] representation? So I thought, wait a minute. We have so much racism and transphobia in our country—especially transphobia—I’m not going to let people get comfortable. Seeing people think we live in an accepting, post-racial society made me quite angry, so it forced me to speak up about the issues that weren’t fully being spoken about.
There’s an expectation for all members of any marginalized community to be activists in that sense. Do you think there’s a responsibility for us all to fight for ourselves?
In my mind, we can’t complain about things if we aren’t fighting for them. And also, don’t complain about things for yourself, if you’re not willing to fight for others too. It’s not enough to just do it for yourself. It’s selfishness, ultimately, and if it’s not selfishness, it’s a lack of empathy for others. If you only want liberation because you’re affected by it, then how is that any better than what the majority is doing?
When you were younger, what did you find solace in?
In pop culture, I think! I was raised in a very white area [and] was the only black person in school, so I didn’t have that much awareness of black feminism or civil rights. So my idols were Prince, Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Bjork; I guess, because they were all so expressive and didn’t subscribe to gender characteristics. But I didn’t have any trans role models until I watched Paris is Burning when I was 18. I knew trans people existed, but all I was exposed to were the tragic stories. I wanted to hear better ones.
When you watched it for the first time, what did that feel like?
I hadn’t transitioned yet, but I felt like it was like staring into a mirror. I watched it with my first trans friend I ever made, and she was like my mother. Obviously it’s still very tragic, but now when I watch it, I realize that I’m living the existence that they wanted. I feel like I’m standing on their shoulders. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to find myself in the same spaces they have. When Octavia St Laurent talks about wanting to work in fashion, and to have people looking up to her and knowing her name, I realize: Shit, I’ve done that. That’s really impacted me. It makes me sad that she’s no longer with us. I’d loved to have met her and to have soaked up her sparkle.
What’s that line at the end of Teyana Taylor’s WTP that sampled Octavia? “I believe that there's a big future out there with a lot of beautiful things. I want so much more. I want my name to be a household product in the high-fashion world.” It’s one of those moments where you think: Am I here because I heard those words, or is this all serendipitous?
Let’s talk about your relationships with the anarchic figures in the fashion world, like the Art School duo and Gypsy Sport.
I love Tom and Eden from Art School! I’m just so thankful that artists like them exist. Their challenging of the fashion institution is so incredible, and I feel like they’re a great example of how to use fashion as protest. Rio Uribe too, he’s like my big brother. I love how he created this family. What he’s doing is renegotiating the terms of community and self care, and how he ties things like witchcraft and self-love into his work. It’s incredible. It’s a real vibe whenever I walk a show for him. It feels healing.
Like I said, in fashion and as a spokesperson, you’ve come so far. If you could win the respect of those who’ve scrutinized you for so long, and give up your work as an activist, would you?
Really, I don’t want their respect, but if the world all of a sudden decided that everybody was going to be a decent human being then, yeah, that would be amazing. But until that happens, we need activists. I just think back to when I was a kid, and how much easier my life would have been if there was a Laverne Cox. To think that some people might think that of me? That they can come to an event I’m speaking at and know that I’ll give them my time? I don’t think I could ever stop trying to do it for them.
The world is a scary place, and the reality is that the trans population here in the UK have a long way to go. [Liberation] won’t happen in my lifetime, so I can safely say that I’ll be doing this for the rest of my life. Because I care.
Location: Tiger Films