British model Munroe Bergdorf became the first transgender woman to appear in a L’Oréal Paris campaign in the United Kingdom late last month.
Bergdorf, an activist and DJ from London, raved about the news at the time.
She told Vogue she “couldn’t believe it” and was elated that L’Oréal was “allowing more women to see themselves represented.” The campaign, #allworthit, promoted five new shades of the makeup company’s True Match foundation.
But days later, L’Oréal Paris said that it had ended its partnership with Bergdorf. The decision, which was met with fierce backlash from others in the industry, came in light of remarks Bergdorf made about racism shortly after a white supremacist rally led to deadly violence in Charlottesville.
Now, a rival British makeup company, Illamasqua, has announced that Bergdorf will be the face of its upcoming campaign exploring gender.
“We are not afraid to be provocative and talk about the complex issues that affect our generation — whether they be religion, race, gender or the environment,”
The Facebook post that led to Bergdorf’s removal from L’Oréal had been reported by the British tabloid Daily Mail weeks after Charlottesville. In it, Bergdorf wrote: “Honestly I don’t have energy to talk about the racial violence of white people any more. Yes ALL white people.”
“Because most of ya’ll don’t even realise or refuse to acknowledge that your existence, privilege and success as a race is built on the backs, blood and death of people of colour,” Bergdorf reportedly wrote in the post, which was later deleted. “Your entire existence is drenched in racism.”
The Daily Mail called it an “extraordinary rant declaring all white people racist.”
In response, L’Oréal Paris tweeted on Sept. 1 that the company “champions diversity,” and it had decided to break ties with Bergdorf because her comments were “at odds with our values.”
Bergdorf fired back, saying her comments had been taken out of context in the Daily Mail article, and that she had been referring to a systemic problem in Western society as a whole.
“We need to talk about why women of colour were and still are discriminated against within the industry, not just see them as a source of revenue,” Bergdorf wrote in a Facebook post. “This reason is discrimination — an action which punches down from a place of social privilege.”
When L’Oreal ended its contract with Bergdorf, black model and DJ Clara Amfo decided to pull out of a L’Oreal campaign in solidarity. “If she’s not ‘worth it’ anymore, I guess I’m not either,” Amfo wrote on Instagram. Illamasqua joined in the protest, tweeting that it stood with Bergdorf and was angered that L’Oreal had dropped her from its campaign.
So when Illamasqua announced its new campaign with Bergdorf, Amfo tweeted “Yes!” with the hashtag #BrandsWithBackbone.
Everyone has a question they are always asked by strangers at parties. Mine is, “How many words do you write a day?”. A doctor friend is forever quizzed about weird symptoms. My surveyor relative is the rent-a-gob on house prices.
Munroe Bergdorf is approached “every single day, even by random guys on the street” by people who ask: “Have you gone for the whole shebang?” and then point at the transgender 27-year-old’s private parts.
“It’s always ‘shebang’,” the Amazonian Bergdorf says with a half-laugh that suggests chuckling is easier than crying. “People wouldn’t go over to someone’s mother and ask about their labia but they’re happy to come over to a trans person and ask about their genitals. They just don’t think of trans people as normal. It makes us feel like objects — dehumanised, and embarrassed.”
In one sense, the world is at a trans tipping point. I meet Bergdorf one week after Laverne Cox, the breakout star of US Netflix hit Orange is the New Black, became the first transgender person to appear on the cover of Time magazine. It’s also a few days after media reports on US economist Deirdre McCloskey’s views on capitalism largely ignored the fact that Deirdre was born Donald. Bearded gay Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst, though not transgender, added to evidence of society’s new levels of acceptance of diversity.
Bergdorf, London’s own Laverne Cox as well as being a Soho DJ, fashion designer and TV star whose transitioning was the focus of an episode of London Live’s Drag Queens of London, grew up in Stansted Abbotts, rural Hertfordshire. “Everyone was whiter than white and I was the incredibly effeminate mixed-race kid at an all-boys school specialising in rugby.” Fast-forward a decade and she is thrilled that “people are opening their minds about gender and seeing it’s not as rigid as history has told them”. It is, she believes, “the new frontier. Gay people have been accepted, and now people like Laverne and [transgender model] Carmen Carrera speaking out about being trans are making people think again. That’s why I’m being so vocal.”
But on the streets of Stratford, where Bergdorf lives, as well as back in her childhood neighbourhood, and even near her work in Soho, eyes still goggle — and far worse — when she strolls the streets. “I get abuse every day. I’ve had my dress lifted up, I’ve been groped, yelled at. I’ve heard people I thought were friends referring to me as ‘shemale’ or ‘it’. I’ve been walking down the street and pushed into parked cars.”
Earlier this month ousted transgender councillor Sarah Brown said transphobic jibes left her “tranquillised up to her eyeballs, terrified, crying”.
Bergdorf, who is 27, confirms that trans women “are in danger out there. People scream at us, and it’s hard to come to terms with the fact that it’s you making them so angry and so disgusted. If they actually got to know us, they’d find we’re just someone’s daughter. No one they need to be scared of.”
Bergdorf speaks with a calm, lullaby voice, picking out words deliberately, constantly concerned about upsetting anyone. It’s a lilt that starkly contrasts with the turbulent narrative of her life. Four years ago, a man with whom she’d once had a one-night stand turned into her stalker. “Then one night there was a banging on my door at four in the morning. I was groggy and thought it was one of my flatmates, locked out. But it wasn’t them — it was the man who’d been chasing me down. He broke the chain, pushed the door open and held me hostage in my bedroom for two hours. He tried to rape me.”
Bergdorf escaped but the police couldn’t find her attacker. “Then he turned up at my work in Soho a few months later, but some of the people who could have helped me refused. They didn’t reprimand him and he got out before the police arrived. The police have put up facial recognition posters from the CCTV all around east London, trying to find him. But they haven’t yet.
“I’m still scared,” Bergdorf says quietly. “Life is 10 times harder as a trans person. Each of us is fighting a battle — with ourselves — all the time: ‘Do I look feminine enough?’, ‘Am I going to be laughed at when I’m picking out cheese in Tesco?’ We don’t want to fight with anyone else. We’re just trying to get on with our lives.
She blames the cult of pornography on the fact that “a lot of guys don’t see me as a person. They’re just trying to fulfil a sexual fantasy. Trans people have been hidden for so long — the only place people saw trans women used to be in porn. Now that’s what we’re associated with.”
Nowadays the DJ has a long-term boyfriend but says she still needs white noise — the sound of the dishwasher or the bathroom fan — to fall asleep. It’s perhaps a throwback to a difficult childhood when “I beat myself up about how I was feeling, thinking, ‘Why do I have to be black and gay?’But when I went through puberty I realised I wasn’t comfortable in my whole body. I just wanted it to stop.”
Today she’s a cornerstone of London’s trans scene, but at school Bergdorf was a loner. “I didn’t have many friends because I was very effeminate. People thought I was a girl because of the way I talked and walked and held myself — I had 80 My Little Ponies… Then at high school I loved Clueless and Sabrina the Teenage Witch while everyone else was watching football. I liked boys but I also liked girls. I didn’t see the rigid gender outlines everyone else saw. I didn’t fit in.”
Her family, who remain close, nonetheless struggled with Bergdorf’s changes. “My family are quite traditional — my mum’s from a really humble background in Birmingham and has done really well for herself in marketing in the financial services; my dad’s a carpenter from rural Jamaica. I wasn’t what they were expecting. My mum once said to me, ‘How many times are you going to come out to me? You’ve come out as gay, as trans…’ “I just thought, ‘I won’t tell you that I’m bisexual then’.”
Bergdorf began taking female hormones in her early twenties. While studying English at Brighton University she started dressing up as a woman, revelling in the city’s drag scene. “I went completely nuts, it was like an internal bomb had gone off and I did everything at once: crazy hair, crazy clothes, reckless behaviour and sex. I was living my teens in my early twenties.”
“Then I calmed down, figured out I wanted to work in fashion and got my shit together,” says Bergdorf, dressed for her night’s DJ set in a tiny geometric print dress, seven-inch strappy sandals and with an Imogen Belfield rock on her finger (“I just wear jeans and a jumper most of the time,” she says).
She went through the lengthy process any trans person has to face to receive medical support: first a GP referral to a therapist who analysed whether she qualified as a transgender person, then a coveted appointment at a gender-identity clinic. “There are only a few in the country and it took me a year to get there — a really, really difficult year.” Then Bergdorf took hormones to reshape her body.
“They give you boobs, your face becomes a lot rounder, hair becomes softer and longer, your nails change,” she says. “It felt natural. But the hormones can’t reverse anything — you still have a protruding forehead, Adam’s apple, deep voice.” Bergdorf has since paid more than £3,000 for fillers and Botox to change the proportions of her face. She’s now saving up £15,000 for surgery to file down her forehead, jaw, chin and Adam’s apple. For many trans women, sexual reassignment surgery is the last stage.
The lack of resources and long delays most trans people face seeking medical help is one reason the community’s suicide rate is so high, Bergdorf believes. “And others turn to illegal hormones, despite the risks of liver failure, or start dangerous work in the sex industry to try to raise enough money. People’s lives often come to an end that they didn’t need to.”
She is speaking out for the #FreedomTo campaign organised by Pride in London. “My ‘FreedomTo’ is to be unafraid,” says Bergdorf. “Trans people aren’t weird or crazy, they’re just people.
“If you see a trans woman on the Tube, why would you laugh at her? You don’t need to make life harder for anyone. I just want to be treated like anyone else, to live my life without constantly being afraid of how people view me or categorise me. I just want to live.”