I’m waiting in the crowded entrance of Soho House for Munroe Bergdorf. Three weeks ago, I didn’t know who Munroe Bergdorf was. Today, she's a global headline.
Bergdorf is at the centre of a very modern media storm. The black trans model, the first to be employed by L’Oreal, and who recently featured in their latest diversity campaign, was subsequently fired for comments she made on Facebook about white supremacy. Bergdorf claims the comments were taken out of context. Before she knew it, she was on Good Morning Britain, being lambasted by Piers Morgan for offending white men.
In many ways, Bergdorf's story reflects our society right now and the efforts of brands to be inclusive and diverse in an attempt to attract a millennial audience. Her story also reflects our culture of misinformation, fake news and things being taken out of context – a Facebook status can be framed as a news story. It echoes our collective denial of white supremacy and how racism exists in a structural way we're all part of. And, of course, the unrelenting power of British tabloids; like sniffer dogs, looking for a “story” as another way to reinforce a rhetoric of hate and the label of “otherness”. And then bang – an explosive combination: a trans woman of colour being accused of racism for talking about structural violence just a few months after Charlottesville.
I am not the new voice of feminism; I am not the new voice of racial equality; I am not the new voice of trans people. I am just one person who is also part of millions of people who want the same thing
Back in Soho House, the heavy black door opens and in she whisks. Tall, skinny and long bare legs in a short tartan skirt, with braids hanging down her back, she’s hard to miss. I’m not the only one who’s spotted her. A black man taps her on the shoulder. I don’t quite catch it, but it’s definitely along the lines of: "You’re a hero, thank you; what you’re doing is awesome.” This happens all the time – particularly from black men, Bergdorf tells me later. She finds it amazing – “This is my community” – but it’s also tiring: “I’ve really needed some time to myself. Just to sit on the sofa and eat ice cream. I had a panic attack this weekend. I've been struggling.”
Since her life changed two weeks ago, Bergdorf is understandably exhausted. She was at the Diversity In Media Awards a fortnight ago, when Lily Allen somewhat awkwardly won an award and declined to accept it, instead dedicating her award to Bergdorf – acknowledging that her white privilege allows her to express opinions that get Bergdorf fired and Allen praised: "Lily's amazing, but it's been a lot to deal with."
When I mention the events of the last two weeks, I wonder if that’s irritation I see flicker on her face, but later on I begin to wonder if it’s more trauma. Bergdorf has received messages saying she should be lynched. One troll tweeted her that he wanted to "cut off her head and fuck her skull”: “It was the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”
Has this experience changed you? “No, it’s made me more aware. You need to condense your message so everyone can get on board with it. We just need to be mindful that I am not the new voice of feminism; I am not the new voice of racial equality; I am not the new voice of trans people. I am just one person who is also part of millions of people who want the same thing. But it’s going to take all of us to bring about change.”
Do you see yourself as brave? "At the time, I didn’t have any option. I do think I’ve been brave to some extent, but I didn't have a choice. This wasn’t something I asked for. I wanted to do the campaign. Say some things. But to be literally worldwide news in a week? I haven’t really processed it.”
Bergdorf may not have asked for this spotlight, but she’s making the most of it to drive home political messages. She’s keen to reiterate to me that we must not only talk about combating racism, but colourism, too. She believes people only listen to her because of her "proximity to whiteness" and her light skin. “If I was a dark-skinned black women, working a nine to five, no one would have cared.”
And, in turn, she's keen to reiterate her privilege – she went to a good school, she went to university, she has a supportive community, she's in a financially stable position. But she admits that it’s still a hard journey: "Being a black trans woman is the more oppressive intersection in the world." She counts them off on her fingers: “Black, trans, queer, er, what’s the other one? Black, trans, queer? Yeah, that’s it! That’s enough!” Bergdorf has a magical way of laughing that somehow floats above our conversation of oppression. In 2017 so far, 20 black trans women have been killed.
How does she feel ready to become a role model? “I’m more of a role option,” she jokes. But she admits how damaging it was to not see herself in anyone growing up. “I hated my blackness… And I always bring up Laverne [Cox], but she really has been a source of strength and it’s really nice it came full circle and she messaged me and said, ‘You know what? Keep your head up; always stay in the love.’ All of those LA girls – Janet Mock and Our Lady J, Isis King – she's such a big advocate. I’m super, super lucky.” And now she seems quite overwhelmed that she’s part of a network of trans women who are becoming role models for young people.
Illamasqua, a British beauty brand, signed Bergdorf for a campaign before the media storm struck and have unflinchingly stuck by her. Their new campaign explores the fluidity of gender and, when we start to talk about this, Bergdorf is instantly more upbeat, playful: “I feel like everyone is discovering themselves. I was non-binary before I identified as trans. I didn’t have the words. And now I’m like, am I only saying ‘trans” because that's the only word offered to me? Sometimes I feel a bit too boy-y to call my self ‘trans’, to call myself fully a woman. If I need to pick one, I’m definitely a woman and sometimes I feel the mix of the two. Gender is something we experience – it shouldn't confuse us. It's exciting."
Bergdorf plans to take her political message into schools and into communities, but she’s catching her breath. “It’s always been my message – and it got turned into the thing that I was essentially fighting against and, if I wasn’t able to put my words into, you know, a palatable manner, I would have got buried by that company and I think that’s what they were hoping would have happened. They even offered to write my statement."
Has it made you more nervous of the modelling industry? “No – more savvy and more determined it won’t happen to anyone else. If anything, I'm a good case study for the future."