From the L’Oréal scandal to walking in New York Fashion Week, the British activist and model speaks to Leomie Anderson about the 12 months that changed her life, and why she will never stop raising her voice in support of the minority.
In September last year, when former PR worker Munroe Bergdorf highlighted the structural injustice served against people of colour, her life changed forever. The post, later stolen by a former university ‘friend’ and sold to a top tabloid newspaper, would lead to her infamous Good Morning Britain showdown with host Piers Morgan and the start of a year she could never have predicted.
Now a prominent activist, Munroe has become one of the loudest voices within the LGBTQ movement - and in particular for trans women of colour.
Direct from the heart of New York Fashion Week, Munroe speaks to fellow British model, friend and creator of LAPP Leomie Anderson about disrupting the imbalance on white privilege, her continuing fight against unjust trans representation within British media, and what the future holds for one of the most prominent voices in the industry.
LA: It’s been a year since the whole L’Oréal craziness and now look where you are. It’s nuts to think what lead you to this point. Did you ever think it was going to turn into this?
MB: I don’t think there’s any preparing anyone for when they become the focus of a media scandal. You never know where it’s going to go, and it’s something that pushes you to discover a lot about yourself. I discovered my voice in that time. Up until that point, I was only really speaking to people within my community. Once my voice broke out of the echo chamber and, I guess, into the consciousness of other people who didn’t know me personally, I got a lot more feedback and started to believe in myself more. I started thinking about other avenues and fashion is definitely an avenue that I’d really thought about but... if you look at the way the fashion industry is going with inclusion of different bodies and identities, it’s around the right time. I don’t know if the L’Oréal conversation contributed to that as well. To think about how queer people are included in the industry.
LA: And how they’re represented.
LA: Have you been at any shows this season you’ve seen and felt included and represented? MB: Yeah! New York Fashion Week this season has been so queer and I think it’s been done so well. I know that you included a lot of queer people in your presentation which was amazing, and just seeing people get their absolute life on the runway was incredible. That you gave them that platform to do with what they saw fit. That’s what it’s about; providing the platform, not just featuring a queer person as a token gesture. It’s about providing a platform and providing space for that person to shine in their own right.
LA: Exactly. MB: How did you get to that?
LA: To be honest... I worked with a casting director and I said I wanted the presentation to be about self expression as opposed to just the clothes. I knew I wanted it to be representative of the energy of LAPP, so he helped me cast the amazing voguers. In my head, it didn’t matter if they were queer, straight, bi. You can dance, your personality seems fire, I want you to be part of my show. It wasn’t about me making sure there’s one trans person, one this or one that. It wasn’t about tokenism but who has the personality to bring it to life.
LA: I feel like that’s how we’re going to progress within this industry is when we stop doing the tokenism. I feel that was the mistake made with you. They (L’Oréal) wanted to have someone who represented an ideal they had in their head, but weren’t prepared for you to be speaking up about the other sides you represent like yourself as a woman of colour...
MB: That’s why I love the work you’re doing as an ally of the LGBTQ community. I think you’re a shining example of using your platform, LAP; a great example of intersectional feminism. And you reached out to me during the L’Oréal scandal and that’s how we are now friends.
LA: I wasn’t a fan of people trying to drag you
and I didn’t want you to feel alone. I know in those scenarios you have people around you saying different things and I wanted you to know there’s someone who is here for you. It can be overwhelming.
MB: We both know what it’s like to be in the media and get the backlash. You did a video about Meghan Markle and I was reading some of the comments about how black women’s feelings about the Royal Family are invalid.
LA: It angers anybody to see people from a marginalised community speaking up; people want to silence them. They’re not used to that. Social media has played a big part in building relationships and building friendships and allies. You didn’t know what you were going to say or what was going to happen... MB: It was on a personal page. It wasn’t a statement that was meant to go out anywhere. It was sold to the Daily Mail by someone who didn’t like me that went to university with me. LA: Really?! MB: Yeah, did you not know that? LA: I didn’t. MB: It was a personal vendetta. LA: That’s crazy. Everything works in such mysterious ways because now we are here and you’ve so many people looking up to you. What’s is it like to be seen now as a role model? MB: It’s crazy, especially coming to New York. When I look at my insights on Instagram, the majority of people who follow me are from America, so to come and people know who I am and coming up to me and thanking me for doing what I’m doing... and famous people. It’s crazy and has been a very crazy year. All of a sudden, it was like ‘boom!’ in every single newspaper in the world, pretty much. LA: Yeah, it was everywhere. MB: To see my face on Al Jazeera and my friends in Dubai sending me pictures in the paper there. I mean South East Asia, India, Australia. It was insane. It gave me a world-wide following and rallied together people of colour. There were thousands of pieces and YouTube videos. It wasn’t about me, it was about how big corporations and brands treat people of colour, and how white people largely have a privilege in society that isn’t talked about. I’m glad it opened that narrative in a pop culture sense as I don’t think that’d been talked about in the same capacity.
LA: Definitely not. Having you be so raw and open, and even though you say you weren’t prepared for it, in a way it was better as you said just what was on your mind without having to second guess.
MB: I was prepared for it more than most people as my background is PR. I knew how to carry myself which is good as I would’ve been eaten alive by the Daily Mail. The way they went after me and continue to go after me sometimes over the last year has been awful.
LA: How do you cope with that?
MB: Sometimes it does get a bit much. The Times called me ‘the trans Taliban’ which was… I was surprised because how is this legal? I remind myself that this is transphobia and racism. It’s not necessarily about me, it’s about all of us, and I’ve got my community behind me.
LA: I want to take it back a little bit. Before everything blew up, who were you looking towards as an ally?
MB: I grew up loving Cyndi Lauper. She’s the unsung hero of the LGBTQ community. A lot of people recognise the work she’s done, but she’s done a lot for raising money and awareness – especially during the 80s – of the HIV/AIDS crisis. Seeing her do that, when she didn’t have to. It’s way before Madonna cottoned onto the gays. Madonna wasn’t doing what Cyndi was doing, she was showing allyship in a commercial sense, but Cyndi was out there raising money on the ground and helping. Seeing that made me think that you need to exercise your empathy. You can’t feel it and not do something. It was way before the gays were ‘cool’. It was before supporting queer people was cool. Before Lady Gaga, Christina. It was a time when supporting the LGBTQ community was detrimental to your career – she still did it! Same with Cher; those real gay icons. Elizabeth Taylor, she ran a secret buyers club for people with HIV/AIDS so they could access medication. People like that who go out of their way and help people. My aim at the moment is to really focus on how I can use my privilege to pull other people up. There’s an amazing activist at the moment called Aaron Philip who I’m obsessed with. She’s a disabled black trans model. She’s just got signed and that has taken the community rallying around her to say that ‘this is ridiculous’. You can’t only have disabled models when they look like they could be able-bodied people. You need people to be visible. You can’t just hire trans women when they look cis. Hire visibly trans women because they’re who need to see themselves reflected in the media – not trans women who look cis and can pass through society unbothered. That’s something I’ve toyed with back and forth this year, especially after getting surgery. Am I putting the right message out there?
LA: When it comes to your own personal choices, do you think twice about them because you’re in the limelight?
MB: It’s about looking at the intention of your actions. I got surgery for myself because I was more visibly trans than I am now to other people. I still view myself as a trans woman. It’s one of my intersections and I’m proud of who I am. No matter how I look, I’m still trans. I used to have such a shame and internalised shame of being trans. I think all trans people do. There’s this need or want to pass all the time and that comes... well it’s linked to safety. That we could be attacked. It’s about making sure I’m able to articulate how I feel and why I’ve done what I’ve done. That I don’t feel anyone else needs to take that path as well. I had my surgery as part of – although not the reason totally why - the documentary I did with Channel 4 called What Makes a Woman. I’m so pleased with the feedback of that.
LA: It was really good. I watched it with my mum. MB: Ahhh, thank you. I wanted people to see the reality of it and to see the human aspect of my character as I felt I’d been draed through the
media so much. This is who you’re demonising. To be called these horrible things by the right-wing press is feeding into a narrative of transphobia and fear. We can see the same going on with Islamophobia in the media and that’s why we need to all stand up. If it isn’t you, it’ll be someone else. And if it isn’t someone else, it’ll be you. It’s only a certain amount of time before it is you, so stand up for other people.
LA: Unity is important.
LA: How would you describe who Munroe is today?
MB: I’m in a bit of a weird position because I get described as a model and I describe myself as a model because it simplifies what I do, but what I’m doing is a merge between body positivity and greater diversity representation. I feel like that’s an influencer as well. I’m bridging so many different professions of influence that it’s difficult for me to define what I do.
LA: How do you deal with other people not wanting to see you succeed?
MB: I always think about where this is coming from. Why do they feel like that? I think when it comes from other trans girls, that aspect of envy or jealousy, I understand because to be a trans woman who doesn’t have anything or feels like they have nothing or might have been kicked out by their parents - you don’t know what they’re going through. I know what it feels like to be that trans girl who feels extremely frustrated at the world and frustrated at the rate of her transition and how slow the process is, and how society doesn’t afford me the same respect that I give them. And to see someone get what they’ve always wanted, I think that must be quite difficult. I would say to those girls that I’m here for you. I’m doing this for all of us and that I was that person. I was that girl, so if they can see that I can achieve what I want to achieve, hopefully they can, too. And if a cis man is treating me in a way that I see is influenced by my intersections, I can identity and say this is misogynistic and transphobic and I can break down his behaviour – and not take it personally. While it is personally offensive, it says more about him than it does me. I think we’re really having these conversations and people generally are becoming more aware of why people act how they act. We saw this with Serena Williams at the US Open. People saying that ‘this wouldn’t happen if she was a white woman because of how her behaviour was viewed by a white man – would the outcome have been the same if the exchange was between two black women or two white men?’ The conversation dynamics are being analysed, and I think that’s exciting. It’s allowing people to be a lot more aware of their place in the word, and that’s the main goal. LA: It’s been so great to watch your confidence grow and watch how you’ve brought all these different people together through your voice and through you being yourself as one – while taking all that shit you get online.
MB: I put up a status saying ‘Never allow someone else’s perception of you to become your perception of self’. I surprised myself with that comment as I was like ‘woo girl, you just came through with the T’. I also put up one saying that ‘I want people to look at my growth and feel that they can grow in the same way’. I look back at the past year and I am genuinely proud of myself. Every single birthday, we get reflective and I wondered if 12 year old me would be proud of 31 year old me. I genuinely think they would be. I went to an exhibition called 29 Rooms and there’s an ‘inner child room’. It said to think about yourself as a child and the first image you have in your head, think about the face of that child, and then look at yourself in the mirror and see the face of that child in the reflection. Write a note to the child, and I wrote ‘Don’t fight who you are. You’re exactly who you should be right now’. As a trans person, there’s this whole idea that we change and that we become someone else. We don’t change and I’m not a different person. I’m a development of who I should’ve been. I feel that my transition has been getting back to that child because if I’d just been who I always should’ve been inside, and nurtured that part of myself instead of trying to be someone else then it would’ve saved me so many problems. It probably would’ve made my life difficult because of everybody else, but there would have been so much less soul searching. I think that’s how I want people to see a transition. If we’re only going on the exterior aspect of a transition, who doesn’t transition? Everyone goes from girl to woman, baby to adult/ non-binary person or boy to man. A transition is just a progression and most of the celebrities out here, or cis women, you’re trying to tell me that’s not a transition? That Kylie Jenner isn’t a transition? All girls transition. We become girls to women and I want people to think of it like that. It’s no different. It’s growth.