Frank, fierce, a force to be reckoned with. Powerhouse Munroe Bergdorf reflects on her personal story of alienation, growth and empowerment.
How does social activist operating in 2018 begin their day? Munroe’s morning starts by hitting snooze on her five alarms before eventually turning her phone off aeroplane mode. Aeroplane mode is crucial, she tells me, for ensuring a good night’s kip. The morning routine includes checking that nothing has erupted across her social accounts throughout the night - the rest of the day is a variable that can swing from modelling for big name campaign, to being a key spokesperson for the transgender community the next. In fact, the latter is a commitment that runs around the clock.
The dissimilarity of Munroe’s day-to-day life is a huge contributing factor in explaining how she keeps on going. ‘I get really depressed with doing the same thing over and over’, she acknowledges, but right now she’s writing a book which admittedly does take a little commitment to monotony. As a self-confessed ‘queen procrastinator’, the continuum that writing her book brings is necessary to ensuring it actually gets done, but the writing process cannot be unless it is synonymous with blasting out loud music and chuckling at memes on the internet.
Before I speak to Munroe for the first time, I have like many, already gathered the beginnings of an impression on her character through articles and TV appearances. Most will have become acquainted with Munroe after she was sacked as a face of L’Oreal for speaking out on systemic racism in the wake of the Charlottesville protests last summer - an event that saw Munroe receive a barrage of both good and bad press, as well as a counter-offer from Illamasqua to be the face of their gender fluidity campaign. Some might know her from her appearance on Good Morning Britain with hosts Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid, an intended debate from Munroe’s perspective to explain her comments on white unconscious racism, but would perhaps be better described as a solid 10 minute Morganian-style heckle from Piers. Others may have got to know Munroe through her ‘What Makes a Woman?’ documentary as part of Channel 4’s Genderquake series, a successful transgender model, or through her appointment and then resignation as an LGBT adviser to the Labour Party.
She has been described as ‘outspoken’, in fact she makes this claim many times herself. What I see is unparalleled strength. The last year has been a rollercoaster: with each career-changing opportunity that came, they arrived with their equal share of knock-backs and opposition, often coming in the form of transphobic and racist online abuse from keyboard warriors hiding behind nondescript Twitter avatars.
In the face of it all, Munroe has powered through. Speaking to her now, she has clearly learned how to stay headstrong, and in many ways impenetrable, thanks to the experiences from her school years and through creating strong ties with her community, even when talking about traumas of the past. She knows her story and is certainly sure of herself, but there’s a soft gooey center in Munroe’s middle that often gets overlooked.
Despite growing up 40 minutes away from East London, childhood was spent in rural Essex, secluded from the acceptance and diversity that comes with the big city. In an ideal world, she would have liked to have been raised nearer to the city, within closer access to places like Soho where fitting in without judgment and making more diverse friendship groups was not half the challenge as it was in small town England. As the only black kid in her school apart from her little brother, her younger years were an isolating experience, and coming out as gay when she was 15 was a less ceremonious event than most. ‘I didn’t really have the choice as I was so visibly queer. Everybody knew I was queer before I knew myself, so I was just being called names before I even understood what those names meant. It didn’t really change anything for me, it just clarified who I was as a person in my own head by being able to vocalise it, but I was still being bullied. I guess in coming out I was able to own that and say that I didn’t have anything to be ashamed of.’
It was a time she won’t be rushing back to in a hurry, but one that has allowed her to grow into herself. When I ask her about what her friendship groups looked like, she is quick to reply that it amassed to about two friends; fellow teenage misfits also looking for a group to belong to. I sense the struggle didn’t begin and end with school, though. When we talk about her family life, it seems in many way she is grateful and feels lucky to have had the upbringing she had, and opportunities many others have grown up without: ‘I speak about privilege so much, because I think a lot of the reason why things have gone the way that they have is because of my privilege, because I can articulate myself and because I have had an education’..
In other ways, home life was just as tricky to navigate as it was in school. ‘I think my parents found it very hard to understand what I was going through, just because I didn’t know what I was going through.’ She goes on, ‘My parents did the very best they could have done. Me and my Dad clashed a lot when I was growing up, just because he was a hyper masculine, Jamaican guy who was raised in Jamaica and then came over to London. I think he felt very alienated by me; I didn’t like the sports he liked, I didn’t want to go to the football with him - all of these traditional masculine activities I had no interest in. Then I felt like a disappointment to him.’
Now 31, most of Munroe’s school years were lived during a time of Margaret Thatcher’s controversial Section 28 being enforced across the U.K. - a clause that was part of the Local Government Act 1988 making the teaching and promotion of homosexuality and LGBT relationships in schools illegal. Now, with a close relationship with her parents, the benefit of hindsight and the wisdom of age has allowed her to look on home-life with a different perspective; that life growing up could have looked very different if she, and others in her situation, were better equipped with the freedom to converse and be educated about different sexualities. ‘I felt very frustrated because I didn’t have the language to speak about who I was but that was very indicative of the time. Children were encouraged not to be gay or trans. Homosexuality was a no go in those times.’
‘What do I do for leisure?’ She spends time pondering on this one. Perhaps it’s because her answer has flipped upside down in comparison to what it would have been a decade before. Her voice is soft and friendly in tone, her warmth of character coming through as she talks about the things she loves and about how her life is now. ‘I spent the majority of my twenties seeking stimulation and now, I feel like my life is so stimulating because I set it up this way to the point where I just need to switch off and be as calm as possible’, she laughs. ‘‘I was like a club kid before and my main income was from nightlife. Now Munroe’s free time looks less like wild nights out, and a bit more like this: going out to eat somewhere, going to Brighton with her girlfriend, getting a facial, visiting art exhibitions, watching American Horror Story, listening to Robyn and reading think-pieces on Kanye West. Even booze rarely features these days, and there’s a limit to how many friends she’s willing to spend time with at once too - ‘I am more of a one-on-one person than a group, like three people at the max.’ She confesses that she thinks she sounds boring in comparison to the lifestyle she had in the early days, but her party girl personna on a pursuit for pleasure has had its heyday - ‘I think I have definitely exhausted that hedonism’.
With a background in fashion PR, working at an agency that handled brands like Calvin Klein and Lacoste, and a English Language and Media Communication degree, Munroe is not exactly a stranger to the world of publicity and how to communicate in the public sphere. In fact, she’s pretty damn good at it. Learning how to write and how to market herself are skills that she has carried with her into her role as a social activist today. But assuming this role as an activist came at the expense of numerous bad experiences working with nightmare photographers on modelling jobs, who made her feel uncomfortable being a trans model on shoots. ‘It just kind of made me feel like I was a bit of a freak, being asked real inappropriate questions whilst I was trying to do my job,’ she tells me. ‘Then I got a job for Uniqlo which was my first major campaign, I shot it with Rankin and it was my first time I was able to shoot a high profile, highly publicised mainstream campaign and actually be asked my opinions and represent my community in a positive way.’ Activism seemed like a natural progression from this point. At a time when conversations were sparking around what was the right language to use for the trans community, Caitlyn Jenner also came out as trans - a very high profile, public event in the media that continued to promote the need to educate the mass audience and trigger bigger, more open conversations on a whole.
Like many ascents into the public eye - and especially one that deals with tackling discrimination, oppression and institutional issues - Munroe has been faced with endless counts of aversion, from bullying and online trolling, to serious threats and abuse. How she personally overcomes this negativity on a daily basis while protecting her mental wellbeing, is admirable. ‘It is difficult but I don’t take it personally anymore because it is about their anger, their racism, their transphobia, their anger that their government isn’t serving them and then they take it out on minorities. There are a thousand reasons why that person wants to abuse me and none of them are my fault or my concern. It has taken me a long time to get to that point.’ How she advises anyone faced with a similar experience of online abuse is quite simple: ‘I think it just comes down to your self-belief and your self-worth and your support systems.’ Munroe has developed a wise strategy of wisdom when it comes to online attacks. Sometimes no response is enough to silence these kind of attacks, which comes easily when you’re not looking at the comments at all. At other times, she looks for perspective. Comparing her values to those of the online trolls, and how her work is in no way harmful and aims to help others, is enough to keep her head clear.
As we slip away from the topic of outright bigotry to more everyday forms of discrimination, an issue that Munroe became known for speaking out about in the first place, she makes the point that it’s not down to her to help white people understand how to combat their systemic racism. But she does have advice for younger generations on how they can help to be part of a more accepting and equal future society. ‘It really is just down to listening I think. Don’t speak over people, take an interest and try to think outside your experience’, she explains, also citing learning the nuances of how the media works depending on its political leaning is a key tool to get your head around. And helping to tackle the issue of transphobia, in her eyes, lies in the need for more empathy, believing transgender people and letting them speak for themselves. ‘For me, I will never experience what it is like to feel how it feels to experience Islamophobia because I am not Muslim, so why would I ever speak for the Muslim community about how I feel people should navigate Islamophobia. That’s wild to me, it has nothing to do with me. So why should a cis person pass opinions on how a trans person should navigate their lives?’
After just been revealed as Dazed Beauty’s LGBT Editor at our time of speaking, I’m intrigued to understand what importance platforms like these that offer counter conversations to our traditional ideas of beauty, especially in the media. ‘I think Dazed Beauty is a really interesting project because it is really looking at the flip side of beauty and turning it on its head and asking what do you see as beautiful? Some of the subjects that they have been talking about are things that would be traditionally deemed freaky or grotesque, anything but beautiful. I think that in recent times we have really been opening this narrative and especially when you look at the models that are succeeding, people like Winnie Harlow, Shaun Ross, Duckie Thot and Leomie Anderson - models that would not be traditionally be seen as beautiful or would be overlooked are now being seen as the go to, the ground breakers.’ And her thoughts on beauty when thinking specifically about the trans community? I think that we need to bear in mind that it goes beyond beauty - it is self-image.. It is something that affects us subconsciously so to be actively speaking about it and being conscious of it is being one step ahead.’
As our conversation draws nearer to a close, I notice she hasn’t grown tired of speaking once, despite an in depth unpicking of her life; her beliefs and her toughest stories. Not afraid to grab the bull by its horns, her voice is steady, her answers graceful, contemplative and very thorough - at no given point has there been any shortage of detail or context. Any conception I had developed prior of her hard exterior is now hugely influenced by understanding how it came to be so. I come away from our head-to-head a more well-rounded individual - perhaps not a claim Piers Morgan can make but one I know that many others can say to have benefited from simply by engaging with her work.
When it comes to the future, Munroe doesn’t like to give away too much. Preferring to live by the ‘Beyonce mind-set’, where she’ll drop her projects unannounced without talking the hype beforehand, the book is one thing we can expect from the hereafter. I attempt to prise out a little more detail on her future plans, but she is far too savvy to fall for it. She is, however, willing to reveal one more objective - some might say an objective that trumps all others. ‘My only goal is to be happy and be consistent within my happiness’, she concludes. ‘To make other people happy. That is the overarching goal of my life and anything else is a bonus.’