I’m hosting a new video series and have been vigorously booking guests. I’ve met all of them previously, but not Hari Nef. Nef was pitched to me by IMG—she is the first transgender model they’ve signed.
She has also been cast as a trans cabaret singer in ’30s Berlin in the next season of the hit Amazon series Transparent. She only graduated from Columbia in May. All up, quite the mantle sitting on a 23-year-old’s shoulders. Nef could probably wear an actual mantle and make it work. This kid is fashion.
When I met her she was sporting an Adam Selman mini dress with a pearl neckline, an Alexander Wang trench coat, and silver Acne boots bought on 1stdibs (she loves 1stdibs). “I wanted people to think I was daring when I was younger,” she says. “I would try to seem daring, look daring—and nobody cared! Now if I want to talk, I’ll quiet the look. If I don’t want to talk, I’ll rev up the look to do it for me.”
Hari is good at talking—while she didn’t volunteer to be a representative of the trans movement, here she is. She’s acutely aware that she’s broken a boundary. “It was less about confidence than desire,” she says of her desire to model. “I was never confident about my looks or my body because I had no one in the industry to compare myself to. There were no girls who looked like me or identified as I do. I just had to get in the room.” So she got in the room. “I’d feel weird calling myself daring now. ‘I’m daring’ suggests bold, outré, rebellious. Sometimes it feels like the more casual and direct I try to be, the more daring people think I am.”
I ask Nef what’s the most daring thing she’s ever done. “The obvious answer might be ‘To live openly as a transgender woman,’ but it’s not that simple,” she says. “Because the odds are stacked against me, I often feel like standing my ground as a trans model and actor is absurdly daring—hubristic, even. But I want to work. I don’t want to compromise.”
Nef cites her heroes as women who “live authentically: Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, Zackary Drucker, Jill Soloway, Juliana Huxtable, Alexandra Billings, Kristen Stewart, Stella Tennant, Chloë Sevigny, Audrey Wollen, Sarah Nicole Prickett, Andreja Pejic, Ayesha Siddiqi, Lotta Volkova, Courtney Love, Ines-Loan Rau, Judith Light, Our Lady J, Sky Ferreira, and Tig Notaro.”
And while her career takes off, Nef thinks of others. “I fear for the safety of the trans community,” she explains. “Especially black trans women. Eighteen trans women have been murdered in the US this year, most of them women of colour. That’s war, and that’s scary. I’m scared that as white, privileged trans women like me and Caitlyn Jenner are celebrated, less advantaged trans women will continue to die. My fear is that the ‘trans revolution’ will only serve a narrow margin of trans women.”
Not if Nef has anything to do with it, however. Thankfully, there’s no quieting of her look on that front.
By Laura Brown