Mirror, Mirror: Philly-born transgender model is breaking down fashion barriers

Hari Nef's short black hair is styled into a wispy, hipster mullet. The 22-year-old cover girl is long, lanky, and downright hipless.

When she's not seductively smiling at the camera, she stares off somewhere, anywhere, with piercing, dark-brown eyes.

It is not the look of a glamorous model, but Nef's milky skin and faraway gaze create a persona that photographs earthy and quietly modern.

"I know I don't have the look that most transwomen have," Nef said recently during a telephone interview from Los Angeles, "that very 'Kardashian' look that's very extreme. Transwomen who have been accepted into the fold of media look much more feminine. They are much further along in their transition."

Nef's leave-the-diva-at-home appeal is the very reason the Philadelphia-born model and actress was chosen in May as the first transgender woman to sign with IMG Models.

In the world of fashion, this is huge. IMG is arguably the world's most influential agency of its kind, producing New York Fashion Week, as well as the fashion weeks in Miami, Milan, and Tokyo.

Since inking the deal, Nef has become the first transgender model to be profiled on Vogue.com. And some weeks later, she landed a role in the Amazon Studios original series Transparent. The second season will begin running in December, but director Jill Soloway is tight-lipped about Nef's role in the story of a family who learns their father is transgender.

That the mainstream is ready for a transgender model is a testament to many years of micro-steps in the fashion industry.

Five years ago, we saw the earliest evidence that androgyny was going to be an important trend in menswear. With each successive season, more designers added tunics. Those tunics evolved into dresses.

Men started carrying manbags and wearing wedges. On the runway, these looks naturally lent themselves to androgynous models, male or female. Today's menswear era that embraces femininity is not even blinkworthy.

Influential fashion blogs have spent the better part of the year ranking the top transgender models to watch. (Nef made most of the lists, including Paper Mag and Fashion Gone Rogue.) Formerly androgynous male model Andrej Pejic is now transgender woman Andreja Pejic - with a contract as the face of celebrity cosmetics line Make Up For Ever.

And last month, the first transgender modeling agency to open in the United States, Apple Model Management, set up shop in Los Angeles.

As the runways become more inclusive, so does the larger pop culture world. The success of the Netflix drama Orange is the New Black has turned transgender actress Laverne Cox into a household name. Writer and speaker Janet Mock weighs in on issues of gender and sexual equality as much as she does race and poverty.

And whether you think Caitlyn Jenner deserves a 2015 ESPY Award, the 65-year-old transgender woman has brought new awareness to a subject that was taboo only 18 months ago.

Yet these high-profile women are not representative of most transgender people - especially those without the money to transform themselves with high-definition makeup and a personal trainer. Nef, a sex columnist for Adult Mag, considers herself a voice for the transwomen who don't have a stylist team.

"That is just not every girl's story," Nef said.

Nef doesn't have activist beginnings. In fact, she describes her early life as simple and privileged.

Born Harrison Jacob Neff in Old City - her father is the well-connected advertising executive David Neff - she spent her first five years in Philadelphia before moving with her mother to the Boston suburbs.

Nef said she felt most comfortable connecting with her feminine side rather than her masculine one. And as a teenager, Nef said, she identified as a gay man.

"Still, there were certain things where I aligned with women more," Nef said. "I was a lousy actor until I read for the women's parts in plays like [Macbeth] or Tatiana in A Midsummer Night's Dream."

First, she tried to live gender-neutrally, not as a boy or a girl. She began dressing as a woman during her first year at Columbia University, where she graduated last year with a degree in drama and theater arts.

"We encouraged her to do whatever made her happy," David Neff said. "I'm not going to say it's been easy, but I felt strongly that I love my kid. I loved my kid as a boy and I love my daughter."

Nef started taking female hormones in March 2014, about the time she was discovered by a photographer on Instagram.

That led to spreads in i-D magazine and Dazed & Confused, two underground glossies that fashion insiders read to stay current.

From there, she was asked to walk in the spring 2015 New York Fashion Week runway shows, including Hood by Air and Eckhaus Latta.

"My life is a process," Nef said. "It's one nuanced process, and I'm trying to live it the best way I can."


ewellington@phillynews.com

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