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Gender-bending model pushes limits of the runway

On a chilly winter afternoon, Andrej Pejic settles into a Manhattan cafe with a cup of Earl Grey tea, sitting gracefully, long legs crossed. The blue-eyed fashion model gazes out a window, unaware that almost every man sitting at surrounding tables is transfixed.

A man in a black leather jacket walks up to the window, presses his face against the glass and kisses it. Pejic giggles and admits: "I find it flattering."

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The admirers are likely unaware that the beautiful blonde is actually a man.

As Fashion Week gets under way in New York City, Pejic is one of the most recognizable — and controversial — faces in the industry. He's the only top-tier fashion model who can walk down the runway as either a man or a woman. And his androgynous beauty has turned him into a trendsetter in an industry that's always seeking to push the envelope.

"He's just this beautiful thing that everyone wants a piece of," says stylist Kyle Anderson, who dressed Pejic for a German magazine cover.

He has the kind of face that makes even the vainest woman jealous: high cheekbones, flawless skin and plump, shapely lips. When he speaks, his ever-so-slight Adam's apple is the first sign of his masculinity.

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Though Pejic isn't trying to be a woman, many in the transgender community have already claimed him as their own. He is seen as a bit of a maverick, someone who has embraced his sexuality without any need for explanation or justification. Last year, the gay and lesbian magazine Out named him "stylemaker of the year" and put him on its cover wearing a bridal veil and flowers in his hair.

Pejic graced the covers of 14 magazines last year alone, including an ad campaign for a Dutch pushup bra. In 2011, he was the face for a fashion line by designer Marc Jacobs. He has walked the runways for heavyweight designers, including John Galliano and Jean Paul Gaultier.

French designer Gaultier was so enamored of Pejic that he used his gender-bending look as a source of inspiration for his 2011 men's and women's wear shows, both of which Pejic modeled in. In the Gaultier men's show, a pistol-packing, bare-chested Pejic wore a sleek black suit as "James Blonde."

That was in stark contrast with the women's show, where Gaultier crowned Pejic with the prized piece in the women's wear collection: a couture bride's dress.

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    Best of Fashion Week Fall 2011

    Take a look at the most interesting trends and fun styles from the top shows at Mercedes-Benz New York Fashion Week.

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    The biggest designers in fashion reveal their fall collections at Mercedes-Benz New York Fashion Week. Take a look at the most interesting trends and fun styles from the top shows.

    Marchesa
    Celebrity-favorite Marchesa sent models down the runway in theatrical gowns that were heavy on lace, tulle and volume. Inspired by the character of Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’ "Great Expectations" – a British spinster who refused to wear anything but a decaying wedding gown – Marchesa’s floor-length dresses featured intricate embroidery, ruffles and sheer elegance.

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    Anna Sui -

    It was all fun, pop colors and psychedelic prints at the Anna Sui Fall 2011 collection. Models displayed girly baby doll dresses, jumpers and schoolgirl knee-high socks. Layering was dominant as was fur in coats, hats and capes.

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  • Image: Adrienne Vittadini - Presentation - Fall 2011 Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week

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    Adrienne Vittadini -

    Adrienne Vittadini featured a clean and comfortable ethic for fall. For day, loose knits in neutral shades were prevalent, paired with stretchy trousers or leather leggings. For night, Vittadini relied less on what's trendy or avant-garde, and more on designs that highlight women's natural curves. Her princess seaming, modest hemlines and scoop necks are perfect for any woman channeling her inner Grace Kelly.

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    Kevork Kiledjian featured sexy, bold leather styles, paired with fringes and sheer shirts — a wardrobe Catwoman would meow for. In a New York Times interview, the designer said he intended his collection to be "a harmony of opposites, such as mixing leather and lace, and playing with lengths."

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    Badgley Mischka -

    The designer duo showed the audience a return to restrained glamour, with a dress-heavy collection that relied on color and texture to set the mood. Dolman sleeves were prevalent, as was sheer detailing (a trend that's sticking around for another season). The couture dresses were spectacular and featured fringe, cascading ruffles, sequins and satin bows to great success.

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    While gray was big on the runway for Fashion Week Fall 2011, Thakoon — one of Michelle Obama's favorite designers — featured bright plaid and festive tribal prints.

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    A model wears a bold, rich creation from the Ann Yee presentation on Feb. 10, 2011. The designer sought to incorporate "the dark reflections of emotion" for her latest collection, taking inspiration from John Keats' poem, "When I Have Fears."

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    Models walk the runway during the Victoria Beckham Fall 2011 presentation. The former Spice Girl featured flowy gowns in strong colors, including bright yellow and red, and knee-length styles in muted beige-like tones.

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    The Rebecca Minkoff Fall/Winter 2011 collection was infused with the trendy boho-meets-rocker vibe. Everything was either black or neutral, which served as a contrast to Minkoff's brightly colored shoes and handbags.

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  • Image: A model presents a creation from the Jill Stuart Fall/Winter 2011 collection during New York Fashion Week

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    The Jill Stuart Fall/Winter 2011 collection focused on winter hue staples, such as navy and camel, accented with bright colors like red and teal. Dresses featured owl and fox prints, gold embellishments and ladylike pleats.

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    The BCBG Max Azria Fall 2011 collection highlighted soft, feminine style with models sashaying down the runway in long, layered and breezy silhouettes reminiscent of a glamorous ‘70s party. Silk-chiffon and crepe were popular, as were sheer turtlenecks and delicate pleats.

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  • Image: Vena Cava - Runway - Fall 2011 Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week

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    Glamorous glitter stole the show at the Vena Cava Fall 2011 runway presentation at New York Fashion Week. Models strut down the runway in ‘90s inspired cropped tops, cutout styles and flowy long skirts.

    Vena Cava designers Sophie Buhai and Lisa Mayock took their ode to the past one step further by distributing a ‘zine dedicated to the ‘90s, highlighting pop culture favorites such as “Saved by the Bell” and Calvin Klein ads.

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French photographer Sebastien Micke, who has photographed transgender models, says Pejic's femininity is effortless.

"Andrej's got this thing that supermodels have — how to pose in front of the camera," Micke says. "It's just natural."

From refugee to model

Richard Drew / AP
In this Jan. 27, 2012 photo, photographer Sebastien Micke and assistant Russ Heller, left, photographs transgender model Andrej Pejic on a rooftop in New York. Transgender models have promoted the work of Marc Jacobs and Jean Paul Gaultier, but it’s a man with no plans for gender reassignment surgery who’s straddling the line like no other. Pejic, 20, says he’s perfectly happy being gender neutral. Some in the fashion industry see Pejic as a sign of a new gender fluidity.(AP Photo/Richard Drew)

But life hasn't always been so easy or glamorous for the 20-year-old. Born in Bosnia, Pejic spent much of his childhood living in a Serbian refugee camp before his family fled the country for Australia. He was discovered by a talent scout while working at a McDonald's as a teenager.

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From an early age, Pejic exhibited qualities thought of as traditionally feminine, for instance, preferring Barbie dolls over toy cars. As a teenager, he often hung out with girls and was once busted for stealing makeup from a drugstore. Pejic says acceptance from his friends and family made him comfortable in his own skin.

"I'm lucky in that sense," he says. "If I had big muscles and were hairy with a beard, I might not be comfortable with that."

At 6-feet-1, he's rail-thin, a women's size 2 or 4. His shoe size is the most problematic. Technically a women's size 11, he's forced to squeeze his feet into a size 10 to walk in women's shows.

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    Fernanda Calfat / Getty Images North America

    Image: The Blonds - Runway - Fall 2011 Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week

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    Left: A model walks the runway at The Blonds Fall 2011 fashion show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at Milk Studios.

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    A model walks the runway at The Blonds Fall 2011 fashion show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at Milk Studios.

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    A model walks the runway at the Jeremy Scott Fall 2011 fashion show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at Milk Studios.

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  • Image: New York Fashion Week Fall/Winter 2011 - Jeremy Scott

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    Models present creations by designer Jeremy Scott at the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York City.

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    A model walks the runway at the Jeremy Scott Fall 2011 show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at Milk Studios.

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    Fashion from the fall 2011 collection of Nanette Lepore is modeled on Feb. 16, 2011 in New York.

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    Fall 2011 fashion from Anna Sui is modeled during New York Fashion Week.

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    A model presents a creation from the Narciso Rodriguez Fall/Winter 2011 collection during New York Fashion Week.

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    Dancers from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy United States Youth Program model Erickson Beamon Fall/Winter 2011 jewelry at Milk Studios in New York City.

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    Fall 2011 fashion from Thom Browne is modeled during Fashion Week in New York.

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    A model walks the runway at the Zero Maria Cornejo Fall 2011 fashion show.

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    Models walk the runway at the VPL by Victoria Bartlett Fall 2011 fashion show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week.

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    A model presents a creation by Jason Wu during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York, New York.

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    A model walks the runway at the Thom Browne Fall 2011 presentation during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week.

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    A model attends the Bespoken Fall 2011 presentation during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week.

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    Models pose during the Byron Lars Beauty Mark Fall 2011 presentation during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week.

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    A look from the threeASFOUR Fall 2011 fashion show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week.

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    A model walks the runway at the Custo Barcelona Fall 2011 fashion show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week.

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    A feminine style from the Marc Jacobs Fall 2011 show during Fashion Week in New York.

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    The Y-3 Fall 2011 fashion show featured an urban, pajama-inspired style.

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  • Image: Altuzarra - Runway - Fall 2011 Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week

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    Capes and ponchos are still going strong for next season. A model walks the runway in a red-lined cape/coat creation at the Altuzarra Fall 2011 fashion show.

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  • Image: A model presents a creation from the Rag & Bone Fall/Winter 2011 collection during New York Fashion Week

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    A model presents a creation from the Rag & Bone Fall/Winter 2011 collection during New York Fashion Week.

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    The G-Star RAW Fall/Winter 2011 collection featured big, baggy denim.

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  • Image: Byron Lars Beauty Mark - Presentation - Fall 2011 Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week

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    Models pose during the Byron Lars Beauty Mark Fall 2011 presentation during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week.

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    A model presents a creation by Rag & Bone during Mercedes-Benz Fall Fashion Week in New York City.

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    A model poses at the Gary Graham Fall 2011 presentation during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week.

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  • Image: Odyn Vovk - Runway - Fall 2011 Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week

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    A model presents a creation at the G-Star RAW Fall/Winter 2011 collection during New York Fashion Week.

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  • Image: Custo Barcelona - Runway - Fall 2011 Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week

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    A model walks the runway at the Custo Barcelona Fall 2011 fashion show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week.

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    A model walks the runway at the Alexander Wang Fall 2011 show.

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Gene Hogan, a representative at DNA models, the agency representing Pejic in the U.S., says dozens of calls pour in every week touting a slew of hot new androgynous models: "They say, 'Oh, you've got to see this guy! He's the black Andrej Pejic!'"

For Pejic, every fashion season brings a new surge of headlines and opportunities, including talks of a fragrance line or a possible reality TV show. With New York Fashion Week — when designers debut their fall collections — beginning Thursday, it's unclear which shows he will walk in — if any at all.

With the frenzy of media attention over the past year, industry insiders say Pejic runs the risk of overexposure. Given his very niche look, Pejic's ability to stay relevant may become difficult. And as his star rises, it's possible designers could hesitate to book him, fearing his persona may overshadow the clothes.

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Pejic is all too aware of the fickle nature of the fashion business. He plans to attend college eventually, having deferred his acceptance to a university in Australia. If fashion doesn't work out, he'd like to go back to school and major in economics or law.

Although open to discussing almost anything, Pejic remains secretive about his sexual orientation. When asked whether he prefers men or women, he coyly smiles.

"Love has no boundaries," he says.

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