This article originally appeared in BRICKS #10, The Family Issue, which you can buy from our online store here.
“Are you queer?!” Munroe Bergdorf asked Reece King, just moments after first meeting at the 2018 British Fashion Awards. Earlier that night, King helped Bergdorf walk up the stairs when her feet were hurting from a pair of Giuseppe Zanotti heels, and later – when King was belting a Robyn song at their shared dinner table – Bergdorf felt unexpectedly drawn to the model, knowingly predicting a long-lasting friendship. “We’re very much aligned when it comes to energy,” she shares with BRICKS now.
Friendship aside, the two models and activists have a lot in common. In 2017, Bergdorf became the first trans model for L’Oréal. However, after Bergdorf called out racism online, the beauty brand dropped her. In response, Bergdorf delivered a series of eloquent interviews to the press – solidifying herself as an outspoken voice for Black and trans rights.
King, on the other hand – who cut his teeth in the industry at an early age – came out as bisexual in 2018, challenging the industry’s gender stereotypes, especially as a Black man. Now, the two use their platforms to host important conversations surrounding gender, identity, race, and beauty in fashion and media. For the pair, modelling isn’t just a creative art form; it’s a way to make change that will last.
Here, Bergdorf and King discuss rewriting gender expression in the fashion industry, queer love, and the joy of chosen families during these unusual times.
M: Hey BRICKS magazine, this is Munroe and Reece. I’m going to interview Reece and then Reece is going to interview me. Okay what’s the tea?
R: Tea is hot, no tea’s cold. No, I’m good – I’m happy and content.
M: Good, we love that. I want to know how your approach to relationships has evolved in these past couple of years.
R: I think I’m more open to experiences in general, I feel like I was very shut off a couple of years ago and maybe not even comfortable within myself to be comfortable with other people. I think I’m just a lot more accepting of myself and others.
M: How would you say your attractions have changed and evolved? I remember having conversations with you about attractions to masculine men.
I think I’m more open to experiences in general, I feel like I was very shut off a couple of years ago and maybe not even comfortable within myself to be comfortable with other people. I think I’m just a lot more accepting of myself and others.
R: Oh, I feel like that was my childhood – that was the first thing I was attracted to and then it probably broadened by being open to different types of people and energies, not just masculine men. I definitely found better connections and intimacy with people who are not masculine, and I found a whole other side of love and connection within femininity.
M: Has that love and new standpoint on femininity evolved as you explored your own identity?
R: Yeah, I think so. I think I saw it as roles as well – like I have to be this person and the person I’m with has to be that. The more I’ve experienced different types of people, the more I’ve realised that I like other things or not just one specific thing that revolves around masculinity.
M: Nice. How has your family dynamic influenced your view of love?
R: I feel like when I got into my chosen family in ballroom and outside of ballroom like you, it made me appreciate family more, and I think it gave me a version of family that I wish I had experienced in my biological family. I think it actually – no – I know it made me appreciate my biological family more, as it made me navigate with them how I navigate with my chosen family. Even if it feels different, it made me want to love them better or try harder the way I try with my chosen family. Like you, my sister! You was my first chosen family, because I remember when I was in New York, and I did that job for Calvin Klein, and they asked me about my chosen family, and I was like, ‘I don’t have that’. That was interesting because it completely changed within the next few years.
M: Awww, well what have you gotten out of that? Like how has that made you see the family dynamic differently?
R: It made me feel less alone and more open to my chosen family. I thought it was two separate things, just friends and then family – I didn’t actually know what a chosen family gives or if it was even real before I experienced it. So I love it, and I need it, and I appreciate you.
M: I love you so much.
R: I love you too.
M: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received from your family, friends, or community of support? Give us a tip, babes.
R: I’ll give you one little bit from my grandmother who said that I have to just do it and do it now, because – not to be depressing – but we’re going to die. You have to do it now, you have to try now, and make everything a reality now while you can… that’s the best advice I have ever got.
In terms of actual partner-love relationships, the two that I had taught me a lot, but I feel like my friendships and the relationships that I have with everyone else taught me how to treat people and how to treat myself.
M: Seize the moment.
M: What do you deem to be essential in friendships and relationships?
R: Trust, pure intentions, integrity, honesty – they’re probably the main things that come to mind. For me, it’s probably genuine care for the best of that person, like unconditional love in friendships and relationships.
M: I agree. What have your relationships taught you about love?
R: That it’s not easy, honey, and that relationships are more than just a honeymoon phase because I think I would get caught up in that. I haven’t had that many though. In terms of actual partner-love relationships, the two that I had taught me a lot, but I feel like my friendships and the relationships that I have with everyone else taught me how to treat people and how to treat myself.
M: That’s a good answer, boo. In what way does your gender expression impact your career?
R: I would say it’s been a double-ended sword for me. At the beginning, it was seen as negative to express myself in the ways that I wanted to – like, if it was something femme or unconventional – but the more I stuck to it, I think it grew my career in the direction that it did. People (that) got on board with it were like, ‘You can do this.’ It was actually a point of interest. It’s impacted my career by actually making my career a thing, like making it possible in general.
M: I think one of the big takeaways from our careers is that we’re kind of making the rulebook up as we go – as there’s not really anyone in the UK like us. I feel like with the intersections of being Black, mixed-race, queer, and not binary in terms of gender expression, there’s not that many people that are working within the fashion industry in the way that we are. I feel like that’s why you’re so successful, as you stick to your story, and it is really inspiring. Do you think the fashion industry does enough to create a safe space for queer people, and what do you think we can do better?
R: From being in the fashion industry for the last six to seven years, I’ve seen it get a lot better, and I’ve seen people actually try and make an effort. I think there’s a lot more that can be done, and it should go a lot further than being on set.
M: And that’s what you think people can do better.
R: Well, I think there’s a lot of things that people can do better. I think there are a lot more spaces that people could fill with certain people instead of one token person.
M: That’s tea.
I think there are a lot more spaces that people could fill with certain people instead of one token person. It’s strange because on one hand you can be that strange token person and at the same time you’re looking around and thinking, ‘There’s a lot more room in this space for other people to be in.’ It doesn’t need to be one token person that fills the role of gay and trans and queer and Black, and sometimes I feel like they whittle it down to putting it all into one person.
R: It’s strange because on one hand you can be that strange token person and at the same time you’re looking around and thinking, ‘There’s a lot more room in this space for other people to be in.’ It doesn’t need to be one token person that fills the role of gay and trans and queer and Black, and sometimes I feel like they whittle it down to putting it all into one person.
M: We’ve seen that in the past like what they did with Naomi Campbell and for the while Kate Moss was the only smaller model. and I think in a lot of ways I’m often the only trans person in the room at dinners and campaigns.
R: Which is great.
M: Well, it’s great for me, but it’s also not. It’s great for my career but it’s lonely. I don’t want to be the only person, you know. I’m getting these opportunities, but I think it’s not sustainable to have like all of that on your shoulders… I was us all to win.
R: There’s enough to go round. They always do that with any professional, especially when it comes to Black people, there’s always like ‘Oh we’ll have one, two max,’ but I feel like they’re just threatened by having all of them there.
M: I think there’s a problem with seeing minorities as a monolith – as all the same. I think there’s diversity within diversity, and I think people need to get out of the mindset that all trans people are the same, all Black people are the same, all gay people are the same. You can have more than one of us because we are bringing different things to the table. Do your research and do it well.
R: Do your job.
M: Exactly. Well, do you want to interview me, Miss Reece? Okay Honey, let’s go!
R: Yessss! Okay, first question – how have you connected with family during this past year?
M: What month is it? Okay, so last year we were in the depths of the pandemic in lockdown. I don’t think I would have really gotten through lockdown as well as I did without you.
M: I think our friendship really blossomed – I mean we were really close anyway. I think it turned from a friendship into a family dynamic over the pandemic. I think that I really started to understand the deep value of chosen family. Because when you go through something as unprecedented as a pandemic and everything that you deem normal is stripped away from you, you really realise the importance of the people in your life. So, if it wasn’t for people like you that I consider family, I think that that whole experience would have been so much harder.
R: Same. Chosen family came first. What is the most meaningful piece of advice that a family member has given you?
M: You are the company you keep.
R: Who said that?
M: My mother. I think that the energy of the people that you surround yourself with rubs off on you, and if you are surrounded by negativity you will become negative. If you are surrounded by people that push you to be a better version of yourself, then you will be a better version of yourself and [if they] are pushing themselves to grow and learn new information then you will do the same. I think that’s the amazing thing about success in all of its iterations – that it’s contagious. It’s either contiguous or… it’s contagious if you’re a positive person. If you’re a negative person then it will breed jealousy. I think it’s really important to surround yourself with people that inspire you. I’m not just saying professionally successful, I mean like emotionally successful – with your happiness, with your mental health, with living a life that you want to live. If you are surrounded by people that are putting in that work then it will inspire you to do the same thing.
I think that the energy of the people that you surround yourself with rubs off on you, and if you are surrounded by negativity you will become negative. If you are surrounded by people that push you to be a better version of yourself, then you will be a better version of yourself and if they are pushing themselves to grow and learn new information then you will do the same. I think that’s the amazing thing about success in all of its iterations – it’s contagious.
R: Yeah, it translates through you. When it comes to love and friendships, what scares you the most?
M: Betrayal. I give a lot to my friendships.
R: Betrayal in what sense?
M: People not treating me how I treat them. I give a lot to my friends emotionally, and I guess sometimes I expect the same back – I know you shouldn’t because not everybody has the capacity to give back the same that you do.
R: I get you on an equilibrium vibe – give and take.
M: I think maybe I’m scared of – I think it’s obviously trauma – but being an afterthought of somebody who I prioritise makes me very sad. And that’s happened quite a few times. I just feel like my friendships – and especially my chosen family – are so important to me, so when that isn’t reciprocated it kind of makes me feel very scared and vulnerable, not in a good way.
R: I can understand that. What do you wish you’d known about love?
M: I guess that I deserve it, and I think I never used to really believe that. I thought that if I want to have a partner then I need to mute these parts of myself or I need to make (certain) parts of me smaller.
R: Not the shrinking.
M: I never thought that I could be loved in my wholeness. Sometimes I’ll just spiral and I feel like I’m burdening people with my trauma and the way that I respond to that. I guess my relationship with you has made me realise that I don’ t need to apologise for going through it.
R: You’re never a burden.
M: You’ve always made me feel like it’s good to share these things. It’s not like it’s all the time, it’s like sometimes I really struggle with this life that I have and the amount of attention, the amount of eyeballs… especially when we go out and there’s like so much attention and people are weird with me.
R: It’s a lot.
M: I think that’s the hardest thing – especially when you’ve got loads of people saying how much they love you and it’s like well you don’t actually know me. It’s difficult, and I think that’s it – you know I’ve realised that I do deserve love and that I don’t need to apologise when I’m struggling and that those who love you will help you regardless.
R: Through the good and the bad. Did your experience of love change or remain the same after transitioning?
M: Oh my god, during transitioning my relationship with love was very self-destructive because I wasn’t okay with being trans. I think I was struggling to access my pride. I knew there wasn’t necessarily anything wrong with being trans, but when you’re told so many times by so many different people that you are unlovable and that people will love you in the bedroom only and not out in public or people will love you online with who they think you are but they don’t actually know you… the love that I wanted was destructive and toxic because I thought that’s what love was.
I want to hear more stories about trans people in love with other trans people – not just in a binary sense – not just femme and masc people. I want to hear more perspectives from trans masculine people because I feel like there’s so many stories from trans women and trans femmes, so I think we really need to make sure that the playing field is level, and we understand all experiences of trans people regardless of what your expression is. More trans love stories, please.
R: I can relate to that. What did the transitioning process teach you about self-love?
M: That it’s the most important thing in life because if you don’t have that, you won’t have a foundation to build upon with relationships with others. It’s not so much that you need to be 100 per cent sorted to have relationships with others, but you need to be actually trying to do the work to love yourself so that you can give to others because if you’re just pouring from an empty cup then you’re going to burn out.
R: You’re going to run dry eventually. What do you think is missing in the representation of queer love and community?
M: We don’t see trans love stories of trans people loving trans people. I know so many trans people that are in love, and I think that it’s often a relationship of a quality and helping each other through such a difficult process and having someone you don’t need to explain any of that to. My ex-girlfriend was trans and she opened my heart up to understanding that I deserved love because in loving her transness, I was able to love my own. I think I want to hear more stories about trans people in love with other trans people – not just in a binary sense – not just femme and masc people. I want to hear more perspectives from trans masculine people because I feel like there’s so many stories from trans women and trans femmes, so I think we really need to make sure that the playing field is level, and we understand all experiences of trans people regardless of what your expression is. More trans love stories, please.
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