Munroe Bergdorf On Her New Illamasqua Campaign, Beauty Heroes & Being In The Public Eye

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To say it's been a tough few weeks for model, activist and DJ Munroe Bergdorf would be a mighty understatement but when I meet Bergdorf for breakfast to discuss her new Illamasqua campaign, I am instantly taken aback by her strength, poise, eloquence and warmth. Talking openly and articulately about her experiences, her heroes (beauty and otherwise) and inclusivity, as well as sharing her excitement about working with Illamasqua and plans for the future, Bergdorf is remarkably calm, kind and philosophical.
Last week, Illamasqua announced long-time collaborator Bergdorf as the face of their Christmas campaign, launching in November, alongside self-titled "gender capitalist" and model, Rain Dove. Both Bergdorf and Dove are outspoken in their opinions, courageously working to celebrate difference and strive for equality, despite the relentless attack of trolls. Similarly, Illamasqua is a beauty brand with a voice, and encourages its wearers to have one too.
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And so, Munroe Bergdorf was the perfect choice for the Christmas campaign, which explores individuality, self-expression and gender neutrality. “It’s not about being a girl, it’s not about being a boy. It’s about being free to explore your individuality; celebrating who you are today, and who you want to be tomorrow,” the brand explained on Instagram. "We are not afraid to be provocative and talk about the complex issues that affect our generation – whether they be religion, race, gender or the environment."
Styled by legendary stylist and accessories designer Judy Blame, with beauty by makeup maestro Sharon Dowsett, the campaign is both colourful and captivating. Below, Munroe Bergdorf opens up about working with Illamasqua, why she's willing to continue talking about race and gender, and what's in store for 2017 and beyond.
Congratulations on the campaign, it looks incredible. Can you tell me a bit about your history with Illamasqua and why this felt like the right thing to do?
I’ve worked with Illamasqua for quite a number of years and they’ve always been really supportive with my career. They've supported me and encouraged me to use my voice, and think deeper as well. I like that they also ask their customers to think deeper – it’s not all about “Here, buy our product” and play it safe. You know the whole thing with Donald Trump, it just sends a message that they stand for something and it’s really important to stand for something. So I guess being involved with a campaign, which is challenging gender and challenging how I think about gender, is a really interesting and exciting thing. I don’t think it’s really been done in the same way that it’s going to be done. It’s so much more colourful, I think gender neutral campaigns tend to be quite boring. So I hope that this changes that; it will change that.
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The mainstream beauty industry has been slower and less open than the fashion industry when it comes to exploring different notions of gender, would you agree?Definitely. I think the problem with gender neutral campaigns is sometimes they want to erase gender and I think it’s not so much about erasing gender, it’s challenging how we think about gender. Some people do identify as female and some people identify as male, and there's nothing wrong with that, but we also need to put into the consciousness that you can be both or that you can be neither, or you can take aspects of either and play around with it. So when it's gender neutral it doesn’t need to be boring.
What was the shoot like and how was it working with Rain Dove and Judy Blame?
It’s amazing working with Rain, I think we’ve admired each other from afar so it was really lovely to meet her and get to know her. Also she speaks with such amazing knowledge that I just haven’t heard anyone speak with that authority. She's a really interesting person.
The models that have been cast are so interesting as well, a great variety. When it comes to diversity I think it's so easy to just cast “light-skin” models or really obvious choices and have a mixed-race girl and that would be the diversity. We need to be challenging what diversity actually is. If it’s just tokenism and ticking the boxes, that’s not good enough. You need to be representing everybody, if you truly want to push the campaign that is there to break down barriers, you need to be breaking down those barriers.
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Do you ever think that the end might justify the means, so even if it’s not done sincerely by brands talking feminism, diversity and inclusivity, as long as these discussions are being brought into the public arena, it’s worth it in the end?
Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. With what I’ve been through, that whole thing I feel can be really counterproductive if it’s not organic or if it’s not real. If you’re just doing a campaign to feed off of people’s insecurities by saying “You’re worth it” but you don’t actually follow through with action... If anyone else wants to speak out about racism, what kind of message does it send to them? So I don’t know, I don’t think that it is really very productive if you aren’t following through. That’s why I’m so excited to be part of this campaign, because Illamasqua follows through time and time again. They stand by what they believe in. They could probably shift a lot more product by not saying anything but they do, and they encourage everybody else to do it too. That’s what I’m about.

If it had happened to somebody that can’t articulate themselves in the same way that I can, they would have been buried underneath so much hate and so much backlash.

It's evident that Illamasqua isn’t scared to perhaps alienate some people by being vocal and standing by their ethos and message. How do you cope with the backlash you receive as a public figure?
It’s been really tough, I’m not gonna lie. There’s been moments where I wanted to crawl into bed and not get out. Right at the beginning when it all started happening, I felt like I don’t know if I should do any TV, I don’t know if I should do any interviews, maybe I should crawl and live in the woods or something! [laughs] Then I thought, you know what, I’m actually lucky enough to be able to speak in public and string sentences together in a way that a lot of people aren’t. That’s what made me really angry, because if it had happened to somebody that can’t articulate themselves in the same way that I can, they would have been buried underneath so much hate and so much backlash. But I was able to do that, so I thought if I didn’t do that then I would be sending the wrong message to people. I felt like I owed it to people to send a message, to say speaking out about racism isn’t a bad thing, and also to clear my name. If I hadn’t done it, I would be that person that said that forever.
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Social media is one of the best and worst things of our generation, and stories can snowball so quickly. But at the same time, the support you’ve received since the Illamasqua campaign was announced must have been phenomenal?
The hashtag was amazing and just people really rallying, and I’ve received so many care packages from people. It’s been incredible. It also made me want to be a better person. To think if this wasn’t me, if I didn’t show up for other people the way they showed up for me and put my faith back in community. The queer community, black women especially, have really showed up for me. It was a situation that I think a lot of black women feel familiar with. Just being shot down and when you talk about your experiences, being told that this isn’t true – “You’re the problem for talking about your problems” – is really frustrating. I’m really glad that people realise it isn’t about me, it’s about everybody.
I get recognised every day and it’s a lot but it really bothered me at the beginning, because I felt like “this is going to be it forever” and I didn’t ask for this. The more that I’ve thought about the situation, I've realised that I haven’t actually done anything wrong, apart from speak about something that I and other people are affected by. So when people come up to me and talk about it, then I feel like I’ve actually helped in some way. Maybe I had to get over myself – it isn’t about me and someone had to go through it I guess. I’m glad that it was me and not somebody that couldn’t have got through it.
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I’m grateful that it was you. I cannot imagine how difficult this has been for you but I'm so thankful that we've had someone as eloquent and poised as you to continue this discussion.
OMG, Laverne Cox messaged me today. I woke up and I was like, is it the real Laverne?!
Are you excited for the world to see the full campaign images in November?
I’m super excited! We had so much fun filming it, the vibe on set was amazing. Everyone was just having a laugh, there were so many wigs and everyone was trying on the wigs. It’s great to work with people that – you know, working in fashion can be quite ridiculous and everyone takes it very, very seriously. Illamasqua just always has fun and the campaign is always so colourful. There’s always a deeper meaning to them as well and pushing the standard of beauty that isn’t the norm is so important. Especially when we’re so wrapped up in what’s going on right now.
It’s really brave and bold because no one else in the beauty sphere is really doing that authentically. Who are your beauty heroes?
When I was growing up I was always obsessed with Cyndi Lauper and I always mention her [laughs]. I’ve always been obsessed with her just because of how she deals with things. I think that she channels a lot of her inner feelings through the way that she looks. Which I do also, that's why I’m wearing black! [laughs]. Cyndi Lauper breaks the mould, there’s nobody like her. She was punk in a sphere that wasn’t embracing the punk. She was too punk to be pop, it was amazing.
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Her, Naomi Campbell, for obvious reasons, and Laverne Cox! She’s made trans beautiful, she came up. Trans is beautiful anyway but she came up with the #transisbeautiful hashtag. And that was such a big statement before all of the representation in the media that we’re seeing now. There was a notion that trans is something that you should be ashamed of if you’re transgender – “You’re always gonna look a certain way” or “There’s no way that anyone would ever find you desirable, because you’re transgender.” To have somebody that was actively working to make our identity something that we should be proud of, I think that was really amazing to feel and I really felt it when she came. Because there were no real trans women of colour out there, especially trans black women, and just seeing her and how composed she is. Maybe I got a little bit of strength from her. I can definitely say that seeing her go up against all odds and succeed really did do my heart the world of good when I wasn’t going through a very good time with being in my transition. I’m really thankful for her strength.
And now she’s messaged you!
So serendipitous, it’s ridiculous, but it’s nice that she recognises my strength in the same way that I did hers.
Have you thought about what you want to do next?
I’ve got a lot on at the moment. It’s, like, a bit crazy but yeah, I’ve got some good projects on the go. I can’t really say too much, because I don’t wanna jinx it, but there’s some great stuff. I’m really just thinking about how I can push the envelope and how I can do something. I don’t wanna just be involved with brands in the same way that I was involved in L’Oréal and it just messed up. I wanna be involved with things that are a true extension of my nature. Illamasqua is that to a T. Illamasqua is cruelty-free and I really think that if I’m pushing my agenda, which is really positive and trying to make the world a better place, then I really need to follow through with that. So I can’t really be involved with brands that are exploitative in any way. I’m looking forward to the future and I’m looking forward to getting things going.
Finally, talk to me about this glow!
It’s Illamasqua Beyond, does it look okay? I put it on in the car. It’s the Beyond powder, it’s incredible. Oh my God, Fatima Manji – you know, from Channel 4 News – she texted me to say she bought it too!
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