Elliott Sailors and her husband were posing at NYC's Antoine Verglas Studio on Monday for a photo shoot while wearing practically identical outfits: baggy blue jeans, dark knit sweaters, and loose tees. After changing back into her own clothes, the womenswear-turned-menswear model reappeared in a flannel shirt, combat boots, and her signature necklace with the Sanskrit word for fearlessness etched into it.
It all started with a drastic haircut.
After adopting an androgynous crew cut last year, Sailors made headlines and earned a spot on the Today Show for her gender bending modeling work. Despite the press attention, she is adamant that it's all more than just a career stunt. It's a lifestyle change, too.
We chatted with Sailors about nontraditional gender roles, Andrej Pejić, and her main man.
What was running through your head as you were getting your hair cut?
When we were on our way, I was totally excited and not nervous at all. It was as we actually approached the door that suddenly I realized that my heart was racing. When I got to the desk, I noticed that there were actually tears in my eyes. I explained to the barber that I wanted a haircut and he was a little confused at first, because it's not a hair salon it's a barbershop. Thorin Decatur, of Decatur and Sons, is my barber and he's actually my husband's barber, too. So, I told Thorin, "I might cry but don't even worry about it. I totally want to do this." Even once I sat there, a few tears fell. I just took a deep breath and I was good to go. When he showed me my hair, when it fell, I actually just laughed.
Now that you've experienced two aspects of the modeling industry, what would you say are some differences between womenswear and menswear modeling?
One of my favorite things, actually, about working in menswear is that people are much more direct about what they want. As a female, people would try to be a little bit more careful [with what they said to me]. They didn't want to step on toes. That's not true of everybody, obviously, but it was that way often. They would just find a nice way of saying, "Oh, maybe you could try to do it this way..." As a guy, they'll just be like, "Dude, stand up straight. C'mon." I appreciate the directness and thank them for being so direct. I also tell them it might be helpful to do that with the girls, too. It works.
What certain mannerisms do you need to channel to give a more masculine gender performance on shoots?
I don't know so much that I took them on now. It's sort of just more me. Not sort of...is [more me]. When I first started working as a female model, that's when I had to learn how to be girly and more feminine. That was a little harder for me to take on. Whereas now, I just get to relax into being me. I actually don't think about it as much. There's a little unlearning that happened, so that obviously takes some thought.
Were you at all influenced by models who are very androgynous, like Andrej Pejić?
Completely. In fact, I've really been giving it more thought, and it was actually in Paris in 2003 that I first saw Omahyra Mota. That was when I gained my appreciation of androgyny. It was also in 2011 that I became familiar with Andrej Pejić and what he does. I think it's beautiful. It was actually after seeing him that I did my first shoot as a guy, but with my long blonde hair. I tried it first with my long hair, and it didn't work. People just still saw me as too feminine. It was the last weekend of September in 2012 when I did The Landmark Forum, which is a personal training and development program. It was in that seminar where I got really connected to how I want live in this world. Not just for me and inside of my career, but I really want it to be about self-expression and being who you are—all of who you are. It's really not just for me but an encouragement for people to be true to themselves and embrace all their sides.
Gender theorist Judith Butler famously said, "Gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original." What might be your own personal philosophy on gender?
At least for me, I think I was raised into a society where I was told that certain things are for boys and certain things are for girls. Early on, I was being told that when you go to church you need to wear a dress. But it wasn't something that I really fought against. Other than at church, I just never really wore dresses. It was through learning more about it that I came to realize that how I describe myself is more in alignment with what the society I live in calls "boy." As far as my body, I never felt like I was born in the wrong body, that's just not something that I've dealt with. I definitely have an appreciation for people who do deal with that. It's really important that every single human being does what is authentic to them. I'm in complete favor of anyone doing what has them feel comfortable.
What was your husband's reaction to you wanting to get into menswear modeling?
When I first was explaining it he was like, "Wait, what?" Since then, I've also learned a little bit better how to describe it. I don't plan on becoming a male model. I want to be a menswear model. I'm still a female and am planning to stay that way. There wasn't anything either of us saw that would alter our relationship. This plaid shirt that I'm wearing, I owned before I even ever cut my hair. What neither of us did expect, though, is how differently people act towards him. Sometimes people just see us as a gay couple, which doesn't bother us, except when people are unkind about it. It's not so much that it bothers us on our behalf, but on behalf of people that have to deal with that all of the time. Even when people do know that I'm a woman, they think that if he's with a woman like me, then he must be gay and hiding it. People have all these wild opinions.
Have you experienced these comments on the street or on social media?
It's actually only on the street! The first time it happened was in the West Village in NYC. Can you believe that? It happened three times in one night. It was so shocking to us that this is still the world that we live in, especially in New York City. We think of it as this really accepting place. It's not okay to talk to people that way. For some people it's more of the nontraditional gender role that bothers them, versus the sexuality.
At what stage of your life did you feel most beautiful and comfortable in your own skin?
Today. [Laughs] Every day I really take on being authentic and looking at what it is to be true to who I am. It isn't the same everyday. There are times where I will wear a dress and heels and will want to dress that way. That's authentic to who I am in that moment. It really makes sense for people to feel comfortable and express themselves however they want, all the time. It doesn't always have to look the same.