Androgynous Modeling

What is androgyny?

Androgyny, in its most basic definition, is possessing qualities and characteristics that are both male and female.

However, in its most flattering form, androgyny is not only appearing to be male and female, but also appearing to be attractive as either gender. This concept, having two models for the price of one, is becoming widely popular in the fashion industry.

Model: Van Burnham; Photographer: Phillip Ritchie; Makeup Artist: Elise

What’s the industry like for androgynous models?

The market for androgynous models is much greater in Europe than in America. However, recently there has been more of a demand in America, primarily in New York. The agency I’m signed with Androgyn Models in the Netherlands, and as the name indicates, they specialize in representing androgynous models. During the initial interview with my agent, I asked a question and found her response quite peculiar, and surprising. I asked, “Are all your models gender ambivalent, and live their lives like I do, as androgynous?”

“No,” she responded, “you are the only one.” I was taken aback by her answer, because to me, modeling as a man, a woman, or androgynous, is me being all of those things. However, I realized from her answer that to most other androgynous models, it’s simply a job… they wash off their makeup, or step out of their suit, and the act is over. In fact, the only other androgynous model I know of who truly feels mixed in genders is Andrej Pejic. I’ve always suspected that his true androgynous personality is what set him apart from the others and allowed him to achieve such great success. I view him as a huge inspiration.

Do you have an advantage modeling as a woman because you have lived as woman?

Yes and no. I feel that if there is, the advantage lies more with the photographer, and less with me. For example, most any androgynous person can convincingly model as the opposite gender in a photograph. However, the photographer may really have to work hard for the capture. In other words, the advantage, if any, is that I understand what being a woman means, and therefore can quickly channel a very womanly presence in a photograph. With that said, I believe the real advantage wouldn’t be so much in taking stills, but rather in doing runway.

What are the challenges?

I often have freelance photographers contact me and ask to do a shoot. However, when I ask them about the concept and what ideas they have in mind, they have no response. It seems a lot of photographers get excited about the idea of shooting an androgynous model, but when it comes time to developing a concept, they are clueless. I also run into the problem of photographers wanting to capture me as an extreme on either gender side. I generally respond by telling them there are millions of women out there who are much more beautiful and pleasing to look at in a bikini than I am. My specialty lies in capturing the ambiguity in gender, not the extremes. In other words, make me look like a woman who is trying to look like a boy, or a boy with a woman’s face… that’s where my strong points are.

Androgyny - model: Van Burnham, photographer: Phillip Ritchie
Model: Van Burnham; Photographer: Phillip Ritchie; Makeup Artist: Elise

Another challenge I run into is one that is both flattering and bothersome. It’s the question of “how feminine does a face or person have to be before their topless photos are considered nudity?” The whole idea really begs a much larger question, “what determines gender?” I’ve run into this problem many times, especially with Facebook. They will pull my photos down and tell me I am posting nudity, despite the fact my caption clearly states I am biologically male. In fact, when Andrej Pejic’s topless photo made the front cover of Dossier, his picture was so controversial that Barnes and Noble placed all of the magazine copies in opaque bags before displaying them.

What are some of your best experiences?

One of my most favorite shoots was with a photographer from MM, Phillip Ritchie. Phillip came up with this brilliant idea to pay homage to Linda Evangelista and other female models who modeled as androgynous. However, his idea was to use a boy who looks like a girl to recreate a similar feel. Phillip gave me a series of photographs to study, told me to draw my own inspiration from the pictures, and together we would create something new. The shoot was a huge success.

Homage to Linda Evangelista - model: Van Burnham, photographer: Phillip Ritchie
Model: Van Burnham; Photographer: Phillip Ritchie; Makeup Artist: Elise

What is the future of androgyny?

In regards to the question I asked earlier “What determines gender,” it was psychotherapist Carl Jung who proposed that every person has both an inner male and female energy. He labeled these as animus (man) and anima (woman), and felt the key to optimizing mental health was embracing both sides. Even Plato had similar ideas, proposing that we were all once an androgynous, blob-like creature. He continued his theory by stating that androgyny is not only the beginning, but is also the end. The latter part of this notion is consistent with my own theory, in which humans evolve into a more androgynous form. I propose that in the future, we will see a large shift towards androgyny, both physically and mentally, especially in regards to the demasculinization of men.

I base this theory on the slow and ongoing demise of social gender norms, constructs and expectations. Also, on my hypothesis that as society becomes more civilized and technologically more advanced, the demand for bigger, stronger men will become less, and the need for independent, empowered women will become greater. Finally, the greatest threat to masculinity will be from overpopulation. I propose that in order to prevent large scale overpopulation, biology will begin producing men with lower levels of testosterone, thus creating a less masculine, less fertile male with a lower desire for sexual activity. In fact, I believe it’s already happening.

Van Burnham

Van Burnham is an androgynous model, pianist and Siamese cat enthusiast based out of Portland, Oregon. Van lives life as both male and female, with no preference to a preferred pronoun. Van holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Accounting from Ole Miss, and also works as an accountant. Van has been featured on the radio, in many fashion articles and also runs a YouTube channel that receives over 3000 visits a day.

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