A voice for a generation, unafraid to speak her mind and stand up for what she believes in, the past year has been an eventful one for model and social activist Munroe Bergdorf – who now has her sights set on carving out some more time for creativity, balance and self-care in 2019.
However, as Happiful discovers, that doesn’t mean dialling down on speaking up and out, to challenge stigma and injustices.
Here, Munroe shares her thoughts on what makes her truly happy, supporting others, and how getting uncomfortable could be the catalyst for change we all need
"Sex, scent and sorbet,” Munroe smiles over the microphone. “Those are the three things that I turn to when I need some de-stressing and down time.”
It sounds like a recipe for a good evening in to me...
This playful response will come to no surprise to Munroe Bergdorf’s ever-growing legion of followers. Equal parts sass and wit, with an undeniable presence, she’s a woman whose energy and intelligence immediately draws you in.
The articulate activist and empowering model has joined us on the set of Happiful’s new podcast, ‘I am. I have’, and she’s arrived ready to talk, bringing a calm, contemplative energy into the studio with her.
“Sorbet... well, I love ice cream because it really snaps me out of seeing food as just fuel. In my early to mid-20s, I had a really bad eating disorder. It was during that time I could feel the testosterone in my body, which was naturally quite muscular, and I thought the only way to control this was to stop eating.”
Munroe, now 31, is referring to a period in her life before she began identifying outwardly as female. In her own words on her website, she says: “I happen to be mixed-race, and transgender. I was assigned male at birth, but never felt comfortable with that label. Adolescence was confusing for me, and at 24, finally, I began identifying outwardly as female. This was an incredibly freeing time for me, and the start of my transitional journey – one that I accept will never fully conclude itself.”
Throughout her early 20s, this inner conflict around depression, food and her body, had serious consequences for her wellbeing. “It became a vicious circle, because I was unhappy and I became very thin, then that triggered depression, which triggered self-harm.
“Eating ice cream is now a way of reminding myself that food is there to be enjoyed and, whenever I’m down, it’s something that really helps with that. I’ve got a special relationship with a certain brand of chocolate chip brownie ice cream…”
I feel like I have a purpose now; for a long time I was drifting – conscious, but drifting – down a hallway, and all of the doors were shut. And slowly, I feel that they are opening
Scent, she says, takes her back to a holiday in the Maldives, which was “heaven on earth, the only place I felt like I could really switch off”, and sex “reminds you that you’re a mammal, and human contact is important, even if it’s not sex – it could be a hug, with your closest friends or family.”
Undoubtedly, Munroe has a sensual side – which is apparent in her three pillars of self-care. But given that Munroe spends so much of her time working on social activism, tackling racial inequality, advocating for gender equality, and championing societal progression, I wonder whether she ever feels the need to retreat back into herself after being so publicly visible, and having her opinions continually challenged?
“That’s interesting,” she pauses. “I never thought about it that way. It’s like a recharge.”
I can imagine recharging is pretty important for her. In 2018 alone, Munroe received the Black Magic Impact Honour, Cosmopolitan Changemaker of the Year Award, as well as premiering her first film, Channel 4’s What Makes A Woman, appearing on a number of televised panel debates, podcasts, writing for various publications, and continuing her modelling career. And by no means does this list cover everything.
When I ask about her reflections on her career to date, Munroe reminds me that she has only been in the public eye for just over a year. She was first thrust into the media spotlight in late 2017, after a well-documented contract cancellation with a make-up company, and has since harnessed the initial interest in her and her opinions, to speak on issues that are important and under-represented.
And what has that year been like for her?
The older generation may build walls, but the younger ones will tear them down, and we just really need to focus on supporting them during a time that is so negative
“It’s probably been the most bizarre, yet confirming time of my life. I feel like I have a purpose now; for a long time I was drifting – conscious, but drifting – down a hallway, and all of the doors were shut. And slowly, I feel that they are opening, and I feel really positive about it. But it’s taken me a long time to feel like this.”
Munroe is aware that there are areas that she needs to work on in terms of positivity – balance being one of them, particularly when it comes to work and her personal life.
On this subject, Munroe says that moving forward, she would like to be more open when it comes to communicating with her girlfriend of five years. “I’m quite an open person, but when things get tough and I feel like I’m about to burn out, I shut myself off – and instead of shutting myself off I need to be around people. I need to communicate more, not just with myself – I think a little bit more patience with others would be good…” she trails off laughing.
I ask her whether it’s a nervous, or knowing, laugh?
“I am probably the world’s worst girlfriend when it comes to speaking about how I feel when I am going through something. I would rather just say: ‘See you on the other side.’”
“We’re strong,” she continues with obvious affection. “It’s just learnt behaviour, we’ve both had difficult things in our lives, and that is what makes us stronger together. But yes, being more open with her is something I would like to work on.”
Munroe’s commitment to continuing to grow and learn is a constant theme throughout the interview, as is her understanding that we, and she, will not always get things right – personally, professionally, or ideologically.
“None of us are born with good politics. None of us are born with a fine-tuned moral compass; we all learn whether or not things are right, we learn about different stories, and to empathise.”
While she is concerned that we are living in a time of reduced empathy, at the same time, Munroe has high hopes for the generation growing up now. This sentiment echoes the points she made in A Qween’s Speech, a short social media film directed by Eduardo Fitch, released at the end of last year, to present an alternative to HRH’s annual address.
In the film, Munroe, crown and all, focuses on the LGBTQIA+ community, and on three themes of education, legislation and reparation. Amongst other issues, she calls for greater rights for consenting sex workers, and visibility of relatable role options for children in schools and on the national curriculum, mirroring the recent changes in our wider society.
“I focus so much on the younger generation, because some of the older generation will not change their mind. I put my messages out there (with the younger generation) and the response is always so positive.
“The older generation may build walls, but the younger ones will tear them down, and we just really need to focus on supporting them during a time that is so negative. There’s a big collective who would prefer to demonise what they don’t understand, rather than be open. It makes me sad that people would rather fear what they don’t know, than embrace it.”
To read more of Munroe's exclusive chat with us, pick up the March issue of Happiful in supermarkets from Thursday 14 February.
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