My Friend Ned: South Africa’s First Modeling Agency with a Non-Binary Division
October 27, 2016
Text by Taylore Scarabelli
Photographed by Kent Andreasen
Assisted by Charlotte Debacker
Styled by Fani Segerman
Make up by Michelle Moolman
Models: Kirsten Whitfield, Quaid Heneke a.k.a QUEEZY, Marianne Thesen Law, Sesañe Sealy, Brett Charles Seiler of My Friend Ned‘s non-binary division.
Model Quaid Heneke (aka QUEEZY), of My Friend Ned is one of seven folks signed to the Cape Town-based agency’s non-binary division. Featured in Casimir.com’s “As Themselves”, Quaid provides a narrative account of their experience as a gender non-conforming (GNC) individual, defining their relationship to male and female roles as fluid performances of the self rather than social constructions of gender. “The body is a cheap suitcase that we carry ourselves in,” Quaid states, quoting the infamous pandrogynous artist Genesis P-Orridge. “Planting the seed of developing an expression of oneself is so important to existence.”
Like Heneke, the folks behind model and character agency My Friend Ned celebrate individuality over convention. The agency, established with a focus on “beautifully unusual and enigmatic characters,” seeks out unique individuals, emphasizing difference over traditional monikers of beauty. Unsurprisingly then, co-founder Candice Hatting was quick to develop a non-binary division of the agency following one model’s expression of discomfort with the traditional two-gendered system. “They felt uncomfortable being represented in the female category as they didn’t identify as either male or female.” Hatting says. “It was through this realisation that we opened up the conversation…the more we learnt the more we felt it was a necessary space for us to create within our agency structure.”
Launched in the midst of an industry-wide obsession with genderqueer castings (a la Alessandro Michele’s revamped Gucci), My Friend Ned’s non-binary division is already finding success with the fashion industry, but creative director Fani Segerman hopes to see the agency working outside of the unisex trend. “Being non-binary is far deeper than just an aesthetic”. Segerman says of fashion’s genderqueer obsession. “It is not as simple as a straight line between the two mainstream binaries but is dynamic and undefined. It’s not a look but an identity.”
Instead, Segerman is working to dismantle the prominent white-focused, skinny, androgynous look, a move they say is important for an agency based in South Africa – one of the most diverse countries in the world. “What we’ve learnt about in this process is that every non-binary person is radically different in their feelings about being non-binary and how they express their gender identity.” Segerman says. “It’s not a stereotypical style and look. Being non-binary is not about being somewhere between male and female but something that breaks any category or definition.”
While My Friend Ned and other industry titans appear to be making strides in the growing acceptance and visibility of GNC people, fashion coverage praising genderqueer Gen-Zers and men in skirts is far from revolutionary. Trans-only photoshoots and campy agender editorials often reinforce traditional gender roles, causing many to question the so-called trend of agender fashion.
“The ‘trendiness’ of GNC and transpeople is that it once again tries to box and define an identity which then excludes models who continue to break these moulds and categories.” Hatting says. “But It provides visibility…Not only in terms of representation but also introducing the language and ideas attached to non-binary [people], gender nonconforming [individuals], and transpeople.”
Nedders have a firm understanding of what’s wrong with the industry, and they also know it’s going to take more than a few models to fix it. While 2016 saw the global celebration of two non-binary stars (Prince, Bowie), pre-Caitlyn Jenner, global awareness of trans-rights was minimal. Americans continue to bash folks over segregated washrooms while highly educated people still can’t come to terms with the use of the singular ‘they’. Just this month in Canada, a professor at the University of Toronto publicly refused to refer to non-binary students by their preferred pronouns, claiming that political correctness is replacing free-speech.
The increasing visibility of both trans/GNC folks is a necessary conduit for change, but both Hatting and Segerman recognize that imagery must be complemented with education to realize its full potential. “On the topic of systemic oppression and the privilege that comes with access to this type of knowledge is a multifaceted and monumental issue that is present in all industries.” Segerman says when I ask them their thoughts on knowledge, privilege and the acceptance of GNC people. “It is then our responsibility to breakdown these stereotypes and binaries within the industry that we have access to and hope that this will inspire and encourage others to do the same in their spaces and industries.