"There's nothing wrong with being a bit different. I just don't understand why we need to fix something that's not broken. I mean, being yourself can make all of society richer, in my opinion."
You're listening to super model Hanne Gaby Odiele. I must tell you that spending time in conversation with this bright young lady was a reward unto itself.
Hanne's a striking, blonde, blue eyed girl whose poker-faced seriousness belies the joy within her. She lives in New York City, far from her birthplace in Kortrijk, Belgium. While we discuss her high-flying fashion model life, it's her recent, risky, history-making revelation about being intersex that intrigues me. Hanne's gone public with this admission in an attempt to reduce the stigma around the condition and encourage other intersex people to embrace their status.
Now, if you're not into the world of fashion modelling, neither am I. So I'd never heard of Hanne Gaby Odiele until I learned about her and decided she deserved a chapter in my book "Pushing The Boundaries". Indeed, nor was I familiar with the term "intersex" since only 1.7% of the earth's population is born with this condition. And, as I learned, intersex actually refers to a cluster of more than 30 conditions in which an individual is born with a variation in sex anatomy.
Most intersex people keep their condition secret. That's what Hanne did. Until deciding to come out in order to bring awareness to this condition, that is. You need to understand that this meant risking her career, pushing the boundaries of a lucrative international runway profession that could have ended up on a slag heap.
Here's her story...
Hanne was born in 1987 with internal testes, but no uterus, no ovaries. Like many intersex children, she was forced to undergo a surgical operation as a baby to make her female (that's because with intersex children, it's easier to remove body parts than to put them on).
"I knew at one point after the surgery I could not have kids," she told me. "I was not having my period. I knew something was wrong with me. It's not that big of a deal being intersex, but it became a trauma because of what they did." In fact, she was kept n the dark about her situation, only learning about the intersex condition at age 17, around the time she began her modelling career. She'd already had further surgery, this time to remove undescended testicles. She was 10 years old at the time. Why the operation? "Because doctors warned this could cause cancer," she says. Hanne now believes that was a lie. "There was no medical evidence that I was going to get cancer," she explains. "I mean, c'mon: women don't get their breasts sliced off because they might get breast cancer. Men don't have their testicles severed because they might get prostate cancer."
At 18, Hanne experienced more surgery, this time to reconstruct her vagina. Not surprisingly, the
procedure caused her distress and extreme consequences: "Like, they cut away sensitive parts and that led to having no feeling," she explains. "Sex becomes very difficult, even the idea in your mind... Also, incontinency – no bladder control... My identity is female but I will never know how it is to bear a child, never know how to have a period or to talk about many of the things that females think is important to them."
She confesses that the energy she carries within herself is mostly female. "That's how I see gender: it's like an energy level. But I don't pee standing up," she's quick to add. "And I've never wanted to be a man."
So perhaps now you know why Hanne Gaby Odiele is speaking out to discourage parents from putting their children through unnecessary surgery in an effort to make them appear more typically male or female. "I am proud to be intersex," she states. "But I'm also very angry that these surgeries are still happening. That's why it's very important in my life right now to break the taboo."
Sitting in New York's Chinatown, she's wearing Adidas jogging pants and clutching a bottle of orange soda. And while Hanne may be an internationally recognized super model, she's checked her ego at the door. Her voice is soft, her eyes bright and alert. I soon learn that when Hanne's animated about something, she opens up physically, enthusiastically. Yet when she's mulling over a challenging poser, she almost seems to fold up and close in on herself. It's likely an inherited reaction from years before when precious nuggets of her childhood were relegated to anonymous hospitals in which she experienced the unrequested, unexplained operations. It's time she'll never get back – gone with the wind – just like the body she was born with.
"Do you think you are someone who does indeed push the boundaries in life?" I ask her.
"I think so, yes," she says. "I don't like to always conform to the norm necessarily, so yes, I push boundaries. Not always, but..."
Hanne considers her response, then adds, "You know, you don't have to do big things to push the boundaries. I mean, for some people, just leaving the comfort of home can be a risk. But for me, yes, lately, I've been pushing the boundaries big time!"
I should tell you that Hanne's known for her outré, offbeat, streetstyle wardrobe, going up against the chic couture system beyond the norm. Vogue magazine describes her garment selections as: "Fearlessly individual and nonconformist, on the runway and off."
"I do like to be a little bit outside of the box, yeah," she continues, smiling as though we're enjoying an inside joke. "I'm a bit of a character... all my friends know that. Sometimes I like to cause a little trouble and make people think, rather than just say 'yes'. I think it's good to have people question things... it's all good."
"OK, let's go back a bit," I say. "How old were you when you first decided you wanted to become a model?"
"I never decided I wanted to become a model," she states defiantly. "I just fell into modelling when I was discovered at a music festival. I was 17. The most female job in the world is modeling, right? So I began pursuing a modeling career! It was part of the healing process. I felt I was playing the system a little bit
, you know. I mean, I don't feel female all the time, necessarily."
Hanne carries on about this time in her life. "I had no clue what I wanted to do. I was experiencing a lot issues with myself, with my body... a lot of the time I was not feeling well. I knew something was wrong with me. I'd become very timid, very shy. And all of a sudden this modeling opportunity comes up, and I'm thinking, 'Yeah, I'm gonna take it!' And then I finally find out: intersex. But as soon as I fell into modelling, I was sold , man. I loved it immediately!"
"And I assume that continues to this day: you still love it?"
"Yes. I mean, some days are more demanding than others, but I really, really love modelling and I'm so happy that I got to do this because I don't think I would have known myself and my body and accepted myself as much. I feel it helped me be more comfortable with myself and express myself as well
, maybe in a weird way . I know it sounds strange, but knowing I was intersex made it less difficult to accept my body and identity."
"OK, let me ask you this," I say. "Do you think modelling helped you become a different kind of
"You do like interesting questions, don't you," she laughs. "OK, has modelling made me a different kind of person.... well... you know, I grew up in modeling. I was just 17... not that I was childish. But I grew up a lot with it, all by myself. You know, when you're alone on a plane for the very first time... in fact, that first time on a plane, I didn't even know whether I'd be able to speak English. The whole worldly modeling thing really helped me grow up."
Clearly, Hanne's hit the happiness mother lode these days with her profession. And beyond, as well: not long ago she married her boyfriend, John Swiatek, also a model. It was an amazing throw down ceremony in an upstate New York bucolic field with "bad girl" models assembled to witness their fellow catwalker's nuptials.
"How about if you had not been born intersex?," I throw out to her. "Would you have become a model?"
"No, no I would not," she's quick to respond. "I have no idea what I'd be, but not a model. That's the thing, though: I don't know how it is not to be intersex. I don't know how it is to be a man. How it is to be a girl. A woman… normal… so I would not know. But I'm very happy the way it is. I don't really care."
She laughs, then becomes lost in thought. A mischievous smile creeps across her pretty face. "One thing I know," she adds with grand enthusiasm. "I won't be facing a biological clock – I have no clock!!"
I should tell you that Hanne hasn't got off easily in other parts of her young life. Just a few years ago, in 2006, she was hit by a car running a red light.
"I broke my arms, my legs, everything," she explains. Then she drops in, ever so casually, "I had brain bleeding, too."
Sure, OK… brain bleeding. Arms and legs shattered. Multiple surgeries followed by months and months of intense physical therapy. For you and me, surely a disaster. But for an 18-year-old fashion model who struts her stuff atop the planet's runways? Catastrophe, right? I mean, after surviving something so traumatic, surely she'd sink into a black hole of pity and despair.
Nope. Not this stalwart, never-say-die young lady. Hanne made her way back to the runway for the 2008 shows.
"For most girls making their living as fashion models, that accident could easily have ended a career," I tell her. "And yet, you fought back, you put up with many surgeries and intense pain for over two years. And finally, you pick yourself up, dust yourself off and hop on the runway again. That in itself
is pushing the boundaries, right?"
"Yeah... yeah... guess so, right?" she smiles coyly. "But to me,
it was more personal than that. Moving to New York had brought about so much change and I felt like I was starting all over again. And I didn't want to give that up. I didn't want to be back in Belgium, you know, I'd made a great couple of friends here already in that one year. I knew I didn't want to lose that. Going back to Belgium wasn't an option."
Hanne looks around the room quietly. She turns back. She seems to be studying
me. It's a little discomforting. I'm being sized up for something.
"Peter," she says, "I need to tell you this. It was at this point I made a pact
with myself: I was going to do something for intersex."
"Do you think you'd been saved for that by some higher force?" I ask.
She smiles. "Never know, do you."
Having starred in campaigns for Dior, Alexander Wang, Mulberry, Balenciaga and others... and walking the runway for huge fashion houses like Chanel, Givenchy and Prada... it only seemed natural for Hanne to use this high-profile position to raise awareness about the arbitrary operations intersex children too often undergo. Still, there's no question she is taking a risk, being out front as one of the first high-profile people to disclose her intersex status.
"I know people, intersex people, with the same condition as me, but they didn't have the surgery," Hanne tells me. "And they live happy, healthy lives. Even if they struggle psychologically with being intersex, I do believe people who don't have the operations have fewer psychological traumas. They still feel more
complete. But me? I feel like something has been taken away from me… for no reason."
"Hanne, as far as I know, you're the only celebrity who's publicly disclosed your intersex status," I say. "Was there any push-back from the people who manage you or your friends or your family?"
"Peter, it just happened," she explains. "It was the right time, the right moment. I had
a very good support system behind me. So... why not do it, right? And so far, no bad commands at all. And if there were negative commands, I'd be, like, 'I'm so sorry for you!' If somebody wants to be ignorant, I don't care, I just don't care. That's where modelling has given me the thickest skin. You know, as a model you get criticized… I mean, you get compliments but you also get criticized, so you get a thick skin."
"I hear you," I say. "But did you ever pause even for a moment and say, 'Hmmm
… this could affect my career. I wonder if I should do this, come out?' Was that ever an issue?"
"You know what, I'm super happy that I waited for a long time to come out. In my career, you know how it becomes: 'Oh, we booked Hanne to be our model because of this or that'. But me having a career now for 12 years has proved it doesn't matter. I mean, 10 years ago, I probably wouldn't have come out because it would have just seemed like some trend, you know. But I've proved enough: it doesn't matter. Before, no one knew and it didn't matter. It didn't matter for 12 years. So why should it matter now? I'm really happy
about intersex. I wanted to show the world that there are so many kids who are unhappy, but the doctors still do these surgeries. And I was like, I have to do something. This can't be happening anymore. So I wanted to use my platform, to be there for those young kids and others who are struggling with this... and other gender issues as well , not just for intersex but for gender issues in general."
"I love your enthusiasm," I tell her. "Let me ask this: are you able to put intersex aside? It's such an important part of your life, but can you forget it for a while, just hang with friends?"
"Oh yes, of course ," she says smiling. "Intersex is part of who I am, but it's not who I am. It does not define me. My friends don't go, 'Oh, here she comes: miss intersex'. No, no, it doesn't define who I am."
There's lots more to learn about Hanne Gaby Odiele. As I write this, my manuscript for "Pushing The Boundaries" is being considered by a publisher. All things being equal, 2019 should see the book in print.