Model citizen: Hanne Gaby Odiele on being an intersex advocate
One of the reasons Hanne Gaby Odiele has continued to be one of the most successful high-fashion models of the last decade is her ability to convey both strength and vulnerability. On the set of her Buro 24/7 shoot in New York she captured myriad different personas, from oozing boyish sensitivity in Prada - "that look made me feel like a young Leonardo DiCaprio. I loved it!" she laughs - to capturing the pinnacle of Helmut Newton-esque feminine fortitude in Céline leather pants and suspenders.
Over coffee at a Brooklyn café the day after the shoot, Odiele sits relaxed in a spacious corner booth. With no cameras and a face clean of make-up, she's able to reveal her most comfortable persona: herself. "I'm finally living my truth," she says, the morning sunlight illuminating her pale blue eyes. She's referring to letting the world know earlier this year that she's intersex, a variation in sex anatomy at birth that affects 1.7 per cent of the population, yet is widely stigmatised.
Odiele was born in Kortrijk, Belgium, where as a child she was discovered to have Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, meaning she was born with internal testes and no ovaries or uterus. She had hormone replacement therapy at the tender age of 10 and has undergone a number of surgeries. "As a child, it was very difficult. I knew something was a little bit off because I was always at the doctor," she explains. "The examinations were often very private and invasive."
She finally discovered that she was intersex when, as a teenager, she stumbled upon a magazine article. "When I found out what was going on, it was such a relief. It was scary, but at least I knew what was going on and that I wasn't a freak of nature." From the moment she found out, she connected with "an amazing community" and has, over the years, opened up to her close circle, including designer Alexander Wang and her husband, John Swiatek.
As for the decision to tell the whole world, the timing just felt right. "It's not just that I felt ready in my life - it's that with what's happening in the world right now, it felt important to share. Through my story, I can be a voice for a community that has been left in the dark." Odiele has partnered with InterACT, an advocacy group for the rights of intersex youth, and it's helped provide both encouragement and a platform for her message.
In recent years, there's been increased media coverage and interest in gender-related issues, especially with Caitlyn Jenner's high-profile transition and rise of icons such as Laverne Cox. For Odiele, adding her voice to the increasingly louder conversation is imperative. On the topic of trans rights, she's quick to point out that it isn't the same thing as intersex. "It's actually kind of the complete opposite," she says, explaining that trans is a gender issue where someone is born with an assigned sex but has a gender identity that doesn't fit. For intersex people - though they can have gender identity issues too - it's technically a physical issue relating to their actual sex. "What my community proves is that gender is not just anatomical, and I hope my work can open more doors in the trans community as well."
"I'm finally living my truth"
Considering Odiele describes herself as shy, it's truly impressive hearing her speak so candidly on matters both personal and painful. Her heartfelt approach and commitment to advocacy along with InterACT hasn't gone unnoticed. She was recently included in a round of Next Generation Leaders in Time magazine and is scheduled to speak in front of parliament in her home country of Belgium for the government's International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.
At the end of the day, the momentum is valuable because it means her message continues to spread. "It's not being intersex that's a problem, it's the surgeries and how we often get treated," she explains, specifying that she's against unnecessary, nonconsensual, and irreversible surgeries. "Usually, you can wait until a child is 18 and can make a decision. Most surgeries are done purely out of fear of non-binary bodies." She admits that doctors scared her own parents into consenting to surgery, and they didn't know the whole full truth about their daughter's situation until she herself found out and told them.
It's only been a few months since Odiele first told her story, and her inbox continues to be flooded with messages from people within the community, as well as parents and doctors. And while she's fully embracing her new role as advocate, she's by no means stepping away from her career as a model. "This past fashion week felt more rewarding than ever, and in general my work feels more rewarding now," she admits. "Before it felt a little more self-serving, and now there's more purpose behind it."
Odiele's revolutionary spirit is nothing new. Her bold, nonconformist attitude and style has been turning heads for years. "I have no boundaries when it comes to fashion," she says. It's true - from oversized menswear to body-skimming frocks, she's a true style chameleon who appears genuinely comfortable in her own skin. It was incredible to see her confidence and strength of character shine across the variety of looks on the set of this shoot.
It's hard not to draw a connection about her intersex identity and her ability to think, dress, and radiate outside the box. "I don't have to conform to any norm or gender or identity," she says proudly, pausing in genuine reflection. "Being intersex has made me the person I am today, and I can honestly say that I am happy and wouldn't want to be any different."
All images shot by Jason Kibbler and styled by Katie Mossman.
Buro 24/7 Selection
Buro 24/7 Selection