Transgender Model Hari Nef Talks Her Groundbreaking Contract with IMG and Debut TV Role

'There's still a long way to go, but my expectations weren't very high to begin with — and they've been exceeded.'
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'There's still a long way to go, but my expectations weren't very high to begin with — and they've been exceeded.'
Hari Nef at the Ferragamo Signature event. Photo: BFA/Salvatore Ferragamo

Hari Nef at the Ferragamo Signature event. Photo: BFA/Salvatore Ferragamo

Since graduating from Columbia University this past May, transgender model, actress and writer Hari Nef has been rapidly adding bullet points to her ever-growing resumé. A week after commencement, she made history by becoming the first American trans woman to sign with IMG — the same agency behind Sasha Pivovarova, Gigi Hadid, Daria Werbowy and more — and she snagged a role in "Transparent," the critically acclaimed dramedy revolving around the dysfunctional Pfefferman family, which is headed by a transgender parent.

"Acting was always the thing that I wanted to do, but now that everything [is coming to] fruition, it's been really fun," Nef told Fashionista at the Salvatore Ferragamo and Gancio Studios Ferragamo Signature event in the West Village on Tuesday night. "I couldn't be luckier to be starting my acting career on a show like 'Transparent.'" Nef appears in flashbacks as Tanta Gittel, a trans Pfefferman ancestor who thrived in Berlin during the progressive Weimar era of the '20s and early '30s. 

Along with her modeling commitments, Nef has been pounding the pavement to grow her acting portfolio. "I'm trying to get some auditions right now," she said. "There are some cool roles that I want — I won't say what they are — but people are really open to this in a way that I didn't expect that they would be. [I always thought that] I could work hard, that hopefully my talent will speak for itself and the world will catch up. There's still a long way to go, but my expectations weren't very high to begin with and they've been exceeded." This is something that Nef has already experienced in the fashion world, which quickly embraced her.

"Every other smaller agency in New York either turned me down or wouldn't meet with me," she explained about signing with IMG. "I walked in there and I was like, 'Yeah, well I would love this, but you know, you're IMG and I'm me. How would this ever work?' But they said, 'No, you could do this, this, and this — so what if you can't get booked for catalog work? We see a whole career for you. We're not just trying to make money tomorrow.'" 

Hari Nef in Gucci at the season two premiere of Amazon's 'Transparent.' Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Hari Nef in Gucci at the season two premiere of Amazon's 'Transparent.' Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Nef sees the shift slowly happening in the film and television industry, too, with more opportunities opening up for transgender actresses and actors beyond the stock transgender character. She's already sounded off about Benedict Cumberbatch's cartoonish and controversial portrayal of androgynous model All in "Zoolander 2," but how does she feel about hiring a straight man to play a high profile trans role — more specifically, critical darling Eddie Redmayne as groundbreaking artist Lili Elbe in "The Danish Girl?"

"Is Eddie Redmayne a great actor? Yes," Nef said. "Could they have easily found a trans actor... ?" She blames the old Hollywood establishment — "run by white straight cisgender men" — for not making the effort to search for trans talent to fill these roles. "It's not Eddie Redmayne's fault," she adds. "It's probably not even the director's [Tom Hooper's] fault. It's the system we're in." She acknowledges that the lead role of transgender woman Maura Pfefferman in "Transparent" is played by cisgender Golden Globe winner Jeffrey Tambor. "Having been on the set of this show, I don't see anybody else playing that role," she said. 

"I'm comfortable with it," added Nef, after a pause. But, "there's only going to be so many more times I can see these big roles that are supposed to be trans go to cis actors where I'm going to keep feeling okay about this. Because maybe when they were casting it, I wasn't around. Maybe not even Laverne [Cox] was around. Trace [Lysette], Alexandra [Billings]... Maybe they didn't know who we were. Maybe our phones were off that day. Maybe our agents forgot to email us." 

As many actors who didn't see themselves represented in the media know, there's always the option to write, produce and/or direct your own material. Nef is already on it, with an assist from another young media superstar with the golden touch.

"Lena Dunham gave me a book about screenwriting," she said. "I'm reading it."