Munroe Bergdorf:"We've all got something to learn from others who aren't immediately like us"
I check in with Munroe following what can only be said as a long day for her, having interviewed a variety of guests for her upcoming podcast series ‘The Way We Are’. “I’m slightly exhausted, positive exhaustion. I’m so excited about everything I’m doing right now”. Munroe, who I can only describe as an all-powerful presence, emitting positive energy over zoom, lets us in on the shoot behind her Issue 5 cover. With our team being unable to attend due to COVID-19 restrictions, and images both breath-taking and mystical, we are pinging over the inside details, “We shot it on Hampstead heath, right at the beginning of the heatwave. It was a beautiful day. It was the first cover shoot that I’ve done in a while, none of us had been creative for a while.” Having had an eye on her for quite some time, I’ll admit how much I’ve been looking forward, possibly verging on fangirling, to sit and talk with her.
With the release of her debut podcast series, ‘The Way We Are’ only several weeks away from the time we spoke, it felt only right to dive straight into not only the making of the podcast but the thoughts and intentions behind it, with Munroe initially opening up about the nerves she felt at the beginning of the process.
“I was intimidated to do something new that’s going to be seen by so many people. So it was kind of intimidating to be the interviewer, not the interviewee. I’ve done some hosting but not necessarily holding the reins as it were. So it’s been a process of adjusting but also believing in myself.
“It’s a conversation about both of our experiences, my guests opening up, talking about how we’ve turned our trauma into a form of triumph, the lessons we’ve learned, and how we hope to push forward into a future of empowerment and ownership of what we’ve been through.
“I want people to understand that you don’t need to see yourself in absolutely everybody that you can learn something from. We’ve all got something to learn from others who aren’t immediately like us, and I think that’s the ultimate takeaway. Even if somebody goes through something that you didn’t go through, you can learn something and get something empowering, from how they dealt with that adversity. I wanted to hear how they turned the narrative into something empowering across every episode. So often we see powerful imagery and videos. Seeing them talk about such vulnerable things makes me remember that mental health is something that we all have. So in listening to their stories, I hope that people feel less ashamed. Shame is the thing that allows mental illness to get worse. It keeps you in a vicious cycle of feeling unseen and unloved. So I hope that the podcast encourages more people to see themselves and to exercise self-love.”
I love that the podcast is focusing on being not only relatable but how it is also about championing marginalised voices. We often hear of the highs and lows, but so little about the smaller things in between. On the topic of mental illness and self-love, I wanted to delve a little deeper into who Munroe is. Knowing the pressure placed on us about who we are I wondered how her identity and the pressures society place on her have played into her mental health and if she has found some form of autonomy.
“I think it’s, it’s a constant process. The thing with mental health is that you can have good days and bad days and it’s almost like you need to constantly monitor it to stay on that equilibrium, rather than, you know, take a nosedive. So I think it’s been a journey of getting to know myself.
“Sometimes it is the smaller things that can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, which is why microaggressions matter, pronouns matter because you never know what someone else is going through. Especially as what seems small to somebody may not be small to somebody else. There’s this big debate about, what pronouns we should be using, and ultimately, it takes nothing out of your day to just refer to people how they want to be referred to and to respect people with their identity. Identity is invisible, it’s not something you can see, but you can see the expression of identity. I’m all for just listening to people, and not minimising something because you don’t think it’s an issue.”
Hearing Munroe speak so fondly about her podcast and the space it’s giving others to speak about their mental health is so crucial to the understanding others have in feeling they can not only be open about their journeys and that they won’t be judged. As we continue down the path towards Munroe’s mental health journey she boldly tells us about how experiencing PTSD and anxiety has forced her to navigate through what feels to her like a domino effect of mental health experiences.
“I experienced PTSD after having a stalker. He broke into my house and I was raped. That made me scared to live in houses, which sounds wild. Every single time that I stayed around a friend’s house and whatnot, I felt very, very uneasy. Because once that situation has happened to you, which is so unbelievable, something flips. Something switches, and you’re just like, Okay, I need to just make sure that I’m never in this situation ever again. And then you start looking at everything you can do to help prevent that from happening again.”
Through my similar experience and time with PTSD, I don’t think what she’s saying is wild, I can completely relate to establishing every exit whilst everyone else around me tries to persuade me I’m safe. I’ve felt there are so many misunderstandings about what is behind PTSD and the trauma it causes. Something that emulates is her positive intentions to help those around her. I feel my heart wrench as she talks to me with such strength all whilst hoping she knows how her talking about her story with me isn’t just helping me but how it will help so many other people who read her cover story.
“It’s still something that I have to constantly monitor because the PTSD can trigger my anxiety and if I have too much anxiety that can trigger my depression. It’s like a domino effect. Before you know it, you’re in a hole. So I’m having to navigate multiple mental illnesses, along with things like gender dysphoria. I don’t get too much gender dysphoria now, but now and again, it will surprise me. It’s not as bad as it has been, because luckily, I’m in a position where I can afford good health care, but it hasn’t always been the case. It wasn’t the case for a very long time.
Here at Head Above The Clouds, our intention of creating safe spaces and mediums for a moment of escape has been in our DNA from day dot. It’s something we don’t see often enough, so to see Munroe create a podcast specifically for those reasons is something that you bet we want to get behind. But what stands out to me is how Munroe is applying the idea of safe spaces to herself and her life in making sure she has her boundaries to protect and maintain her mental health.
“I think all of my guests have seen my journey in the media and that it hasn’t always been easy. I’ve always tried to remain open with my followers, being as open as I can be. So when it comes to exercising healthy boundaries I understand that there needs to be a space where my guests can be open and that there’s no gotcha moment. It’s very sensitive. Some of the stuff that we’ve talked about is very hard, and at times extremely heartbreaking.”
Having had the opportunity to speak with a life coach in a previous production, I found it mind-blowing the strength others have when it comes to putting in hard but fair boundaries. I know it’s something I struggle with let alone most people around me, so it’s refreshing to hear Munroe boldly tackle the issue.
“I think you need to be unapologetic about it. There’s always a way that you can exercise boundaries, without shutting people down. I think it’s about communication and prioritising yourself and your wellbeing, but also making people aware of why you’re doing what you’re doing.”
Having briefly spoken about the pressures presented in society on our identity’s I wanted to return to a similar topic, the pressures that come hand in hand with social media. With Munroe having shot into the public eye from her activism in the LGBTQ+ community and her no-bullshit approach to tackling stigma much of her work and presence have been through social media. With that in mind, I can only imagine the constant pressure and weight placed on her shoulders to showcase a form of education in all topics. If I feel the exhaustion to be constantly present on social media I can only imagine how she feels in trying to carve out some sort of balance.
“I think the breakthrough for me came with the understanding that I am just one person, and that it isn’t all on my shoulders. Once I started realising that it isn’t all on my shoulders, to speak about absolutely everything that happens in the world, or to constantly post about situations that are extremely distressing to me and my community, I started understanding that it’s okay to not post. It’s okay to not be present all the time.
“The focus has to be on my mental health before it’s on standing up for a situation that is bigger than me. At the beginning of my career, I felt because there weren’t many trans people in the media that pressure. I think a lot of people did pressure on me because our community is so disenfranchised and so marginalised. But I started to learn the importance of community, and there are so many amazing people that although they may not have a platform, or be a public figure, that are still doing the work. When you plug into your community, you’re plugging into a power source. Being a Virgo, I was finding it hard to ask for help, and how to completely slow down and prioritise myself. So I was pouring from an empty cup, and it was completely unsustainable.
“As a fellow Virgo, boy do I understand how asking for help and removing the mask that protects us isn’t something we do lightly, but at times it’s oh so necessary. “Now I recognise when I’m getting triggered, or when my mental health is taken to nosedive, or when I need to just say no.”
As a Munroe has never been one to shy away from the struggles she sees in front of her. Having faced personal challenges in the industry I asked what she feels is still not being addressed in the industries and what changes she would like to see.
“When it comes to race, we talk too much about the symptom, we’re not going to the root of the issue. We’re not talking about race as a systemic problem enough. I think we all within our own echo chamber within our communities, but as a society and in the media, get stuck on very redundant conversations of is Britain racist? Yes, we know Britain is racist, and what are we going to do about it? That’s the direction we need to go in. We need to stop thinking and acting through a white sis male lens and start listening to the people, that have experienced the things.”
“Another important factor is understanding that certain people experience multiple oppressions in one go. Search Inside black trans women experiencing anti-black racism, transphobia, and misogyny. Another example is if you’re a Muslim, black, trans woman, then experiencing Islamophobia as well is another of the multiple oppressions your experience. So I think this conversation is much more nuanced and complex than a lot of people either willing to admit or willing to delve into. It’s not just outside of the LGBT community it’s within as well. So I hope that we can start to look at oppression as just oppression, and stand up for each other as much as we stand up for people like us. It’s about equality.
As an hour of chatting comes to a close, Munroe explains to us the inspiration she feels and the hope see’s in Generation Z when it comes to the leaps and bounds they are making in society to provide a better future. As she talks about the inspiration behind her latest endeavours I can’t help but feel how she too is not only a beacon of hope but also is helping provide a better future. A woman we can all learn from.
Catch her new podcast series “The Way We Are” now on Spotify.
Words: Alice Gee
Photography: Sam Neill
Photo Assist: Kamie Jorn
Stylist: David Evans
Stylist Assist: Marc B
Hair Stylist: Jay Amir-Nazemi Afshar
MUA: Bianca Spencer