Model, muse, actor and activist Tzef Montana towers over the crowd at Club Glam on a mild winter Saturday in Los Angeles. They’re the reigning hostess of a white-walled warehouse, warm with bodies. If Los Angeles is the Wild West, this is it’s most glamorous underground saloon, an oasis of music and many cultures and identities unified for a few hours under a groove.
Both in this club and in the scintillating social tapestry of LA, Montana gleams in the thick of it all, weaving connections and asking sensitive questions; slinging clever, barbed quips as they artfully gyrate to the beat. Tonight they are resplendent in a sheer, strapless maxi from the Helmut Lang archives, at once daring and demure, with a slit up the side that would give J. Lo pause; in my memory it burned a brilliant burnt orange, like a Miami sunset, but in photos I see that it was a deep Henna brown.
“Think of when we first met, and now look,” they say when we air kiss and embrace as I arrive. That meeting was in 2008, the first night of my first visit to this city, at the luxe Spanish-style hacienda of the Huizenga clan, replete with suits of armor, hairless cats, and artfully tousled Bohemian art kids literally drinking Dom Perignon in the hot tub. Montana was there in some exquisitely tailored suit, silky black mane framing an olive face, eyes winking mischievously. I saw the love-child of Janice Dickinson and Jim Morrison in their prime.
Those years I generally wore bras and dirty silk slips and patches of fabrics as skirts, was forcibly asking for she/her pronouns, while Tzef seemed to be about to burst at the seams of what masculinity could be. Now I present in a way that most read as male, while Montana’s day to day has swung to a new post-gender dimension entirely, and we’ve both, in the course of the year or so since I moved back to California, seemed to find a refuge of sorts in the idea of being “non-binary,” at least when it comes to talking to the press.
I got to connect with Tzef at their apartment cum arts installation cum cultural nexus in West Hollywood. Over tea and water, by candle and lamp light with rose neon accents, Tzef graciously shared some threads of their story and legacy, from growing up in Corinth, to the Greek notion of beauty, to what’s next for fashion, gender and all of us.
INTO: How did it become clear that you were non-binary?
TM: I haven’t seen something completely clear. I see things blurry and blurry is good too, you know, paintings are blurry sometimes.
TM: Exactly. It’s clearer as I age. And today I see it clearer than I saw it yesterday. So, hello, I’m Tzef Montana and I’m non-binary.
INTO: Can you take me inside of your work process?
TM: I’m my own agentI strategize, I coordinate, I negotiate, I create the account, I have a vision. [The gig] is a very small part of the jobthe gig is being there and being professional and being on time. The most challenging part of my job is to decide what I’m going to do and why I’m going to do it. I put my whole existence into this. I do it cuz I create. I exist. I show up. And it’s not just at a shoot, it’s anywhere. Find your light and show up. In that order. Don’t show up if you haven’t found your light. We affect each other.
Photography:Marc Harris Miller
INTO: You walked for Adriana Sahar this season in New Yorkwhat drew you to that collaboration?
TM: My goal was to go there this time and walk somewhere who will give me what I am. What I feel. Give me runway, give me a slit, give me high heels, give me what I want. I wanted to have that iconic video that says, “Linda.” That walk is feminism basically. It’s a weapon. For myself and for no one else. And that’s why I’m modeling. For myself.
INTO: Tell me about the Model’s Apartment by Tzef Montana.
TM: It’s a hub. There’s always a lot of people coming here and I try to create a safe space for everyone to feel welcome and it’s part of my culture. Hospitality is a big Greek thing. We have a word which is called Φίλο-ξένια – philoxenia which means the friend of the foreign. It’s the opposite of xenophobia, which is being afraid of the foreign. Being hospitable, means being friends with a stranger. That’s a beautiful thing because in America a lot of people fight with each other.
INTO: We don’t have a word like that in English. We have xenophobia but we don’t have the opposite. I guess xenophilia but that’s not in common use.
TM: A lot of things are not in this language because it’s not convenient.
INTO: It’s not how our culture is.
TM: Because language is a setting. It’s injected in your software and you know with different tools you can achieve different things.
INTO: After six years in the States, do you feel that something about you is still essentially Greek?
TM: My nationality, as well as my gender, are queer. My father comes from an African culture, my mom from a Belgian, Christian culture. They decided to meet, without being from [Corinth], in a Greek suburb to raise me. So my household was different, which basically describes what America is about. That’s why I feel kind of comfortable here. The culture that I think is dominant is Greek cuz that’s mostly where I was raised. Mostly like suburban Greek widows. They raised me. And I love those women.
INTO: Do they still have an aesthetic influence on you?
TM: Oh my god, they carry the knowledge and the history and the rituals of generations and generations. You can see the history of a whole place by meeting these personalities. They are the women who cleaned their husbands graves every morning. And they’re highly spiritual and very, very catty. But observing them you might get answers about a lot of fundamentals of the human species. The instincts. The relationships, you know. It’s a lot to be, to be Greek. And to be queer Greek for sure. And it has hurt me a lot. And I’ve had relationships with boys that were very hard core because of it.
INTO: How do you think that affects your relationships today?
TM: I’ve developed some social skills that are bionic. You don’t need to have these kind of defense mechanisms. My existence is a reaction to something. Everything you see me doing is an effort, is an action to a reaction, which is a great thing. I had a lot to react to, thank God. I have a lot to do cuz I have this this thirst to fight for things, to speak out to what’s fair, because I had to be quiet in all these debates that were happening in front of my eyes.
INTO: You’re an American citizen now. What are your feelings on the current debates around immigration?
TM: In life you fight the system. And you don’t let it be in the way of your dreams. And all the fact that we are a number and we have to go through all these protocols sets boundaries in the way we wanna expand and progress and you shouldn’t let it be in the way. Territories are terrible, borders are terrible, and I was fortunate enough to be able to jump a lot of fences. And see what’s behind them. And you know from subculture to subculture, country to country, that is the biggest knowledge someone can get, that’s why I say I’m a traveler because I think it’s the most sophisticated thing to be. You can be a PHD studentyou can have everythingbut in ancient Greece the biggest philosophers, the biggest writers were basically travelers. They went and they saw, you know, Phoenician temples and they came back and they shared their stories and their experiences. This is what makes you richer in life.
INTO: How does your gender and cultural experience show up in your work?
TM: As a model I’m invited on set to perform a role, embody a character but sometimes I’m not fully aware of what it is. For exampleI wear cowboy hats. They love the cowboy hat in editorials these days. Or they love the prom theme as well. I’ve never been to prom, of course, we don’t have prom. I’ve been to folklore festivals by the Orthodox Church but I’m a prom queen here. I’ve also been on the cover of a magazine with the caption America’s girl [laughs].
INTO: I mean, if it’s anyone it’s you
TM: Exactly! Thank you. [laughs] So I embody these characters but sure I fuck with all of it. I can be the art school girl; I can be the Chloë Sevigny. I see kids who play in markets because marketing has put everyone in a category and that’s how they operate in their actual life as well. They walk by genres. I have a great range. I can be seen as Lena Dunham one day and and as Cardi B the other, you know? I’ve done it all, I don’t mind. That’s what I do because this is not, at the end of the day, the main objective. That doesn’t separate us.
Aesthetics are nice but messages are important. What is this for? I am glad enough and I’m happy enough to be independent to do whatever I want with my own account. Of course, profits and the income stream is not going to be as amazing but I don’t give a fuck! You know what I’m getting is to be able to have different experiences, embody different characters and be free enough to not give a fuck and not let anyone define me. But knowing who I am is first place and question me as much as you like, you’re only going to get answers about yourself, because I know who I am.
INTO: If you could describe a dream collaboration who might that be?
TM: My friends, you knowwe’re collaborating right now! I want that, I need that! It means something to me. Like leafs we are, some wind brought us together. That’s beauty. And if we want to be in the industry that celebrates beauty standards and beauty we have to know one essential about what beauty means. In Greek [ωραίο oreo, beauty] comes from the word ωρα ora which means time. Time is the ultimate definition of beauty. And we are in this time and this space and that is beauty, my friends and nothing else.
So, I want to collaborate more with you, I want to support other people’s dream as well, work in teams. Sophie the producer, Pierre [Rashard] from NOSESSO, Janiva [Ellis] D’Ucati [artist], uh Niko the Icon [actor, photographer], Brande [Bytheway, artist, producer], Renata Raksha, Fitch Lunar, Alessandro Bava, Bebe [Huxley, musical artist]
INTO: Dese [Escobar, muse and DJ, Club Glam].
TM: Dese, of course, Dese. Media, to me, is a tube, a link, a bridge to something. I never hid it, my mission is to promote queerness in every single way I can and hopefully I try to be as creative as I can and as strong as I can, to function at my fullest capacity in order to have the most impact. I think that being a model and being a model of a human being that is queer is one thing through modeling.
INTO: I love that idea of being a model human inside of the idea of modeling. Where do you see your activism going?
TM: I see my activism going nowhere. It’s staying here with me in everything I do. So in everything I do, keep an eye on itI’m challenging you to see where my activism is going. Is it still there? Are my politics still in place? Am I honoring my words? Am I supporting the right people? I judge myself [in] my everyday life. In the way I treat people that I come across in my neighborhood and the place I socialize. I’ve done many meetings with big agencies, you know, like, numbers is what people are interested in.
INTO: They want a face not a voice.
TM: Yeah, exactly. I see it going as far as my integrity allows me to take it.
INTO: If you could change one thing in our world right now what would it be?
TM: Love. I would change the way we love.
INTO:I love that. What’s exciting you right now?
TM: Change. Change is what I’m looking forward to. So that’s what’s always going to be my main source of inspiration. And sex. Yeah. Sex inspires me.