Hari Nef On Reclaiming Her Activism And Fronting Ugg’s Pride Campaign

Hari Nef is proud as punch. The multi-hyphenate is fronting the inclusive and celebratory new Ugg/Pacific Pride Foundation ‘Proud Prom’ campaign, alongside the likes of Lil Nas X, Jourdun Love, and Maya Samaha. The SAG Award-nominated actress and writer tells The Daily that she’s in a happy place with herself and her ever-evolving work that makes starring in this campaign—lensed by one of the first photographers she ever worked with—feel like a homecoming of sorts. Plus, she loves the idea of reframing what the “cool girls club” of Ugg wearers looks like in the process. We hopped on the phone with her to chat about activism, standing up for what you believe in, and, of course, her beloved peers on the New York fashion scene.

Tell us your backstory! What kind of kid were you and what were you interested in?
I grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, right outside of Boston. I went to public school and I was always interested in the performing arts and theater. My grandparents would take me to the theater and I wanted to be up there. Right around middle school, I got serious about it and started doing plays and creative arts programs during the summer. My high school had a great theater department, and I did a summer program at Northwestern. I majored in drama and theater arts at Colombia between 2011 and 2015. Less than a week after I graduated,  I got offered a role on Transparent and signed with IMG Models in the same day. It was a very lucky day!

What are you immersed in these days?
Since then, I’ve been doing a mixture of screen, stage, and film acting. I’ve also been writing and recently, I’ve been getting publishing again. I’m writing a lot of art criticism, more and more about film, and I recently profiled John Waters. I’ve been published in Art Forum, GQ, and L’Officiel. I want to combine my passions, so I have my eyes set on directing and screenwriting. This [past] winter,  I completed shooting on an upcoming film called “1UP,” directed by Kyle Newman and starring Ruby Rose, Paris Berelc, and Taylor Zakhar Perez. It’s a comedy about gamer girls. It’s looking likely that I will be shooting another project at the end of summer—my fingers are crossed for that!

Were you always confident that you’d “make it?”
I always knew I had potential. It became very clear to me within the first six months in New York, that it’s filled with people with potential, but it’s the people who capitalize on their potential that are the ones who find a way in. As much as I was uptown on the Columbia campus getting educated, I wasn’t really a college girl. I wasn’t so involved in campus life, and certainly not in Greek life! I was downtown, and interning for people I thought were cool. That way, I found a community of people like me—queer people and people you don’t get very many of at an Ivy League school. I had to find my thing outside of that college environment. I was social, I was eager, I was willing to work hard, and I had created a little platform for myself…much of it revolving around the internet!

Tell us about how you created that platform for yourself.
I cultivated a following on Tumblr, and I was on Instagram early. I was performing in New York and internationally as a performance artist and theater artist, that’s what caught the attention of Joey Soloway, the creator of Transparent. I was industrious and I had support. I got attention early on for being open about being trans. I was so young, willing, and eager to talk about even the most traumatic aspects of my experience. I’ve now learned to draw certain boundaries; I value myself as an artist, before I value myself as a mouth piece. I’ve come around to a relationship with my work and self that feels grounded and multi-faceted. Allowing yourself to stand in pride without letting your differences define you is a mark of self esteem.

I read that you’re a big lover of high heels…what led to you working with Ugg, a brand that’s so known for comfort and flats?
Ugg is cool! Ugg came into my consciousness in my adult life and in my current style iteration because of their collaborations with friends and former collaborators of mine—Eckhaus Latta and Telfar. I interned for them both when I was jumping around the downtown fashion world when I was a teenager. I always saw Ugg as this global luxury brand and as a status symbol from the aughts: the unmistakable indoor-outdoor winter show of the suburbs and beyond! Every woman I know has a really personal relationship with Ugg.

How did the opportunity to appear in the #UGGPRIDE campaign come about?
When the option came through for Ugg Pride, I was more than willing to participate. It was a risk for me—I had denied to participate in any Pride-related campaigns and press. Over the last four years, at a certain point I became very overwhelmed by the context of Pride and being put in the spotlight to speak on it as a trans woman, not only representing myself but the brand in question. For a while, I wasn’t comfortable. This year, I thought, ‘Why not, you’re more than capable—you can talk without putting it all on the table and you can allow it to feel joyful, not vulnerable.’ Getting to that point of pride in my trans-ness has been a lot easier said than done.

How did you get to that point?
It’s come with age, experience, and therapy.

What does it mean to you to you to be fronting this campaign, at this time in the world?
Having this aspect of me so public and having this aspect of me so amplified, during what Time magazine called “the trans tipping point,” I think in a certain way, I wondered if the context was overshadowing my work and preventing me from booking work that wasn’t specifically Pride- or trans-related. But I’ve found that not to be the case and now I can return to campaigns like this with my head held high. This campaign, it’s pretty! And there’s the maximum donation element. [For each pair of Disco Stripe slides sold, Ugg will donate $25 of the marked retail price to GLAAD—a leading media advocacy organization accelerating LGBTQ acceptance and equality—up to a maximum guaranteed donation of $125,000.] Danielle Levitt, the photographer, was one of the first people in New York to shoot me when I was trying to make it as a model. When I was about 19 or 20, she saw something in me. Reuniting with her in this big job felt like a homecoming!

What makes you feel proud?
My friends and being around them. My gay friends, and my trans friends—I feel that the LGBTQ community can be a community if we allow it to be. I’m less interested in what divides gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans, than I am in what unites us. I like the idea of disposing of all of the new labels entirely, and just going back to saying, ‘I’m gay.’ I like to carry the contradiction of being a heterosexual female and being gay, that’s my culture, context, parlance, and language. I think there was a time that I thought it would be cool to distance myself from being “super gay” and I thought, what if I started hanging out with cis straight people, because some of my best friends are straight. But I lost out on a whole lot of fun. There’s nothing like hanging out and kiki-ing with the girls…and by girls, you know what I mean!

What do you do when you’ve days or moments when you don’t feel your best?
I have my weekly practices and my self upkeep. I do Pilates and workouts to get my head right. I’ve been in talk therapy since 2016 with a therapist that specializes in trans patients. I think it’s important to understand that the life and struggles of an LGBTQ person, particularly someone who is trans, are unique—we have to deal with what’s out there in the world, and talking about it helps.

Hari Nef (BFA)

How are you currently involving yourself in the community?
After being labeled an activist without my consent, I walked away from it. But I’m now collaborating with a New York organization called Queer Care. They connect volunteers to trans patients recovering from gender affirmation surgery so they can be assisted and supported after their surgery. I’m waiting on the next round of volunteer windows. It’s time to show up, put my money where my mouth is, and help people who need it!

Tell us how supporting causes you’re passionate about makes you feel proud?
I like to think of myself as someone with a community-focused approach to social justice and housing reform, particularly in the case of trans people. You must look at what your community needs. I celebrate my community, because that’s how it’s going to get done. And when I say ‘it,’ I mean structural change: I’m talking about a living wage, healthcare reform, and housing reform for trans women and trans women of color. Those are the big issues for me. And during the Pride Month, we celebrate that we’re here. We double down on the commitment to a better year for our community. I can’t change the world, but I can make a small difference, locally.

Will you be at NYFW this year?
New York Fashion Week is always going to be the center of my fashion calendar. It’s nice to go to Europe and see those collections, but I live here, I love fashion, and I’m committed to what’s happening here. Lets shout out California fashion and Uggs too! I picked up some styling tips while living in L.A. and I learned that ease and casual nonchalance. But when NYFW is back on, and I’m invited, I’m coming back. I’m excited about what’s happening in the city now. The page has been cleared for a new generation of designers to step in and shake things up.

Who do you think is making New York fashion exciting again?
Disruptive ingénues, such as the past Ugg collaborators I mentioned earlier, Telfar and Eckahus! They’re stepping into the spotlight. They’re the new Michael Kors and Marc Jacobs. It’s been heartening to see the underdogs being the most critically venerated and commercially successful these days. I’m also really excited for [men’s knitwear brand Judy Turner, the designer’s name is Conley [Averett]. I’m inspired by Maryam Nassir Zadeh, Bode, Vacara, and more established designers, like The Row, Gabriela Hearst, Marc Jacobs, and especially Coach. But when it comes to the cozy footwear, and Pride Month, the whole gig…my feet pledge allegiance to Ugg!

Do you have a particular Ugg reference from the noughties that stands out to you?
Britney had an Ugg moment in a graphic t-shirt where she looks so cool. I think she’s at a gas station. Ugg always felt like the key to the cool girls club. It was cool and cozy and a status symbol. Limitlessly aspirational and off-hand, but glamorous. Every woman of my generation has that ideation with Ugg. As much as we had the Britneys, the Nicoles [Richie], and the Olsens in their iconic pap shots, that’s a rarified and specific clique. Now, being a part of the Ugg family and stepping into the Ugg context in my own terms, it feels like I’ve joined the cool girls club. I think that the Ugg person of today looks different from the most highly visible Ugg clients of the past, and that’s diversification. Oh, and #FreeBritney by the way!

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