02.07.13 Truth & Wisdom
BY Kay Montano
I came across a Tedx talk recently and recognized the beautiful young woman standing on the stage in a tight, black lycra dress and high heels. She was a model called Cameron Russell who I’d made up a couple of times.
Her speech was about the assumptions and myths we all make about those who possess physical “perfection” and she wore the aforementioned outfit in order to present this fact. As Cameron challenged the academic and highly-cultured audience, I realized how rare to non-existent it is to actually hear for real what it is like to, in Cameron’s refreshingly straightforward words, “win the genetic lottery” in a neutral and articulate way.
We have all, to varying degrees, felt pressure to be the ideal, and in the West especially, the quest for it has become an actual culture- for some a lifestyle, a 24/7 occupation- even an obsession.
We’re all aware of how mass media colludes and exacerbates this rather one-dimensional idea of women and it’s normal for society to celebrate female physical perfection over all else.
Yet aren’t we supposed to be emancipated? Aren’t we as women more than ornamental? One of the rarest voices you hear in all of this seems to be those who possess “the ideal,” and after seeing her speak, I knew Cameron would offer some valuable insight.
Hi Cameron, what are you up to at the moment?
This summer I started a consulting firm with some friends to help communities and organizations build participatory art & media platforms. We’re cooking up a few projects including a participatory online fashion magazine.
Have you always felt that you had a voice, or was it something that developed as a reaction to circumstances?
Nobody had ever asked me to speak before Nate Mook (the organizer of TEDxMidatlantic) invited me to give a talk.
Tell me about your decision to continue your education, and the value of this as opposed to devoting your youth to the temptingly lucrative side of modeling alone.
I feel incredibly lucky to have had the time and resources modeling provided me to go to college. Nearly all of my friends from school graduated with student debt, and many of them worked during school as well.
As a society we spend more and more money, time and effort trying to look perfect, and young girls are under more pressure than ever to look a certain way rather than be encouraged to procure their talents, achieve lasting success, and most importantly-have self esteem, what are you thoughts?
It’s awful that young girls feel pressure to look a certain way. And it’s complicated to fix because so many of us are implicated. Fashion sells beauty to consumers. Consumers know that beauty has value. Many studies have found that more beautiful people command higher salaries, that taller candidates are more likely to be hired then shorter ones, etc. Parents tell their daughters how beautiful they are, but not how smart. Hollywood consistently makes famous women of a certain age who look a certain way.
But there is hope. The Internet has done a lot to transform our media landscape. In my own case, giving a TEDx talk that was posted on YouTube and went viral was a way to get a message about fashion out that no mainstream media had asked me to tell. And there are many wonderful fashion bloggers, designers, photographers and media makers who post their work online and present us with a growing number of diverse perspectives.
Our media culture seems obsessed with youth, perfection, weight, beauty and, in the US, models in general. What do you think of the idea that perhaps the best way to separate the myth from the reality is from the mouths of those that possess these coveted assets?
Some people thought it was very hypocritical of me to stand up and say I’m privileged and lucky and despite its unfairness I still work as a model. But what I was trying to do was show that being honest about winning a lottery isn’t something to be ashamed of. Accepting that privilege and image play a role in success doesn’t mean that’s all success is or will be. Many people are privileged, and work very hard and do impactful good work. But, it’s something we need to recognize so that we can work to change who has access and how we give (and get) access to success.
There is no doubt that the power of image is negative, and that we need to work to change this. Case-in-point modeling is one of the few fields where women out earn men–it’s in a group called “display occupations” which include sales clerks and hookers. We live in a culture and society that has been built for thousands of years to value (and therefore reward) women as ornaments.
Ultimately, modeling has given me a platform to talk about complicated, uncomfortable issues (like privilege and race) that touch all parts of our society because people will listen to what a “model” has to say. If I’d never modeled, I’d never have a viral video discussing those issues on YouTube.
I saw a quote from you regarding black and Latino kids between the ages of 14 and 16 that says, “Not only are people getting stopped and frisked because of what they look like, but I get free stuff because of what I look like, and neither has anything to do with who we are.” Tell me what it’s like to walk down the street looking like you; do your looks invite unwanted interaction?
Yup. When I turned 16 I stopped taking the subway to high school in Boston after a lot of unwanted male attention culminated in turning a very scary stalker into the police.
Do you ever feel the desire to dress a certain way to avoid attention?
When I’m off duty I almost always wear baggy pants, t-shirts and sweaters. I’m a nerd!
Tell me as honestly as you can, what assumptions do people make about you that you simply don’t recognize?
Ha! That’s a funny question. I think a lot of people assume that I’m “cool” because I’m a model. I’m definitely not cool. I wear dorky clothes, read for fun and my idea of a good party is a dinner party!
Funnily, in London that would be the epitome of “cool.”
I’ve always found it telling that we are so consumed with the beauty myth yet it never dawns on anybody to ask what is it actually like to be “beautiful.” The fact that we never ask a model whether their life is a fairy tale (in comparison to a more typical-looking person) makes me wonder whether it’s because we’re unwilling to suspend our belief system- maybe subconsciously we don’t want this dream dismantled, choosing a fantasy rather than accepting people for who they are. Be here, now.
If I hadn’t grown up with models maybe I’d assume you were all more fulfilled, confident and luckier. Knowing you all as friends and colleagues my adult life actually taught me that we are all bestowed with different gifts, all of which can provide for you.
It’s difficult to strike an honest balance in this conversation. It’s uncomfortable to say I received huge benefits from a deck stacked in my favor and it’s uncomfortable to follow that up by saying it doesn’t always make me happy. But mostly, it’s hard to unpack the legacy of gender and racial oppression, when I’m one of the biggest beneficiaries.
I’m glad I got to give this talk whilst young and un-accomplished. If I’m invited to talk in ten or 20 years, after I’d had more agency in my career, I might not tell the story of how I got my first job, or paid for college. That might not seem so important.
Also, something that is almost never discussed is where models come from. To generalize, most people I’ve spoken to imagine that models are spoiled wealthy brats who are completely out of touch with the “real” world. But in fact, the majority of models come from countries (and families) that are much poorer and more humble than many Americans.
Yes, that’s been my experience too, most of the girls I seem to meet these days are from Eastern Europe- in fact the first thing I ever ask a model when she sits in the chair is, “Where are you from? How did you get into modeling?” It’s always a great story and often the best one of the day.
Models are the only ones, who, in a way got chosen; everyone else on the job has decided they want to be there. We (makeup, hair, stylist, photographer) were not scouted.
You clearly have a strong sense of purpose, tell me about some of the organizations you work with and their initiatives.
350.org is a favorite. I think the number one challenge for everyone alive right now is to figure out how we can take action swiftly and dramatically to reduce emissions and slow climate change. If not, we’re headed for disaster (according to the newly-released national climate assessment by the US government this morning, a 9-15 degree Fahrenheit change by 2099).
Tell me a bit about some people you admire- who you believe have inspired changes that have impacted peoples lives for the better?
Last spring I wrote a thesis on political power and grassroots public art. I am totally inspired by the work people in this sphere are doing. Check out Kenneth Bailey, founder of ds4si in Boston, Erik Howard, founder of TAP in Detroit, Sharon De La Cruz, program director of WOMEN at The Point in the South Bronx, or Petrushka Bazin Larsen & Kemi Ilesanmi at the Laundromat Project in Harlem.
There are a growing number of interesting voices in the modeling world right now like Coco Rocha and Sarah Ziff. It’s great that being vocal has not hindered their careers as it might have once done. What has been the response from the industry or is it something you keep separate?
The industry has been really supportive. When the TEDx talk came out on YouTube many clients called to congratulate me. I think people in fashion like the fact that fashion can raise serious questions.
If there is something to take away from this talk, I hope it’s that we all feel a little more comfortable being honest about the power of image. We should feel comfortable being honest about the role it’s played in our perceived successes and failures.
You can follow Cameron on Twitter @CameronCRussell.