Tuesday 20 February 2018

Cameron Russell the model rebel

Supermodel Cameron Russell is young, rich and in demand - but her success in a shallow industry is down to 'winning the genetic lottery.' She talks to our reporter before she appears at this week's Galway Arts Festival

Cameron Russell attends the ‘God’s Love We Deliver’ Golden Heart Awards in New York City. Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty
Cameron Russell attends the ‘God’s Love We Deliver’ Golden Heart Awards in New York City. Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

The fashion world's endemic problems - its elitism, racism and destructive focus on skinniness - won't be news to anyone. But what might be surprising to most is to hear the industry's shallowness highlighted by someone at its very heart. Three years ago, Cameron Russell, probably the closest thing America currently has to a supermodel, took the stage at the prestigious TEDx series of talks, and delivered a nine-minute lecture in which she said her success was the result of "winning the genetic lottery" and called herself a "pretty, skinny, white woman" who was a beneficiary of a "legacy of gender and racial oppression".

She urged women to let go of the fantasy that beauty equals happiness: "If you ever think, 'If I had thinner thighs and shinier hair, wouldn't I be happier?' you just need to meet a group of models. They have the thinnest thighs and the shiniest hair and the coolest clothes and they are the most physically insecure women, probably, on the planet."

The talk was discussed around the world, far eclipsing (in terms of views online) equally intelligent efforts by the likes of Colin Powell (proving part of Russell's thesis perhaps). It also caused murmurs on both sides of the Atlantic, with ABC News amongst those wondering if she wasn't using the very privilege she was speaking about to bite the hand that feeds her. Russell, after all, has made a fortune climbing to the very pinnacle of her industry, fronting advertising campaigns for Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Armani and Prada; she has displayed her million dollar legs for Victoria's Secret and was shot by Steven Meisel for the cover of Italian Vogue - one of the most sought after spots in modelling. "A lot of newspapers did point out those things and I did hear that hand that feeds phrase," says Russell, who is sitting on the stoop outside her home in Brooklyn on a sweltering June night.

"But people in the industry watched it and told me they thought it was very balanced and fair and said things about the fashion industry which were true in the larger sense as well. After the talk I was invited on CNN to speak about it and I was sitting right across from a Tea Party senator and I told him 'It's easy for me to talk about race because I got where I am because of how I look'. Whereas it's more difficult for a senator to talk about race because they also feel quite strongly, rightly so perhaps, that they also worked quite hard to get where they are. In modelling you might work hard to lose five pounds around your waist but it doesn't really count how hard you work overall unless you are skinny. In that sense, fashion is a really clean and simple forum to speak about issues of privilege; it's pure, distilled privilege, which can help us to think about the influence of privilege in all areas of life."

You tend to believe Russell when she speaks about these issues, not only because of her passion and because she's drop dead gorgeous and you're hypnotised, but because her own privilege was so multi-layered.

She grew up in Massachusetts in a family of some means. Her mother, Robin Chase, now one of the most successful female entrepreneurs in the US, is the co-founder of the car-hire club Zipcar. Her father is an engineer and chief executive officer of GoLoco, a car-pooling and social networking company.

"I grew up with two really nerdy parents in a progressive, activist, feminist household, even though we never used those words really. We understood that men and women were equal. When I was 12 my mother started Zipcar and that was spectacular. I didn't realise at the time how unusual it was for a woman in her 40s with three children under 12 to start a company, until I moved to New York a few years later and learnt about who aspired to be entrepreneurs and realised it was mostly young, white men."

In 2013, the year Russell gave her Ted talk, Chase was part of the $500m sale of Zipcar to Avis but before that she had a hand to play in her daughter's career.

"I had been scouted a few times as a teenager and then visited New York and got scouted a few times on the street. My mom had interviewed someone who ended up working for the Ford modelling agency and she called him to ask if it was a good idea. They ended up signing me."

The modelling world has its fair share of predatory agents and lecherous photographers. Russell tells me that this is a reflection of broader society but it is probably worse in fashion. "You can ask any 16-year-old girl what it's like being her and she'll probably mention street harassment, for instance. I was an assertive 16-year-old, I had the confidence to walk off a couple of jobs when I didn't feel comfortable. I will say that working in fashion over a few years probably degraded that confidence that I came in with. It does that to all women I think."

During her Ted talk Russell had images of herself flash up on the screen to demonstrate the falseness of the imagery that sells clothes. In one shot, she was pouting and bronzed, a cover model goddess, in the next she was a fresh-faced child, hanging out with her friends. The punchline was that the shots were taken in the same week.

"I felt, at 16, that I was consenting and I was confident. But I came of age in an industry where sexuality and gender are almost entirely performative. I learned how to be sexy before I even had sex. That's a funny thing. And another funny thing was that I was never one of those girls who pored over fashion magazines. I remember doing a test for my first shoot and when I stood on the little 'x' I just gave a huge smile because that's what you did when a camera was on you; I had no idea that you had to be serious. One of the biggest misconceptions is that the pictures are retouched and none of the girls are that skinny, but if you're 15 or 16 the likelihood is that that is really your body."

As a young person, she was fascinated with politics, and true to her description of herself as a preternaturally confident girl, Russell wanted to become president when she was growing up. At 9-years-old she met Bill Clinton - there is a charming photograph of her shaking the former president's hand - and as a teenager she volunteered on several Democratic campaign trails. After that she studied economics and political science at Columbia University, while modelling for international fashion houses at the same time. She remains politically switched on and has been following her country's presidential race closely.

"Leaving Trump aside for one moment, I support Hillary and will vote for her, however, I wish she had people close to her who were urging her into more Progressive stances. I love that Bernie was a candidate who got Americans to embrace socialism on a national scale. There are also reasons why he wasn't a spectacular candidate. I love Elizabeth Warren - she would be an incredible VP. Hillary's ties to Wall Street are her big problem and Warren would be a great balance for that."

There is a paradox to a lot of Russell's patter in that even the interview we're having is part of the problem she's complaining about: I am speaking to her, first and foremost, because she's beautiful and a highly successful model.

But, like a Miss World contestant with a valid opinion on world peace, she seems to think she can work within the system. She never thought about quitting modelling in order to be taken more seriously, for instance, she says.

But she says that the power of her good looks has a bearing on many social and professional interactions.

"Sometimes it's totally frustrating to have people react in such a big way - positively or negatively - to how I look. But that is also a great barometer for me to decide if someone is genuine. Why do they want to connect with me, to work with me, to speak with me even. If it's 'because I'm a model' I am super quick to read that."

How did she know that was not the case with her boyfriend, a cinematographer named Damani Baker, with whom she has been together for a few years.

"We met after I wrote a short script for a climate change video. We worked together on that as a creative project and met each other as equals."

I can sort of feel her reading me a bit when I ask her if she gets to keep the clothes and if she sees a lot of puking and eating disorders backstage at catwalk shows.

Only sometimes does she get free stuff, she tells me and as for eating disorders "I mean I'm not a clinician, so I'm not entitled to say, but obviously weight and therefore food can be preoccupations."

She ate Burger King all the way through school and college, without gaining an ounce and her whippet-like metabolism is still mercifully keeping everything in check.

Despite her depiction of herself as an interloper in a world of superficiality and image, she says that there are certain items of clothing that make her come over all covetous.

"I think there is an assumption that when we're talking about fashion that it's high fashion. Even though I don't wear it a lot, I have a sweater my mom made for me and it's very hot to wear, so only suitable for deep winter. But it is my most valued piece."

I choke a little as I picture a wardrobe of unloved Versace and Prada and she tosses me a bone: "In terms of high fashion it's interesting when you play a character. It's interesting in a filmic sense, I'm thinking of a video I did for Prada when we were in a dark studio and we went outside and had to pretend to audition for an old film. And I did feel swept up in the romance and the look."

Climate change is a pet cause of hers and last year she called upon her fellow supermodels to march across Brooklyn Bridge to raise awareness for climate change.

The supermodels came out in their droves, and Twitter and Instagram went into meltdown. Lily Donaldson, Bella Hadid, Stella Maxwell, Grace Bol, Barbara Palvin, Toni Garrn and more broadcast the climate march to a combined six million people on their social media accounts.

She says the biggest misconception about models is that they are thick, but I would have thought it was that they were humourless; with the notable exception of Jennifer Lawrence, there aren't many gorgeous, witty people on the public stage.

You imagine they never had to try as hard as the rest of us in the banter stakes.

Everyone just falls around at what they have to say, like George Clooney and Julia Roberts falling around for each other on red carpets.

Cameron, to be fair to her, does have a sense of humour. We get talking about public art in New York (she is the founder and director of Big Bad Lab, a creative collective, which, in her words, aims to "build participatory art and media platforms") and I mention in passing to her a prominent street artist, who still takes commissions but, famously, insists on being paid in cocaine.

"I think it's fabulous that in this day and age in Manhattan you still have someone operating outside the capitalist system," she responds. Quite.

She doesn't quite know what she's going to say in Galway at the Arts Festival yet - they didn't check the title of her talk with her - and she sounds like she's planning to wing it with an extended Q&A session roughly based around her TED talk. But perhaps more than her sense of humour or intelligence, her ability to riff entertainingly without notes is what really separates her from a world where beautiful people need teleprompters.

"I think if you believe in what you're saying and know what you're talking about people will listen," she tells me.

I agree. It's hard to say no to a goddess.

Cameron Russell will take part in a First Thought discussion entitled 'Looks Aren't Everything' at Galway International Arts Festival on Wednesday 13th July at 6pm in the Bailey Allen Hall, NUI Galway. Tickets at giaf.ie

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