At 5’10’’ and 115 pounds, Cameron Russell is a self-described “pretty, white woman” with ten years of modeling experience for prestigious clients like Vogue, Louis Vuitton, and Victoria’s Secret. But VS Angel wings aside, Russell really started making waves in the media after giving a January 2013 TED Talk that went viral.
In the talk, entitled “Looks aren’t everything. Believe me, I’m a model,” Russell discusses the “genetic lottery” one must win in order to experience top model success. She notes, “Image is powerful. But also, image is superficial,” and tells catwalk hopefuls, “You could be anything. You could be the president of the United States, or the inventor of the next internet!”
Though Russell intended to highlight flaws in the very structures that have privileged her, she later claimed that the popularity of her talk “reinforced the observations I highlighted in it: that beauty and femininity and race have made me the candy of mass media.”
Rather than using the increased attention to bolster her own image, Russell has been looking for ways to share the spotlight with those whose voices are less frequently heard. Shortly after her TED talk, she wrote, “Like many young people I believe I have potential to make a positive impact in the world. But if I speak from a platform that relies on how I look, I worry that I will not have made room for anyone else to come after me. I will have reinforced that beauty and race and privilege get you a news story.”
In order to combat this, Russell has helped launch Interrupt Magazine, a webzine attempting to provide a media platform open to divergent voices. The magazine tries to implement Russell’s belief that “if you use culture and art, you can talk about complicated political things.” She notes that her TED talk addressed “race, privilege, and access to media, which are things that most people don’t want to listen to, but that talk went viral because I’m a model who was talking about modeling and fashion and things that everyone can have an opinion on.”
She points out that unlike fashion, which most people feel they have permission to engage regardless of who they are, talking about issues considered ‘political’ often results in people feeling like “they cannot give input because they think they’re not well educated on the issue, or their opinion or vote hasn’t mattered in the past and they’re disenchanted.”
As an economics and political science major at Columbia University, Russell shares, “I love grassroots politics. Because I’ve worked in fashion for a long time and am aware of how powerful culture and advertising are, I’m really interested in figuring out how to use culture, art, and media to facilitate people’s efforts to participate.”
One of Interrupt Magazine’s attempts to do so involved a photo shoot that glammed up feminists, artists, and activists who wouldn’t normally concern themselves with “all this hair and makeup.” ABC news anchor Bill Weir questioned this approach, protesting the idea that “you have to take a feminist and put her through this fashion carwash in order to pay attention on the other side.” Russell responded by saying, “We said, ‘What if we did a mockery of what mass media wants?… What if we did [all the hair and makeup], then gave you a moment to have your voice next to that picture?”
At age 25, Russell admits that there’s a lot of experimenting to be done and she’s “still figuring out what it all means.” And in spite of her media clout, Interrupt Magazine and Russell’s other brainchild The Big Bad Lab remain small side projects for someone who still models for a living. In the end, though, it’s clear that Cameron Russell is determined to leave a legacy based more on the size of her ideas than the size of her waist—and that’s something worth emulating indeed.