“I had been a model for 9 years before I walked in a Victoria’s Secret show, so it’s funny that the VS label is frequently attached to my name. I get that there’s a huge public narrative and fantasy around it. But for me, I remember so many unexpected, exciting, crazy fashion experiences it’s hard to pick and choose one day over another as career defining.” Cameron Russell may downplay modeling milestones, but get her going on politics, social justice and leadership? She lights up. It seems incomplete to introduce Cameron as a model, even though this has been her profession for the past 12 years. It’s her perspective on the industry and her work outside of it that seems to more accurately describe her. You may be familiar with Cameron’s TED talk. With over 9 million views, it begs the question of what people are watching for: the pretty face or the message. Maybe both—society is fascinated by a beauty with brains. While Cameron epitomizes this criteria, there is no question where her true value lies. While she’s lovely to look at, Cameron is even better to listen to.
“I had never been to a conference like TED before, until I went to one of their events to hear my mom speak. I think TED is a genius storytelling and educational platform that has been wildly successful for good reason—but the environment in the conference struck me as being overwhelmingly dominated by older white men, all talking about how they were changing the world. It felt very exclusive. So when an organizer invited me to speak at an upcoming TEDx, it seemed like a good opportunity to be honest about why I was invited: about privilege and access, awarded for superficial reasons. That is, I wasn’t invited because of a company I started or a discovery I made, I was invited because I am a model.
So I wrote my speech and rehearsed it 50 times. Except I didn’t rehearse the outfit change in the beginning. I wanted that to feel real and goofy. I can be totally awkward and nerdy and thought that it would be a nice way to break the ice. But when I started changing on stage without rehearsing beforehand, I was like, oh my god, this is way longer than I thought. My mom said to me: “Wow. You have a really nervous laugh Cameron.” Thanks mom! You can always trust your mother to tell you the truth.
I finish the speech saying, being fearless means being honest. But I actually only included that line because the theme of that conference was fearlessness. I think it’s true that when we are story-tellers, writers or speakers, it can be scary to tell uncomfortable truths.
Saying something that is hard to say, or being honest in a way that makes you appear less glowing or perfect: those truths are usually important to share.
Despite having some critical things to say about it, don’t get me wrong—modeling has been hugely inspirational. I feel very lucky to have happened upon this job—it really is like winning the lottery. It has exposed me to a cultural and creative world that has influenced my perception in many ways. For example, I had always been into politics but in a very traditional sense: I interned for John Kerry and various local political campaigns and wanted to be President when I was growing up. Once I started working in a creative industry, it really developed my understanding of what is political and how positive change is made. I’ve learned that some of the most important change comes from culture and culture makers. This new understanding has been a catalyst for my initiative Space-Made.
At Space-Made we organize and resource young artists and activists to take on bigger projects and work collectively. A lot of our work has focused on identity. I think that’s because personal experience is a good starting place for young people to develop into powerful storytellers and change-makers, especially because it doesn’t require them to necessarily have a lot of professional experience to be respected and taken seriously.
All of our unique life experiences make us important contributors to what can seem like big and daunting social justice conversations.
These conversations are becoming more and more frequent on social media. Social media allows individuals to react to political things in a personal way. I think it’s important to develop our understanding of what is political. Conventional political power is typically associated with elected leadership and those who have access to mainstream media, wealth, power, as well as being white, male, and a whole host of other things. But I don’t think it’s about any of that. I think change often comes from outside of those traditional power structures.
I don’t have a specific cause like others might. When it comes to climate change, gender equality or income disparity, I see all of them as connected. And what I’m most interested in is expanding leadership across all of these areas. When we think of leadership, we think of a public, inspiring and influential character. That can be true.
But a lot of the time, really powerful leaders are working behind the scenes.
Daunting issues of our time, like climate change and campaign finance reform, won’t be addressed from the top. But perhaps part of the solution lies in a 17-year-old who organizes Kiki balls in Harlem and can get 800 people into a room. We have no idea whose organizing power is going to be important in tipping the scales. Narrow perceptions of power coupled with concentrated wealth cause us to overlook the change makers that we need. We’re beginning to see so many great leaders emerging outside of traditional political actors, and those people, collectively, are going to be the ones who figure out a lot of the issues we’re currently facing. The challenge that I see and what I’m striving for is to make way for more voices, to provide resources for more leaders as quickly as possible. This is what really inspires me.
Having interests and purpose outside of modeling has contributed to my own sense of self, which in some ways, I’m still coming into… aren’t we all?
I’m a really confident person, but I don’t buy into that clear cut identity that can be summed up in 3 words.
Maybe this has something to do with having such a public profession by which people define me.
When little girls ask me about body image and insecurity I tell them to think about when they feel most happy in their body. For me, it’s moments when I’m paying no attention to how I look. When I’m on vacation with my family in Maine, I’m wearing crazy baggy jeans and some polar-fleece my mom brought. For me, not thinking so much about how I look makes me feel comfortable and confident. But maybe for you, certainly for many people, dressing a certain way enables them to express who they are, and that expression is a source of happiness. I think everyone has their own unique methods for confidence, especially when dealing with insecurities. So I guess my advice is just think about what makes you happiest, and try to increase that!
I think women’s magazines often simplify a range of issues by talking a lot about “body image.” But body image insecurity really encompasses a whole number of complex conversations around sexism, racism, classism, and so on. I do not think there is an obvious solution, like simply improving model diversity, for example. Yes, that should happen. But that change will of course need to be one of thousands of changes.
I think it goes back to the notion of each of us creating change on a personal level.
The thousand changes lie in each of us tailor-making an improvement to our little slice of the world. We all make decisions about what kind of society we want to live in through our own personal behavior, the spaces we make, the media we create, the things we buy, the relationships we have.”
As told to Amy Woodside, December 2014