She is one of the most beautiful women you have ever seen and she has a lesson or two to teach us about engagement with our fellow citizens. She used her beauty to convey a message we all need to hear: it is time to get involved. For all of us, little or small, with or without an international reach, it is time to take a stand. Her TED talk became one of the 10 most watched in the world and for a reason: she is articulate, confident, wordy and she happens to be pretty. Welcome to Cameron Russell’s Semaine.
Semaine: You are 29 years old, and you are a ninja/Victoria’s Secret model/Columbia University political science graduate activist? Is that a good way to put it?
Cameron: I don’t know if I am a ninja, but the other things sound good. (She laughs.)
Semaine: So let us start at the beginning: What did you want to do when you were a little girl?
Cameron: I think I wanted to do a lot of things, but the story that people like to hear about is that I wanted to be President of the United States.
Semaine: You apparently met with Bill Clinton?
Cameron: That’s right! When I was 8 or 9, I had gone around telling people that I wanted to be President and eventually a parent at my school had worked on his campaign. When he was in Cambridge to do his commencement speech at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), this parent who was a friend of the family got me in to meet him. I remember I shook his hand trying to do exactly like what I had seen in the newspaper. I shook his hand, very dignified, and asked him: ‘Do you have any advice on how to become president’?
Semaine: And do you remember what advice he gave you?
Cameron: He said to “study hard in school and meet as many kinds of different people as I could” and I think I took some of that advice to heart when I started modelling at 16. I was being introduced to such a different and wide range of people.
Semaine: Your mom is an activist, is she at the root of your engagement?
Cameron: I don’t know if I would describe my mom as an activist. I have been thinking about this recently. I am not sure I even know what that word means because it is thrown around so much. My mom is someone who is always very conscious, and she talked a lot about recycling and sustainability before that was a trendy thing to do. We had political conversations in our house. I don’t know if that was led by me or she was a receptive parent to my questions. She definitely influenced me. How could she not?
Semaine: Could you define what it means to be an activist?
Cameron: Nowadays, everybody needs to be an activist because we are facing problems that are not going to be solved by corporations or governments. They are too enormous. They require everyone’s participation. Thinking back on my political science studies or my history classes in school, I felt there was a miseducation. It made it seem like presidents and a couple of leading people were responsible for leading change and progress, but the reality is that presidents don’t do anything without enormous pressure from people. They are really at the root of change. We need every single individual to be pushing for progress from wherever they are sitting.
Sometimes I feel like being labeled with that term (activist) is slightly inappropriate. There are real activists whose job it is day in and day out. 24 hours a day. For their entire careers. A lot of celebrities get to adopt that title, by speaking out to a magazine or showing up to an event, without the hard work of pushing all hours of the day. We should be careful of who we honour with that title.
Semaine: Who inspired you?
Cameron: Recently I think Bill McKibben behind 360 and May who runs 360 are inspiring. All the amazing the people at Water protectors. Angela Davis and all the people part of a trending conversation about prisons. This list is so long. We’ve seen a falling apart of mainstream media, but there are tireless spoken media who create weekly, daily, truly incredible relevant and important content like Amy from Democracy Now or Margaret Prescod from Sojourner Truth radio. There a lot of activist outlets that are important and influential right now and that inspire me.
Semaine: How is it to be an activist model?
Cameron: Being an activist model has been mostly an extreme privilege. Fashion is part of a lot of the problems that are happening today. If we address what is going on inside our industry, we will respond to some of the big issues happening globally. I’m sure that you have heard that fashion is the dirtiest industry in the world and if we can address our sustainability problems, then we can be a major contributor to pushing back against the climate emergency that we are facing.
I read the other day that one in seven women worldwide is employed by fashion. Women makeup 80% of the industry. That’s the whole supply chain, down to textile workers, and most of them don’t make much of a wage so if we are thinking about income inequality or gender inequality most of these women are women of color. Addressing the problem inside our industry can be a very productive way forward. I have been privileged because I have been successful in this industry and I can speak about these issues and have a broad audience internally and externally which of course is incredible. But sometimes I think that I am not well equipped to comment on all the things I end up commenting on my Twitter and my Instagram. I do it because I don’t feel there are enough role models, enough people talking about some of these issues and we should all be doing it.
Semaine: Do you think it’s a big responsibility to have this audience?
Cameron: I got this audience mostly for undeservedly reasons, so if they want to go elsewhere, that is fine with me. I try to think about it like that. I don’t know if that’s a good answer.
Semaine: Do you have to make a lot of compromises because you work within?
Cameron: A lot of us, no matter what your job is, are working with people who don’t have humans’ best interests at heart. They have money best interest at heart. I don’t know if my experience is unique particularly. Except that, I have been successful and I think with success comes a special responsibility. I believe that most people want to do the right thing, that is if they can figure out what that right thing is. So my role is to both be able to empathize with my friends and colleagues as I also navigate in coming into consciousness around our contribution to the problem that we have globally. Not all the steps we need to take are obvious.
In order to become sustainable, we have to change a lot of our business models, in depth, and that could involve laying people off or making a lot less money. The solution is not obvious and will be really big. I feel complacent in some ways, as they are, in my continued participation in the industry. But I also have a lot of empathy for why that is because it is not obvious to me on a personal level. Walking away from my job, from my networks and from all the people I have been working with for 14 years, would that lead to a more fruitful kind of activism?
Semaine: Do you think the industry has changed since you started over ten years ago?
Cameron: I believe that it has changed in tons of different ways which I can only speak to just as a casual observer. Around sustainability, I don’t think it was a big conversation when I started. Maybe just Vivienne Westwood and now, of course, there are eco-friendly labels and every day there is a new sustainable label. It seems like it is in the mainstream conversation. One of the most apparent to me is social media. It has brilliantly enabled lots of people to break into fashion and for lots of models to have a voice and gain power. When I started out, it didn’t exist. Models were much more disposable. You could be trendy one season and the next season you could be out. But now if you have 300-400k followers, you have a more powerful presence.
It’s hard for me to weigh in because it’s hard to tell if the industry has changed or if my place in the industry has changed. When I started, I would be sitting for 8 hours at Calvin Klein in a casting, and now I’m not. (She laughs)
Semaine: After you had processed the recent election results, you published a piece on your Instagram. Can you please tell us more about it.
Cameron: After the day of the election, people were reaching out to me because I am prominent “activist” in our industry - quote unquote activist - whatever that means. People were reaching out asking what they could do going forward, what they could do now, what rally they should go to, what they should be focusing on...my answer to them, which is what I have been thinking about for myself too, is to look at ourselves and look at how we can make a change here. That’s where we can do the most change and be the most effective.
The media world still sidelines and marginalizes women and people of color and LGBT people and people with disabilities. Those statistics are really dramatic when you look them up. I read the other day that 20% of Op-eds are written by women which means that 80% of opinion editorials are written by men. Just as an example. So I thought one thing we could do in that industry is making sure that we are making the right choices on who to center under this new president and his administration that will try and marginalize so many people. I think we have a lot of space to grow and we have a lot of power. We have much more power than sometimes we perceive that we do and that power will only be power if we use it to progress. Otherwise, we are just using it to make money.
Semaine: What is ‘the List’?
Cameron: So on that letter I sent to the fashion industry about hiring people who would be at risk under Trump’s presidency and the people who have been historically marginalised in the media. One way that I wanted to make that actionable was to come up with hiring recommendations for people who have reached out to me, for people who wanted to make that change. With the help of my friend, we pulled together a list that we sent around after that post went up. Some people got hired up after that list which is great. The internet is also a fabulous resource, like Instagram. It was not only models, but it was also photographers and stylists and graphic designers and illustrators…
The people who are the most visible are the ones who are in front of the camera, but anybody who has been on set knows that marginalisation continues along the chain. I’ve been a model for 14 years, and I’ve worked with less than ten female photographers, and I’ve worked with only one African American photographer. I’ve worked with about 1000 photographers or more during that time. It’s critical to pay attention to all aspects of our team on who we are hiring and who we can hear. People are being threatened, and we need to find a way to close around them, to have solidarity. We won’t be able to do that if we can’t hear their voices.
Semaine: You say you are the product of the genetic lottery and of a legacy. Do you think this luck is what gave you the will to “give back”?
Cameron: I think that question of giving back is funny because to me giving back, by that meaning doing things that help society, increases compassion, increases sustainability, is selfish in a way: I want to have a future, I want my children to have a future. Working on increasing compassion and acceptance, improving culture…you are working on them because they are the most fulfilling work you can do. Unfortunately, we have built an entire society that says being fulfilled is to earn money but that’s just not the case. That is a part of surviving in this society. Surviving is fulfilling but doing work that improves lives and well-being THAT is the most fulfilling.
Semaine: You seem to be specifically engaged in climate change and race and gender equality?
Cameron: The climate thing has definitely come from my mom who has been an anti-climate change campaigner since I was a kid, so I definitely didn’t have a choice on that front. Race and gender…well…I think a lot about inclusivity came from personal experience of growing up in the United States and witnessing that exclusion. As a political science student, I was concerned with how the narrative of our country was being told in mainstream universities and on the news. Once you are aware of those things it’s hard to un-see them. I don’t think that one issue is more important. They are all together as one. Let’s take fashion as an example: Bangladesh is one of the countries which suffers the most from climate change and 80% - that number might be wrong - of their export is textile and the garment industry. Most of the people employed by this industry are women. We could talk about how gender and climate and race are all intersecting right there to create that fiasco. I am sure there are millions of other issues that I don’t know well enough. I’m sure imperialism could be added to this list. There are so many issues intertwining that I don’t see that one thing is separate. It might be a disservice to just pick one issue.
Semaine: Many of us are feeling anxious, helpless and maybe even hopeless, what advice would you give people who are not in the media world but want to do something?
Cameron: I know media as it is the industry that I work in. Whoever you are, you should look around and figure out where is the place where you have influence. A couple of months ago my friend wrote a letter to her Asian American parents about Black Lives Matter. The letter went viral and was translated into so many languages. Her name is Christina Chu. She was thinking ‘where do I have influence…well, I have influence on my parents’. That is true for everyone. You have an impact on your friends and family. Lots of civil servants, at least in the US, can decide how to do their jobs and resist orders. They can save data. They can make things public. There are a lot of stuff that people in the civil service can do. As for the media world, look at our president, who has basically been elected because of Twitter. Fashion dominates Twitter and Instagram. We have the power to rival him and we should take that seriously and think about how to use that power.
Semaine: Are you hopeful for the future generation?
Cameron: Yes totally! We were going through these grim statistics after Trump won and happily the millennials, the generation that I am part of, really were not focused on the negative things that were supported by other groups. Our generation is much more progressive. We are facing global problems which made us much more activist. It is the millennial power right now. I do believe that most people want to do the right thing and that gives me a lot of hope.
Semaine: Do people ask you for a lot of advice on social media? Do you engage with them on those social media platforms?
Cameron: I try to engage and I try to be able to walk away. You can get in a whole rabbit hole especially on Twitter debating with people. I do try to engage with individuals who comment and ask questions and I also try not to get stuck in it all day long. I try and do it sporadically and when I have the energy and the inspiration to do so.
Semaine: When did you take on that role of “Activist”?
Cameron: It is a funny word. People started calling me that after the TED talk which I didn’t even perceive as particularly activist, I think I walked a very careful line. I think that’s the way people wanted to describe me partly because they weren’t comfortable calling me a model. Modelling seems like a silly job that little girls do, so they had to give me another title. I don’t know why people started calling me like that. I guess once I had that title in front of my name then lots of people begun to reach out to me around that title. What happened is that my platform did get a lot bigger and one of the really beautiful things that came out of that TED talk was that lots of activist and feminists reached out to me and befriended me, so I had access to this whole new community which I wasn’t in before. A piece that got propelled and turned it into real action.
Recently, my mom invited me into a group of women that all work around climate advocacy. I was the youngest; I had the most bizarre resume of anybody in the group. But it was really fruitful. It was fruitful to have someone who was a bit of an outsider. To bring in a different perspective but also to bring in a different type of solution or a different type of work that just reinvigorates what is happening. I felt so humbled and moved to be included. I want to do that for other people. Try to include individuals who are just starting out or who have not worked on a particular issue before but who have the energy and presence that is the most exciting thing.
Semaine: Did people not take you seriously?
Cameron: Some people didn’t take me seriously which ended up being a positive thing because it allowed me to be a Trojan horse. People don’t expect that I’m going to say what I am going to say. And do what I am going to do. It also allows me to read people very well. If someone doesn’t take me seriously and is being condescending, well I know they are that type of person. Some people continue not to take me seriously, but I am not that perturbed by that. I have done this job for a long time but also have been a model for a long time. My resume is not a lawyer practicing for years at the LCLU. They don’t need to take me as seriously as a lawyer. They need to take me seriously as a citizen, as a human being. I am not an expert, but I am a thoughtful individual. You want to tell young women: “you are citizens, and you don’t need to have a resume to speak your mind. You don’t need to have a resume to say something intelligent. You don’t need a resume to say big words on political topics. I don’t have one”.
Semaine: How do you keep a sort of life balance?
Cameron: That’s a good question. I should get better at that. Recently I have been trying to write more, and that is about stepping away and being thoughtful about what I do next. That’s one piece: making time to be thoughtful and reflective. Another piece is that I’ve always done a lot of things at the same time. I was a model, and I went to school, I started art projects and non-profits. Part of me now thrives under the chaos of a lot of commitments.
Semaine: Since you’ve been so engaged, have you changed your habits?
Cameron: That’s an interesting question because I think there are things we can all do and we can all role-model. If we are invested in recycling and composting, taking the subway instead of a car, using our feet instead of the subway, then we are more personally invested in those issues. We are going to be more passionately and more authentically advocating for them. But the change that needs to happen is so big that it will take more than taking some small individual actions. Not that you shouldn’t be doing them - but it means being engaged on a political level and being engaged on a corporate level: with your boss and with your local political leadership and whoever is organizing around climate issues and climate justice wherever you live. That is really where the change needs to happen. The climate emergency is so big that if you want to make a 2017 commitment, my advice would be to make that 2017 commitment to be a political participation and corporate participation. That’s where we need the change to happen.
Semaine: Would you be worried to raise a child in today’s world?
Cameron: If I had a young daughter today, I would probably not let her have Instagram. That would be the first thing. If she really wanted it, I think we would try to expose her to a diversity of aesthetic representation of beauty. Appreciate herself and lots of other different women. Everyone always posts Frida, and I think the reason why they post Frida is because she is beautiful. She has a mustache and a unibrow, and she is rocking them. I used to have a unibrow until I was forced to pluck it for work. I am disappointed about that because unibrows are really beautiful and strong. It’s a powerful statement. For someone who is used to walking into a room and people perceiving me to be an accessible type of beauty, I think challenging that on a personal level has been really liberating. I don’t want to be someone’s eye candy. It’s powerful to be presented however you want and still be heard. I am speaking from a place of enormous privilege, but I would try to teach my daughter that. That it doesn’t matter.
Actually, the first time that my mom ever shaved her legs was when she was raising money for her first company. She shaved her legs to go and meet with a venture capitalist. I always think about that. She said, “you pick your battles.” Maybe she shouldn’t have shaved her legs and she would have been able to weed out a sexist investor early on, had she realised they wouldn’t have reacted to her unshaved legs. She laughs.
Semaine: Have you always been that confident?
Cameron: I always have. I can’t tell if it’s because I look the way that most of the people find accessible and pretty or because my mum raised me to be like that. She never ever talked about beauty, she never said “ Oh you look so pretty. Oh, you look so cute”. So I never thought it was an interesting thing. Even when I became a model, I remember thinking it’s so funny that people compliment you on this thing, that I didn’t nothing to have. It’s such a weird compliment.
Semaine: What are the next steps?
Cameron: I don’t know what is next. I think we are in a totally chaotic moment and we need tons of experiments. We have to try everything we can. I think models are spectacular changemakers because they have direct access to media and they are women who come from a different background with different histories. They can bring something new to the table. I have been trying to organize models and try to build trust in our community so we can rely on each other more. We don’t have much time to hang out socially. We can after the show but everyone is tired. That’s one piece. I have been writing a lot, and that’s a way to slow down the train of activism. It can be 24 hours a day. Someone gave me this article on how can you intervene on an event level or on a consciousness level. Sometimes event and intervention are accessible and physical. You can hold it; you can feel, but it can be distracting. To change consciousness is a slower process. In writing, I have been thinking about how to do that. I have a lot of projects in the pipeline, so we’ll have to see which ones are going to pan out. I guess you’ll just have to check in with me later.
Semaine: Finally, do you know Victoria’s Secret?
Cameron: I don’t think she is a real person. I think her secret is that’s how you make money.
This year, most of us have felt a disillusioned about our politicians. Second guessing has become our modus operandi and with Obama we seem to be saying goodbye to a certain of ideal of politics.
I finished this interview wondering why a woman such as Cameron Russell doesn’t end up doing politics. She has the energy, the vision and the thrive to serve her community. Her message is interesting, inclusive and hopeful. She might not be an expert but she definitely has her word to say. We would be happy to support her. Russell for president?
By Marie Winckler for Semaine.