The activist is mobilising her fellow models, revolutionising the fashion industry in the process.
The day before flying to New York to meet Cameron Russell, I book myself into John Frieda’s salon for an emergency hair colour and blowdry. After all, certain standards of grooming are de rigueur when interviewing a supermodel.
But I needn’t have worried, for Russell is a different kettle of fish. She turns up at our rendezvous, a park in Queens, wearing baggy shorts and trainers, her own tawny hair scraped back into a tight ponytail, and scoffs at the notion that her (nevertheless exquisite) looks make her in any way worthy of special treatment.
Indeed, Russell has spent much of her modelling career doing battle with that notion. In her 2012 TED talk – titled ‘Looks aren’t everything. Believe me, I’m a model’ – she called out her own industry for being racist, sexist and purveying unrealistic images of physical perfection. ‘These pictures are not pictures of me. They are constructions by a group of professionals,’ she explained. No wonder her talk is still one of the 10 most watched ever.
She is ‘not that interested’ in her appearance. ‘When I was in seventh grade, they got us to sit in a circle, and then they asked us to step into the middle if we thought our thighs were too big, or whatever – which is a crazy thing to do to teenage girls anyway. I didn’t step into the circle for anything, and it was the first time it dawned on me, “Wait, am I looking the way girls want to look?” Previously
I hadn’t thought about it at all.’
All the same, with lucrative campaigns for brands such as Louis Vuitton, Saint Laurent, Calvin Klein and Giorgio Armani under her belt, Russell is fully aware of the pulling power exerted by her fine-boned beauty (she studied economics at Columbia University, after all). And in turn, she has not hesitated to use her visibility to further the causes she cares about.
In 2017, Russell co-founded the Model Mafia, a pressure group of model-activists, and in the same year, brought the Me Too campaign to fashion by publishing models’ anonymised stories of exploitation on her Instagram feed, leading to a wholesale shake-up of the industry, affecting some of its biggest names. ‘Of course there is going to be a power imbalance that has to do with gender when everyone in charge on set is a man,’ she points out, so she has been insisting that the shoots in which she participates are as diverse as possible.
Now, she’s in the midst of writing a book on fashion. ‘It’s a brilliant microcosm to talk about capitalism and power,’ she explains. ‘Researching it has been so fascinating. Did you know that one in seven women in the world is employed in the fashion industry, and the majority don’t earn a liveable wage? But looking at it in a positive way, if we get this industry to change, we effect huge change globally.’ Compassion, commitment, integrity: nobody wears it better than Cameron Russell.