Model cit­i­zen

Rail­ing against the ex­cesses and abuses of the fash­ion in­dus­try – while ad­mit­ting that win­ning a ‘ge­netic lot­tery’ has helped her rise to the top of it – Cameron Rus­sell is re­defin­ing what it means to be a su­per­model. Jane Mulk­er­rins meets her.

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by Yumna Al-arashi. Styling by Rachael Wang

Jane Mulk­er­rins meets Cameron Rus­sell – model, ac­tivist, and one of the most out­spo­ken women in fash­ion

Cameron Rus­sell sug­gests that we meet in the Brook­lyn Botanic Gar­den. Since one of the top­ics she’s keen to talk about is sus­tain­ability, this seems ap­pro­pri­ate, and cer­tainly more in­ter­est­ing than the stan­dard in­ter­view set­ting of a lo­cal café or restau­rant. The only snag is that it’s high sum­mer, so New York is a swampy, air­less 35C, and Rus­sell has ac­ci­den­tally sent me the ad­dress to the wrong en­trance. I fi­nally ar­rive to meet the 32-year-old model 15 min­utes late, with tor­rents of per­spi­ra­tion run­ning down my neck, back and, well, ev­ery­where. Rus­sell, mean­while, is pris­tine in a white T-shirt and navy wide-legged trousers, and bone-dry.

She hands me a packet of Viet­namese bánh mì sand­wiches, bought from her lo­cal deli, and we find a bench on which to sit, eat lunch and chat. I promptly spill spicy sauce down my top. Pic­nick­ing with a high-fash­ion model is fraught with po­ten­tial hu­mil­i­a­tions. Then a park war­den ar­rives at our bench to in­form us that eat­ing is for­bid­den in the gar­den... just as a thundersto­rm

sud­denly erupts, and we’re forced to flee to the vis­i­tors’ cen­tre and fin­ish our con­ver­sa­tion along­side 60 tod­dlers in hi-vis jack­ets.

It’s not your typ­i­cal in­ter­view ex­pe­ri­ence, but then Rus­sell is not your typ­i­cal model. She has walked the run­way for ma­jor fash­ion houses in­clud­ing Chanel, Prada and Ver­sace, and been the face of cam­paigns for Ralph Lau­ren and Tif­fany, among oth­ers. But she first made head­lines in 2012 when, then 25 and with a CV that in­cluded walk­ing for Vic­to­ria’s Se­cret, she gave a talk as part of the pres­ti­gious TEDX se­ries of lec­tures in which she de­clared that her suc­cess in fash­ion was a re­sult of win­ning ‘a ge­netic lot­tery’. As a ‘pretty white wo­man’ she was, she said, a ben­e­fi­ciary of a ‘legacy of gen­der and racial op­pres­sion’.

The nine-minute talk, in which she con­fessed to the count­less ad­van­tages she had ex­pe­ri­enced thanks to her looks (‘free stuff ’ in­cluded), has been viewed more than 27 million times since it was posted on­line. But, while she was praised in some quar­ters for flag­ging up ugly in­equal­i­ties in a world ob­sessed with beauty, she was si­mul­ta­ne­ously crit­i­cised for bit­ing the hand that fed her. She un­der­stood the para­dox: she was loudly crit­i­cis­ing an in­dus­try in which she con­tin­ued to work – and be highly paid.

‘That’s a to­tally fair re­ac­tion,’ she nods now. ‘And I did have a mo­ment, af­ter the talk, when I thought, if I’m re­ally pub­lic and every­one is ask­ing me about this job and not only have I been crit­i­cal about it pub­licly, but I feel crit­i­cal about it… what am I do­ing?’

She had what she calls ‘a lit­tle reclu­sive mo­ment’, dur­ing which she went away and read ‘ev­ery model au­to­bi­og­ra­phy ever – which I think is 12 or some­thing. The canon is not that large,’ she says wryly. She was par­tic­u­larly moved by the So­ma­lia-born model (and David Bowie’s widow) Iman’s re­flec­tions on her ca­reer. ‘She wrote that she was com­plicit in this racist and sex­ist nar­ra­tive about be­ing dis­cov­ered on the fron­tier. That she was to­tally ob­jec­ti­fied by white magazines who thought that she was ex­otic, and black magazines that thought she wasn’t ex­otic enough,’ Rus­sell con­tin­ues. ‘I read that, and it made a lot of room for me to un­der­stand what I have ex­pe­ri­enced in this in­dus­try, how to speak about it and how to con­tinue to ex­ist in it.’

Today Rus­sell wants to build a bet­ter fash­ion in­dus­try from within. And right now, one of her ma­jor fo­cuses is how it can be­come more sus­tain­able. ‘Fash­ion is one of the big­gest pol­luters…’ she says. ‘And it’s on course for us­ing a quar­ter of the world’s car­bon bud­get by 2050.’

Then there are the other is­sues she says must be also ad­dressed: ‘[The fash­ion in­dus­try] de­pends on sex­ism and racism to have a very large dis­pos­able work­force; it re­lies on de­press­ing the wages of women and par­tic­u­larly women of colour.’

Rus­sell is an un­de­ni­ably pas­sion­ate and ar­tic­u­late spokesper­son, though at times her re­lent­lessly right-on rhetoric can – par­tic­u­larly to a Bri­tish ear – sound overly earnest. When she talks about women on the cat­walk and ‘femmes’, I ask her to clar­ify her terms. ‘I think in our lan­guage we just have to con­tinue to make space for peo­ple be­yond this gen­der bi­nary,’ she says. So, she means transwomen? ‘Yes, and peo­ple who are gen­der non­con­form­ing and maybe find them­selves to be femme some of the time.’

She tells me of how she was clean­ing out her wardrobe re­cently and came upon a green mil­i­tary-style jacket. Her part­ner, the doc­u­men­tary film­maker Da­mani Baker, asked her, ‘“Don’t you think it’s weird to wear that? You’re just glam­or­is­ing vi­o­lence.” And I was like, “That is so true,”’ she says, with no ap­par­ent irony. ‘Then I was on a shoot for a spe­cial ac­tivist is­sue [of a mag­a­zine], and the whole wardrobe was mil­i­tary-in­spired. I re­peated what he had said to me and they were like, “You’re right.”’

But Rus­sell’s ac­tivism, par­tic­u­larly on en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues, did not spring from nowhere. She tells me that her fa­ther, at the age of 12, ‘learnt about the pol­lu­tion that cars were mak­ing and de­cided he would never get in a car again. So from 12 to 23 he only rode his bike.

‘They lived in Bal­ti­more,’ ex­plains Rus­sell. ‘So if his fam­ily went on va­ca­tion to Florida, he would leave early to bi­cy­cle there over many days.’ That’s a jour­ney of ap­prox­i­mately 1,000 miles.

The el­dest of three sib­lings, Rus­sell grew up in Cam­bridge, Mas­sachusetts, in what she calls ‘a pro­gres­sive, ac­tivist, fem­i­nist house­hold’. (Her sis­ter is now at med­i­cal school, her brother is an en­gi­neer.) Her gung-ho bicycling fa­ther, Roy

Read­ing an ac­count of sex­ual ha­rass­ment, Rus­sell thought, ‘This is our job de­scrip­tion’

Rus­sell, later be­came CEO of Goloco, a car­pool­ing and so­cial­net­work­ing com­pany, while her mother, Robin Chase, worked in pub­lic health be­fore co-found­ing car-shar­ing com­pany Zip­car when Rus­sell was 12 – it went on to sell for $500 million in 2013. Both her par­ents are now co-founders of the tech start-up Ve­niam. I sug­gest that her mother is a self-made mil­lion­aire. ‘I guess it de­pends how you un­der­stand the word “self-made”,’ muses Rus­sell. ‘Is there such a thing as self­made? She comes from priv­i­lege.’ (‘Priv­i­lege’ is a buzz­word for Rus­sell; she uses it nine times dur­ing our in­ter­view.)

It was not a house­hold in which looks were made a fuss of. Rus­sell’s mother rarely shaved her legs and cer­tainly never told her el­dest daugh­ter (a late bloomer) that she was pretty. Rus­sell – rangy and slightly an­drog­y­nous, with big brown eyes and cheek­bones you could grate cheese on – had no idea that she had looks oth­ers might value un­til one day at school, at about the age of 14, when her class was asked to par­tic­i­pate in a ‘lu­di­crous’ ex­er­cise. ‘The teacher said, “If you don’t like your hair, step into the mid­dle; if you don’t like your body, step into the mid­dle…” And I just never stepped into the mid­dle.’

Still, af­ter Rus­sell was scouted by agen­cies ‘six or seven times’ in one day dur­ing a fam­ily trip to New York when she was 15, her par­ents al­lowed her to pur­sue mod­el­ling. ‘It was an op­por­tu­nity,’ she shrugs. ‘I was a very se­ri­ous and strong­willed kid, so I don’t think she [Rus­sell’s mother] had a lot of fear of me be­ing out in the world.’

By 16, she was earn­ing more than her par­ents ever had at that point, but as a long-stand­ing po­lit­i­cal en­thu­si­ast she still in­tended to pur­sue her real dream – be­com­ing pres­i­dent. She stud­ied po­lit­i­cal sci­ence and eco­nom­ics at Columbia Univer­sity, con­sid­er­ing mod­el­ling only her part-time job. But af­ter she grad­u­ated it mor­phed into her ca­reer. ‘Mod­el­ling never felt like a big choice, but a se­ries of very, very small choices,’ she says.

What of some of those choices, such as ap­pear­ing in the Vic­to­ria’s Se­cret Fash­ion Show, which has been widely crit­i­cised for its overt ob­jec­ti­fi­ca­tion of women and record on sus­tain­ability? ‘I [still] take jobs today that are com­mer­cial and con­sumerist,’ she says, with a shrug. ‘The in­dus­try is what it is.’

De­spite grow­ing up in an ac­tivist house­hold – and de­spite be­ing strong-willed – Rus­sell felt no more equipped than oth­ers to chal­lenge the abuses in the fash­ion in­dus­try. ‘I didn’t even re­alise that I’d ex­pe­ri­enced sex­ual ha­rass­ment un­til I was do­ing a shoot for a big cor­po­ra­tion that had its own stu­dio,’ she says. The com­pany was obliged to dis­play the work­place rules, which in­cluded a de­scrip­tion of sex­ual ha­rass­ment. ‘I re­mem­ber read­ing [it] with an­other model, and be­ing like, this is our job de­scrip­tion.’

She would go on to co-found Model Mafia, today a col­lec­tive of ‘a cou­ple of hundred mod­els in New York and now Lon­don, Paris and Am­s­ter­dam’, com­mit­ted to mak­ing a dif­fer­ence in so­ci­ety. It was Model Mafia that helped her mo­bilise when, in the wake of the Har­vey We­in­stein al­le­ga­tions and the ex­plo­sion of the #Metoo move­ment, she de­cided to turn over the rock of the fash­ion world for a sim­i­lar reck­on­ing.

On her In­sta­gram ac­count she cat­a­logued in­ap­pro­pri­ate be­hav­iours she had en­dured. ‘Non-consensual kisses, spanks, gropes, and pinches. Fail­ing to pro­vide ad­e­quate chang­ing space, sham­ing in re­sponse to re­quests for ad­e­quate chang­ing space. Bul­ly­ing by ed­i­tors, pho­tog­ra­phers, stylists, and clients

‘As an older per­son who is more se­cure fi­nan­cially, I can be out­spo­ken and lose jobs’

to go top­less or nude. Publishing nu­dity af­ter con­trac­tu­ally agree­ing not to. Non-consensual mas­sage. In­ap­pro­pri­ate emails, text mes­sages, and phone calls. Pres­sure while un­der­age to con­sume al­co­hol. Be­ing di­rected to “pre­tend like I’m your boyfriend”. Be­ing forced to sleep at the pho­tog­ra­pher’s home rather than [be­ing] pro­vided a ho­tel. Hav­ing my job threat­ened if I don’t par­tic­i­pate…’

Did she be­lieve, when it was hap­pen­ing, that it was all just part of the job? ‘I think that’s the ex­pec­ta­tion that most of us have,’ she nods. ‘I was try­ing to be con­fi­dent, which at that time I un­der­stood as a quiet re­silience, not speak­ing up.

‘An­other way to em­body con­fi­dence would have been to say some­thing,’ she notes.

She also shared on In­sta­gram de­tails of sex­ual as­sault, ha­rass­ment and abuse sent to her by fel­low mod­els, who asked to re­main anony­mous. She prefers, how­ever, not to go into specifics about in­ci­dents that she her­self has en­dured. ‘That call-out cul­ture, mak­ing it about one in­ci­dent or one per­son, is not pro­duc­tive. I think it would just be very dis­tract­ing, like, “Cameron says.”’

For the last 18 months, Rus­sell has been jug­gling mod­el­ling with car­ing for Asa, her and Baker’s first child to­gether (Baker also has an eight-year-old son from a pre­vi­ous re­la­tion­ship, who lives with them part-time). ‘I grew up with my fem­i­nist mum in the 1980s and the whole mes­sage was: “Be su­per-care­ful when you have kids – you will de­stroy your ca­reer.” That’s not the ex­pe­ri­ence I am hav­ing,’ she beams. ‘I have such a bril­liant job for hav­ing a child; any well-paid free­lancer has the ideal job for hav­ing a child.’

And, with her lot­tery-win­ning genes, there was no strug­gle to get back into shape. ‘I ac­tu­ally lost a lot of weight when I was nurs­ing,’ she says. ‘I was re­ally hun­gry. Hun­grier than when I was a teenager.’ Some­how she also found time to write a non-fic­tion book about fash­ion while she was preg­nant, which she has yet to edit.

As we dodge the rain and head off, I ask if she knows whether she has lost out on jobs be­cause of her out­spo­ken­ness – and if she cares. ‘As an older per­son who is more se­cure fi­nan­cially, I can turn down things more eas­ily or I can be out­spo­ken and lose jobs,’ she shrugs.

‘I ex­ist in this in­dus­try, so 90 per cent of what I do is what this in­dus­try does. And then – be­cause now I un­der­stand the lay of the land, I have the con­nec­tions, I un­der­stand what can be done dif­fer­ently – 10 per cent of the time I get to push and see what hap­pens.’

From left Rus­sell on the cat­walk at the 2012 Vic­to­ria’s Se­cret Fash­ion Show in New York; giv­ing her TEDX talk in the same year

All fash­ion in this shoot is ei­ther cre­ated sus­tain­ably or re­cy­cled. Pre­vi­ous page Rus­sell wears: wool-felt coat, £1,975, Stella Mccart­ney (stel­lam­c­cart­ Or­ganic-cot­ton shirt, £195, Mother of Pearl (moth­erof­ Jersey un­der­wear, £120, Col­lina Strada (col­li­ Leather, ny­lon and rub­ber boots, price on re­quest, Heron Pre­ston (heron­pre­ Left Cash­mere and silk jumper, £1,450, and match­ing skirt, £1,890, both Gabriela Hearst (matchesfas­ Gold-filled ear­rings, £98, WKNDLA (

From left With part­ner Da­mani Baker and their son, Asa, last Septem­ber; with her fa­ther, Roy Rus­sell, as a child; with her mother, Robin Chase

Cropped cot­ton blazer, £150, and match­ing skirt, £82, both Ph­le­muns (ph­le­ Glass-stone and brass ear­rings, £180, Castle­cliff (castle­

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