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.
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 Russell, later became CEO of GoLoco, a carpooling and social-networking 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 self-made? 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 strong-willed 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 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.’