Looks Aren’t Everything

Hi. My name is Cameron Russell, and for the last little while, I have been a model. Actually for ten years.  And I feel like there is an uncomfortable tension in the room right now, because I should not have worn this dress.  So, luckily I’ve brought an outfit change. This is the first outfit change on the TED stage, so you guys are pretty lucky to witness it, I think. If some of the women were really horrified when I came out, you don’t have to tell me now, but I’ll find out later on twitter. I’d also note that I’m quite privileged to be able to transform what you think of me in a very brief ten seconds. Not everybody gets to do that. These heels are very uncomfortable, so good thing I wasn’t going to wear them. The worst part is putting this sweater over my head because that’s when you’re going to laugh at me, so don’t do anything while it’s over my head. Alright.

So, why did I do that? That was awkward. Well, hopefully not as awkward as that picture. Image is powerful. But also, image is superficial. I just totally transformed what you thought of me in six seconds. And in this picture I had actually never had a boyfriend in real life. I was totally uncomfortable, and the photographer was telling me to arch my back and to put my hand in that guy’s hair.

And of course, barring surgery, or the fake tan I got two days ago for work, there is very little we can do to transform how we look. And how we look, though it is superficial and immutable, has a huge impact on our lives.

So, today for me being fearless means being honest. And I am on this stage because I am a model.  I am on this stage because I am a pretty, white woman. In my industry we call that a “sexy girl”. And I’m going to answer the questions people always ask me but with an honest twist.

So, the first question is how you become a model. And I always just say, I was scouted, but that means nothing. The real way I became a model is I won a genetic lottery and I am the recipient of a legacy. And maybe you are wondering what is a legacy. Well, for the past few centuries we have defined beauty not just as health and youth and symmetry that we are biologically programmed to admire, but also as tall slender figures and femininity and white skin. And this is a legacy that was built for me and it’s a legacy that I have been cashing out on. And I know that there are people in the audience who are skeptical at this point. And maybe there are some fashionistas who are like, “Wait, Naomi, Tyra, Joan Smalls, Liu Wen.” And first, I commend you on your model knowledge. Very impressive.  But unfortunately, I have to inform you that in 2007 a very inspired NYU PhD student counted all the models on the runways, every single one that was hired.  And of the 677 models that were hired, only 27, or less than 4 percent were non-white.

The next question people always ask me is, “Can I be a model when I grow up?” And the first answer is I don’t know. They don’t put me in charge of that. But the second answer, and what I really want to say to these little girls is, “Why? You know, you can be anything. You could be the president of the United States, or the inventor of the next internet, or a ninja cardio-thoracic surgeon poet, which would be awesome because you would be the first one.” If after this amazing list they are still like, “No, no, Cameron, I want to be a model”, well then I say, “Be my boss.” Because I’m not in charge of anything, and you could be the editor-in-chief of the American Vogue or the CEO of H&M or the next Steven Meisel (an American fashion photographer).

Saying you want to be a model when you grow up is akin to saying you want to win the Powerball (lottery) when you grow up. It’s, you know, out of your control and it’s (awesome?) and it’s not a career path.

I will demonstrate for you now ten years of accumulated model knowledge, because unlike cardio-thoracic surgeons, it can just be distilled right into right now. So, if the photographer is right there and the light is right there like a nice HMI, and the client says, “Cameron, we want a nice walking shot,” well then, this leg goes first, nice and long. This arm goes back. This arm goes forward.  The head is at three quarters.  And you just go back and forth.  Just do that. And you look back at your imaginary friends.  Three hundred or four hundred, five hundred times. It would look something like this. Hopefully less awkward than that one in the middle.  That was… I don’t know what happened there.

Unfortunately, after you’ve gone to school, and you have a resume, and you’ve done a few jobs, you can’t say anything anymore. So, if you say you want to be the president of the United States, but your resume reads “underwear model ten years”, people give you a funny look.

The next question people always ask me is, “Do they retouch all the photos?” And yeah, they pretty much retouch all the photos. But that is only a small component of what’s happening. This picture is the very first picture that I ever took, and it’s also the very first time I had worn a bikini.  And I didn’t even have my period yet. I know we’re getting personal, but… You know, I was a young girl.  This is what I looked like with my grandma just a few months earlier.

Here is me on the same day as the shoot. My friend got to come with me. Here is me at a slumber party a few days before I shot French Vogue. Here is me on the soccer team and in V magazine. And here is me today. And I hope what you’ve seeing is these pictures are not pictures of me. They are constructions. And they are constructions by a group of professionals, by hair stylists, and makeup artists, and photographers, and stylists, and all of their assistants, and pre-production, and post-production, and they build this. That’s not me.

Okay, so the next question people always ask me is, “Do you get free stuff?”  I do have too many eight inch heels, which I never get to wear, except for earlier. But the free stuff that I get is the free stuff I get in real life, and that’s what we don’t like to talk about.

I grew up in Cambridge (Massachusetts?), and one time I went into a store and I forgot my money and they gave me the dress for free. When I was a teenager, I was driving with my friend who was an awful driver and she ran a red, and of course we got pulled over.  And all it took was a “Sorry, officer”, and we were on our way. And I got these free things because of how I look, not who I am. And there are people paying a cost for how they look and not who they are.

I live in New York, and last year of the 140,000 teenagers that were stopped and frisked, 86% of them were black and Latino. And most of them were young men. And there are only 177,000 young black and Latino men in New York, so for them it’s not a question of, will I get stopped?, but how many times will I get stopped?  when will I get stopped?

When I was researching this talk I found out that of the 13 year-old girls in the United States, 53% don’t like their bodies. And that number goes to 78% by the time that   they are 17.

So, the last question that people ask me is, “What is it like to be a model?” I think the answer that they’re looking for is, “If you are a little bit skinnier and you have shinier hair, you will be so happy and fabulous.” And when we are back stage we give an answer that maybe makes it seem like that. We say, “It’s really amazing to travel.” And, “It’s amazing to get to work with creative and inspired, passionate people.” And those things are true, but they’re only one half of the story, because the thing that we never say on camera, that I have never said on camera is, “I am insecure.” 

And I am insecure, because I have to think about what I look like every day. And if you ever are wondering, you know, if I have thinner thighs and shinier hair, will I be happier, you just need to meet a group of models.  Because they have the thinnest thighs and the shiniest hair and the coolest clothes, and they’re the most physically insecure women probably on the planet.

So, when I was writing this talk, I found it very difficult to strike an honest balance, because on the one hand I felt very uncomfortable to come out here and say, “Look, I have received all these benefits from this deck stacked in my favor.” And it also felt really uncomfortable to follow that up with, “And it doesn’t always make me happy.” But mostly, it was difficult to unpack a legacy of gender and racial oppression when I am one of the biggest beneficiaries.

But I’m also happy and honored to be up here, and I think that it’s great that I got to come, you know, before ten or twenty or thirty years had passed, and I’d had more agency in my career. Because maybe then I wouldn’t tell the story of how I got my first job. Or maybe I wouldn’t tell the story of how I paid for college which seems so important right now. If there’s a take-away to this talk, I hope it’s that we all feel more comfortable acknowledging the power of image in our perceived successes and our perceived failures. Thank you.

Questions: 

  1. Cameron said, “the free stuff that I get is the free stuff I get in real life, and that’s what we don’t like to talk about.”  What does this mean?
  2. Is privilege awarded in your society based on skin color, on gender or on something else?
  3. What does this have to do with being a model?

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