Cameron Russell's Mission to Make Beauty About Brains, Not Looks

PHOTO: Cameron Russell
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There is no shortage of genetic and cosmetic perfection on the pages of Vogue and Elle, but you rarely see the models in the photos attached to an insightful essay on the human condition.

In fact, readers rarely ever know their names, because the cultural norm seems to be that models are to be seen and not heard.

That is why 25-year-old model Cameron Russell is creating such a buzz. It is not for how she looks on the cover of high-fashion magazines, and not for her moves on the Victoria Secret runway, but for what she said on stage at a TED conference.

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In front of a room of gape-jawed intellectuals, Russell began her talk by changing out of a little black dress and into a sweater and flats in order to transform the perception of her.

"I feel like there's an uncomfortable tension in the room right now because I should not have worn this dress," she had told the audience.

After the outfit change, she let loose with the kind of self-aware honesty you almost never hear from someone so high on the fashion food chain.

"I am on this stage because I am a pretty, white woman, and in my industry we call that a sexy girl," Russell said. "For the past few centuries we have defined beauty not just as health and youth and symmetry that we're 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've been cashing out on."

Russell's frank presentation was filmed last October, but it was posted online last month.

In just 10 minutes, the Victoria Secret runway model yanked back the curtain on the glossy photos that helped build her career, showing how the fashion industry creates a mirage of sexuality on the flawless bone structure of girls too young to have boyfriends. She described frustration with a society that she believes stops and frisks a disproportionate number of young black males while she enjoys the perks of being a thin, while female. And she shared the one bit of career advice she gives to little girls who want to be model: Aim higher.

"Saying that you want to be a model when you grow up is akin to saying that you want to win the Powerball when you grow up," Russell said. "It's out of your control and it's awesome, and it's not a career path."

With her newfound attention, Russell is transforming feminist writers, artists and organizers into runway-ready glamazons -- part of an effort to get their voices heard -- and giving them a feature in her upcoming magazine she has labeled "Interrupt."

One of the women to sign up was Marissa John. As an artist on a fight for social justice, John jumped at the chance to be seen in a new way, complete with professionals fawning over her make-up and hair.

"I think if you're going to see this version of me then you should also see the real version of me -- because it's only through the process of the transformation and also seeing the plain-spoken appearance or the ordinariness of how I look in everyday life that's the most affirmative to people," she said.

Russell is not the first to wrestle with perceived perfection. A few years back, Dove soap waded into this territory with the "Real Beauty" campaign, which included a short film to show how make-up and digital wizardry can transform a "real woman" into a model. It made a splash, but did little to change a multi-billion-dollar industry.

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