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


At first, there seemed to be a bit of cognitive dissonance in Russell's idea, taking, say, feminist Gloria Steinem and putting her through a fashion car wash in order to snag the public's attention for her causes. But Russell said her message is about giving the public what they want.

"What we were shooting, I think, it was a little bit of a performance art piece," she told "Nightline" anchor Bill Weir. "We said, what if we did a mockery of what mass media wants? What if mass media wants all this hair and makeup? Mass media wants bright lights. Mass media wants crazy clothes. What if we did that, and then we gave you a moment to have your voice next to that picture."

But it's hard not to wonder if Russell is merely biting the hand that feeds her by suggesting it is all an airbrushed facade.

Models do work hard, she said, but their career successes are not dependent on education.

"Once you are a model, you do have to fly a million red-eye flights, and you do have to entertain a different client every single day," Russell said. "But what I was getting at there is that the barrier to entry, to being a model, is not hard work. You don't need a degree. You don't need to win an award. It's just about how you look."

She said she eats pretty much whatever she wants and only exercises for fun -- further proof that models do not work their way to stardom. Instead they are born lucky, she said. Models are people who have won the "genetic lottery," as Russell put it in her TED talk, that universal attraction that comes with near perfect symmetry -- because symmetry is perceived as healthy.

But while our biological definition of "gorgeous" is unchanging, today's models also won the fashion lottery because, right now, tall and thin is in. But while industry rules have morphed through time and culture -- the Mona Lisa might have a tough time getting booked for Vogue today and Russell would be way too skinny to model for the Renaissance masters -- being born into a culture where being fit and trim is the beauty standard can create body-image angst, even among professional models.

"If you ever are wondering, 'If I had 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 are the most physically insecure women, probably, on the planet," Russell said in her TED talk.

In the interview with "Nightline," Russell acknowledged that she has helped promote that seemingly flawless female image.

"I've never personally been anorexic," Russell said. "I'm not promoting anything totally unhealthy because I'm not unhealthy, but I am promoting an ideal that is, maybe, not attainable. And for that, I think I have to feel guilty and I have to assume some blame for that."

She admitted she is figuring it out as she goes along. But the next time you see her face on a magazine, know that she would rather earn your respect with her ideas than her looks.

"We can't just pay attention to women who look fantastic in a photograph, because there are a lot of people that have fantastic thing to say that don't look like 25-year-old, white models," Russell said.

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