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.

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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