Cameron Russell is much more than a killer pair of legs and a beautiful face. Though her modeling resume, which includes designers such as Chanel, Victoria’s Secret, and Dolce and Gabanna, may have placed her under the spotlight, it’s her recent TED Talks and #MyMedia campaign that is keeping her there.
Just last month, Russell hosted a TED Talks in which she talked about the power and superficiality that comes with having a beautiful image. Russell talks about using the attention she has gained from her career as a model to push the boundaries of beauty and ideas about women in the media space. From all of the publicity following her TED Talks, Russell, along with fellow contributors Sharon De La Cruz, Megan Eardley, Twanna Hines & Jamia Wilson, started the #MyMedia campaign to hear from women about the issues they believe need to be changed in media. Just 72 hours after the letter has been released, #MyMedia received hundreds of art projects and ideas that the campaign is now working to help sponsor. Russell shared the goals behind her #MyMedia campaign and talked about her belief that social media is opening up opportunities to expand society’s idea of beauty with NMR in the interview below.
Would you mind sharing a little bit about your modeling career and when you began working in the advocacy field?
Cameron Russell: I started 10 years ago. Just scouted on the street, and at first I thought it would be kind of an interesting experience, and then it started to become a career. I guess the reason that I gave the TED Talks was actually it was just the first time I’ve been asked to give a talk, so there was no large plot as to why that happened. During my career I’ve tried to figure out how to leverage being a model and having that press and using it as a gateway for other discussions.
After the TEDx Talk there was so much interest in what I said, and I think in part it was because a conversation about how women get access to media and how women are portrayed in media, was long overdue. I felt like it was the right moment to try and bring a lot of other women into the conversation because I was getting all these press requests to talk about my own personal narrative. And so we created this project, and I brought in a bunch of editors, photographers, graphic designers and artists, and the idea which is still evolving is to get a lot of submissions from women about what they would like to see in the media and then help them make that into a reality. Things which I think are the way to improve the media is not to necessarily critique it but is to create very compelling competition for the media, and we’ve seen this definitely in high fashion with examples being the Dove Beauty Campaign, and I think the Cosmo that ran an un-retouched picture of a model. All those are very successful, and I think they changed the conversation and changed the playing field.
What there a person or specific experience that inspired you to take your conversation to the next level and create the #MyMedia project?
I think the experience of the TED Talks. As a model it’s never about my own voice. The media that is created, the fashion media that is created, for me it just feels like someone else’s idea entirely. It’s about the clothes I would wear, the makeup I would wear, it’s nothing to do with who I am, so I never think particularly hard about the statement that this media is making beyond “Do I think I’m making a negative statement?” When I gave the TED Talks, and it was incredibly successful, I had to think about why is this piece of media being elevated? I really felt suddenly that I had a great responsibility. I don’t think that I’m the authority of body image or the authority on women in media. In fact, having represented the very tiny percentage of women that can be successful in media makes me even a less good spokesperson for the changes that we need to make and the improvements we need to make.
Has that been a challenge for you because you’ve been a model speaking in this movement? Has that ended up being more of a challenge rather than an advantage?
Oh, I think it’s a huge advantage! I am just completely blown away by what an advantage that is. I live with my best friend, and she went to journalism school, and she worked in Egypt reporting on the revolution. Then she came back, and she works for a major newspaper, and she’ll wake up at 6 a.m. everyday and read the newspaper, and then she’ll go to work and come home at 8 or 9 or 10 p.m. She works so, so, so hard, and her pieces end up on C17 or online. I wrote one op-ed for Cnn.com, and I spent maybe 20 minutes writing it and a couple revisions, and it jumped to the first page and had 3,000 comments. I see in my personal life very directly how someone who is working incredibly hard to make good media is not getting that response, and the response that I’m getting is because of how I look and my career and the fact that we’re obsessed with celebrity. That’s something that I am trying to figure out how to broaden. I think for me personally it’s been a huge advantage because I’m getting invited onto major networks and to write for major outlets, but I don’t think that that’s necessarily a positive way to improve the media is just by having me elevate my own story over and over again.
What are the goals of #MyMedia, and what has the feedback been like?
It’s totally an evolving project because I put it up one day when five networks reached out to me, and I was like, “This is crazy — I have to figure out some way to deal with this outpouring of press.” So I wrote the letter, and we’re actually putting up a revised version of the letter, and we’ll be putting up some of the content in the next few days. It’s totally an evolution, because the first letter we had a very vague idea. We kind of asked, “If you had access to mass media, what would you write?” and then the submissions were all over the place, which is actually like a great place to start ‘cause I think we really got an idea of what women were interested in. The surprise to me was a lot of them were around body issues, body image, and I guess in my personal life, when I think of women’s issues, that is not the foremost thing that I think about. For me, violence against women is an obvious place to have more media, and that’s an international issue happening in India and the Middle East and South Africa, and we’re hearing about in the news. So I thought would be a big topic for submission, but it’s actually just 5 percent while body image is 50 percent.
In terms of where it’s going to go we have the most general idea that I would give interviews and include these submissions in the answers. Then another large thing that I can’t tell you about but you’ll find out soon, around just including these people in these mass media stories. Now that we are getting so many great submissions and also people asked me to do a TV show or write a book, and I think this is sort of beginning by playing around with more people on a project. I’m focusing on making sure that submissions have access to really high production value work, and so we are going to have a photographer who is going to help out and shoot some of those submissions in New York. We have some graphic designers, an artist and a cartoonist and all these women who are going to help make sure that women’s stories look really great, and they live online so they don’t fall into the abyss.
Do you think that social media is allowing more realistic images of women, or do you believe that it’s reaffirming the standards that are already pre-existing in traditional media?
That’s not my area of expertise so I don’t know, but I definitely have been paying attention to how people have been using social media and blog to just add to a whole new discussion. I think there is a hashtag called #naturalhairday, and women post pictures of their natural hair which is something that you don’t really see in mass media that often. Or there is all the fashion bloggers I think are really fantastic examples because they are actually creating content themselves; they are photographing themselves and their friends, and they are doing collages of different work, and they are actually producing their own lines, and all that is outside of high fashion, and it’s a really fantastic place to see that the traditional stronghold is being broken up. And a lot of those bloggers are getting much more traffic than high fashion sites, which I think is really interesting that it’s a slow learning curve for the market.