Culture TEDx

Model Cameron Russell gives the real story behind six of her stunning photos

Television schedules are packed with reality shows about the wild world of modeling. Tyra Banks’ America’s Next Top Model is casting for its 20th edition right now, and The Face, starring Naomi Campbell, Coco Rocha and Karolina Kurkova, will premiere in February. What are we supposed to learn from this addictive genre? Modeling isn’t just about being pretty — it is tough physically and emotionally, even intellectually.

In today’s TED Talk, filmed at TEDxMidAtlantic, model Cameron Russell paints a very different picture.

Russell strolls onstage in a short, form-fitting black dress looking every bit the professional model who has represented brands like Victoria’s Secret, Ralph Lauren and Chanel and appeared in many an international edition of Vogue. But then she does something radical. She puts on an outfit far closer to what she would normally wear — a wrap skirt and flats. Her point: “I was able to transform what you think of me in 6 seconds,” she says. “How we look — though it is superficial and immutable — has a huge impact on our lives.”

Russell acknowledges that she is, by chance, a “pretty white woman.” So how did she become a model?

“I always just say I was scouted, but that means nothing,” Russell says in her talk. “The real way I became a model is that I won a genetic lottery, and I am a recipient of a legacy. 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 with femininity and white skin. This is a legacy that was built for me, and that I’ve been cashing in on.”

In this talk, Russell delivers two powerful messages: First, that young girls who dream of being a model should think of it like they would winning Powerball—something to shoot for, but “not a career path.” Second, Russell takes on the tendency to think that life would be better and easier if we were more beautiful. Russell’s response: “If you ever think, ‘If I had thinner thighs and shinier hair, wouldn’t I be happier,” you just need to meet a group of models. 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.”

But Russell has another point she wants to convey too. While many bemoan the use of Photoshop for making models look thinner and imperfection-free, Russell says that this is just the tip of the iceberg. To hear more about how the image of sex appeal is carefully constructed from the ground up, watch her bold talk. And after the jump, pay attention as Russell shares the reality behind some of her sexy images.

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This is the very first photo that Cameron Russell ever took as a model, shot for the magazine Allure in 2003, when she had just turned 16. Yes, she may look like the beacon of femininity. But she hadn’t so much as gotten her period yet. To hammer the point home of just how young she was at the time, she’s contrasted the image with a bathing-suit shot of her with her grandma, taken just a months before.

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Russell looks like a siren in this red bikini. Despite looking well into her 20s in the image, she was just a teenager when the photo was taken. For argument’s sake, here’s a photo of her on the beach with a friend taken the same day. Her look: polka-dotted innocence.

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Another illustration of how young Russell was as she embarked on her early modeling career—in this shot, she looks beautifully brooding in a shot for French Vogue. However, she was giggly at a slumber party just days before.

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While she wore an ultrashort red dress in V Magazine, posing to make the most of her curves, away from the camera her real concern was getting to soccer practice on time.

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Even today, Russell says that the images we see of her do not reflect reality, but are careful constructions built by stylists, makeup artists and photographers.

She tells the TED Blog, “I’m a dork! My favorite outfit is baggy black corduroy pants and a baggy T-shirt. In December I was shooting in the Bahamas, and on the way back I was in a boat with other people staying on the same island. One woman was going on and on about the model she’d seen on the beach who was ‘so gorgeous.’ Of course, that model had been me in hair, makeup and a neon bikini. The whole 30-minute boat ride she didn’t recognize me. I was sitting directly across from her wearing sweatpants, a windbreaker, no makeup and hair up in a bun.”

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This is Russell in the latest issue of Vogue Australia, compared to how she looked on the TEDxMidAtlantic stage in November. As she writes on the magazine’s website, “When I gave a talk at TEDx, I thought that if I did a good job, the video might go viral. But … it has 140,000 views while Colin Powell’s (who spoke at the same event) has only 2,700. He is an incredibly experienced and intelligent man. And yet our society’s obsession with celebrity and models means more people were interested in listening to my talk … Over the past 10 years, I’ve come to see modelling not as an endpoint, but as a starting point. Not as a pinnacle, or ideal, but as a seed for conversation. Modelling is no better or worse than many other professions, but it is more obvious, more accessible … I hope that in the coming months and years I can figure out how to use my lottery ticket to make mass media that is more informed, more participatory and more responsible.”