Phone-a-Friend: Cameron Russell, Woke Model

Published July 1, 2016.

Ann: Welcome to Call Your Girlfriend.

Aminatou: A podcast for long-distance besties everywhere.

Ann: I'm Ann Friedman.

Aminatou: And I'm Aminatou Sow. Every other week we'll be bringing you a special phone-a-friend episode between either Ann or me and one of our rad pals. Ann, this week I talked to really awesome lady Cameron Russell.

Ann: Why do I know that name?

Aminatou: One, because she's a beautiful supermodel and two, because she's like the woke model in our lives. She was also recently at the Paris Climate Talks and covered that for Vogue. So the way actually that I know Cameron is because I'm obsessed with her mom who is one of the founders of Zipcar and so I talked to her about what it's like to have a powerful mom for a model also who is a tech lady. So, you know, it just checked all of my boxes.

Ann: Models, models.

Aminatou: Models, models.

[Theme Song]

[Interview Starts]

Aminatou: Hey, Cameron, thanks so much for joining me today.

Cameron: Thanks for having me.

Aminatou: I was super excited to talk to you for many, many, many reasons so I was really excited that you said yes. I was like man, she's liker super busy all the time and jet setting. When will she have the time?

Cameron: I feel the same way. When you tweeted the story I did for Vogue, that was like the high point of the feedback from that story because I love stuff that you've made so that was really incredible. [Laughs]

Aminatou: Oh man, you know, let's talk about that Vogue story. So I 100% freaked out when I saw that you were in Paris at the climate talks and that you were profiling each of the women that was involved with them because so many of them are African women.

Cameron: Yeah.

(2:00)

Aminatou: That are women that I've admired for a long time. And honestly to see them in Vogue, for some people this is not going to hit home but for me that hit really hard emotionally. I never thought these worlds would collide and you were the person that made that meeting happen.

Cameron: Ugh, it's so awesome to hear. Yeah. When I was looking at the homepage, I was a model UN kid in high school and a total nerd so I feel like normally the homepage of Vogue does not totally connect with me. And when I went there and I saw all these amazing world leaders that are just badass women I was like man, this is a great day. It's so awesome to see these women that are over the age of 50 and from all over the world. It's so unusual.

Aminatou: That's really cool. So have you always been super involved in I guess like climate activism?

Cameron: I would say on-and-off. I did a climate video for 350.org like . . . I'm so bad at years, but probably seven years ago?

Aminatou: Oh, I remember that. Yeah. Yeah, so you're like plugged in. [Laughs]

Cameron: Yeah, I did that, but then I kind of felt this moment . . . I don't know if you saw that video, but the basic gist was lots of models stripping off their clothes.

Aminatou: Yeah.

Cameron: To sort of try to explain what 350 parts per million was, but in fact was probably a total distraction from the voiceover. And it was one of the first pieces of media that I'd made so I was sort of inexperienced in a lot of ways. And when I looked back at it, you know, on the one hand I'm like oh, that's so cool. I was 19 and I made this thing with a million hits. But I also have all these regrets about it and I think when it came out I actually took a step back because I felt like I wasn't ready and I didn't know how to bridge the world of fashion and my activist self which I kept very separate. As a comparison to the most recent projects, that video was all 17 to 21-year-old white women in their underwear. [Laughs]

(4:00)

Aminatou: Making change. [Laughs]

Cameron: Yeah, make the change. Thinking about who it's reaching and what message it's sending.

Aminatou: Yeah. You know, it's so interesting for me to hear you say that your activist and your model self are so separate because in my friend group we refer to you as the woke model.

Cameron: [Laughs]

Aminatou: And you really push home that it's about more than looks and you use your platform and your influence to do such big things. It's kind of mind-blowing to think there's a time when you weren't doing that.

Cameron: Man, I've got to give you a two-part answer because the first part of being the only model that's woke is so complicated to hear because I know lots of models that are doing really incredible work that just don't have the platform that I have.

Aminatou: Yeah.

Cameron: You know, I think models are these really spectacular . . . have the potential to be really spectacular activists, and when I meet young girls that are just starting that say they want to do that path, I'm like okay, this is great. This is a really fantastic way to have access to media and wealth and all these things that women usually are excluded from, so keep going. Keep thinking this. And of course that access is even more privileged and unlikely for women from the global south, like [0:05:09] who are talking about humanitarian issues from their background.

Aminatou: Yeah.

Cameron: It's pretty incredible. And I always point to this story of Waris who I think in the early '90s started talking about female genital mutilation in an interview I think with Marie Claire but then ended up this UN ambassador and it was totally transformative. So I think it's a path a lot of women are taking. The other half of that answer for me is I've always been really political but it just hasn't felt obvious how to bridge fashion and that sort of activist side.

Aminatou: Yeah, that makes sense.

Cameron: It sometimes is a very uncomfortable bridge just purely because fashion is so complicated. [Laughs] I was on Instagram the other day and my 13-year-old cousin wrote some comment and she was like "It's really rude when people say some woman is more beautiful than another woman." And I thought yeah, that's so basic.

(6:03)

Aminatou: Ah! It's like your 13-year-old cousin gets it.

Cameron: Yeah, like that's so basic. And so really the basis of fashion is so complicated a place because it is all about hierarchy and that is not a great starting point for activism.

Aminatou: Yeah. I mean I remember watching your TED talk a couple of years ago where you said something like -- hold on, I actually wrote it down. "The real way I became a model is I won a genetic lottery and I am the recipient of the legacy."

Cameron: And if you're wondering what is a legacy, well, 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.

Aminatou: I remember watching that TED talk and just being like "Whoa!" It's like the stuff that everybody thinks but nobody had articulated before on that big a stage and level and I thought it was amazing. But at the same time, you know, it was just like as somebody who is such a consumer of fashion products it also confronted me with the role that I play with them. But I thought it was really awesome that you took a stand and that TED talk went viral. It was everywhere that year.

Cameron: Yeah, that was incredible. I mean fashion has also positive purposes and I think there are lots of people doing really interesting and spectacular things with fashion and beauty. But the reason that I'm in fashion is definitely a very complicated reason. And I guess the other piece that is complicated even hearing that quote now is the idea that because something is biological we shouldn't question it.

Aminatou: Yeah.

(7:50)

Cameron: Because of course we also have biological urges to murder and rape and do horrific things. So that biological urge is so superficial and when I think about what beauty I find most spectacular and what beauty I'm most in love with I think of my mom and her stretch marks because she had me. It has nothing to do with those ridiculous "biological" . . .

Aminatou: Yeah. Oh, man, stop being such a thoughtful human and thinking through all the . . . it's funny having all this super-serious media presence for you, I guess, in the sense that it's so permanent because it just means that every once in a while you have to revisit these very public things that you've said. So that's like kind of crazy.

Cameron: Yeah.

Aminatou: Can you tell me about what Space-Made is and how that's working out in Brooklyn?

Cameron: Yeah, sure. So I got really . . . I think in this conversation about media and what it means to be an activist and mass media and fashion, I think in the first half of my career I felt like I couldn't bridge these two worlds. And so at the end of my undergrad I wrote a thesis about political power and grassroots public art because I think I was looking for places where other people were powerful because the halls of traditional power seemed so elitist and exclusive. And I thought, you know, we know that change isn't coming necessarily from electoral politics and from wealthy people and all these other sort of traditional power players, so where is it coming from? And I started to look at how artists for these spectacular organizers all over New York -- on the heels of that after graduating I just started something between a creative activist agency and an art collective. We have done a bunch of sort of artist activist projects in different ways, small and big. To varied success I would say. [Laughs]

Aminatou: That's really cool. Tell me, what do you do when you're off duty? When you're not the climate justice activist, fashion model, what does Cameron Russell do for fun?

(9:50)

Cameron: Off-duty? Man, I'm such a nerd. I just read most of the time. I mean I have friends so I guess I hang out with my friends. That's number one. And when I'm by myself on planes or in hotel rooms I read. Now that I have a kindle it's really making me come to terms with my own nerdiness because I can look over all the books that I read and they're just . . .

Aminatou: And you're like tracking all of the pages you've read in a stuff?

Cameron: Or you just look at them and you think oh, man, the documentary about my life would be so boring.

Aminatou: [Laughs] It would just be you in planes reading on a Kindle?

Cameron: Yeah, like me reading a Kindle but not even about interesting . . . just about like obscure social science. And I'd be like oh, this book is from the '90s, but it's really speaking to me. But it's kind of obsolete but I'm interested.

Aminatou: Whatever, we would read it. Give me some examples of stuff that you're reading.

Cameron: Okay, let's see what I've liked recently. There's this book that I've been recommending to everyone, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. It's a great fiction piece that I think I found on a Guardian's New Best Authors list. And then I read it and I was like whoa, this woman's voice is so powerful and incredible and unique and what an incredible story. And so I Wikipediaed her and it turns out the author has written all these books and it was just the first translation into English. She wasn't a first-time author and she had directed a couple films and she was a 60-year-old woman.

Aminatou: Oh, amazing. You're just like new to us but she's been around forever.

Cameron: Yeah. It's such an incredible book and it's a nice short fiction read. What else have I been reading and loving? I mean I recently read a bunch of climate books just to prepare for that project in Paris. It's all the basics. I just read what everybody read, Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, all that kind of stuff.

Aminatou: Yeah. Did you leave Paris feeling hopeful? Or what were your feelings about the climate talks?

Cameron: That's such a hard question. I feel like I'm not giving you any easy answers. [Laughs]

Aminatou: No, that's okay. [Laughs] We don't do easy answers at Call Your Girlfriend all the time.

(11:48)

Cameron: Yeah, I talked to a lot of my girlfriends on the phone and gave them complex answers I guess.

Aminatou: We embrace the nuance. It's cool.

Cameron: So I guess one piece was I've never done anything like that and it felt like such a big learning experience for me personally. I can't even articulate clearly what I felt. Yeah. So I mean one piece is totally incredible because you look at where climate change is playing out and who has the power to change it, and most of the people with the power to change it are these executives and these presidents of very few countries and very few companies who are acting kind of rogue, like in the wild west, doing whatever they want. So in one sense seeing the success at the COP which is a much more level playing field because it requires consensus from 196 countries and resulted in consensus of 196 countries is kind of spectacular because it means every single one of those 196 countries has to think okay, this deal means progress and I'm willing to go for it. So one of the things that got into the deal that hadn't been in the deal in 2009 was a cap of 1.5 degrees of warming. It's a change from the previous cap. Sorry, I'm getting so specific but . . .

Aminatou: No, I learned about this watching one of your videos, remember? It was like 1.5 to survive. I know.

Cameron: Exactly. So it was incredible that that got in because there's all these countries -- there's 100-some countries that say this is unacceptable. This deal means nothing to us because it's a death sentence. And so that type of level playing field is spectacular. Then there's the activist side, people are saying it's not enough which of course it isn't. Everybody's individual country commitments still add up to 3.6 degrees. The thing I've been using to explain four degrees that someone told me is the last time there was a four degree change, it was negative four degrees and it was the ice age. So I would be sitting under 100 feet of ice which is unreasonable to say the last.

(13:44)

So anyway, watching it, it felt like what a crazy compromise that these people are making. So I can see the good. I can see that everybody's present and that everybody's happyish with this deal. But to see countries come with hundreds of negotiators while other countries come with just one negotiator who maybe doesn't even speak the language just felt cruel and that compromises are totally inhumane because you're compromising with people's lives.

Aminatou: Yeah.

Cameron: So it was very hard to watch in some ways.

Aminatou: Yeah, you know, it was really funny. Right before the climate talks started I watched the Maker's documentary on the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Women's Conference. Like so many of the women who were at Beijing were also in Paris and so that just made me feel immediately better where it was like thank goodness. These women have been through it, they know what's up, and they can navigate insane compromise-making deals. But in the same way you were saying that, some of the compromises that happened at Beijing were really just heartbreaking. Just women's sexuality and lesbian rights really got thrown under the bus because they needed this agreement that Muslim people and Christians and really religious people could agree on.

Cameron: Right.

Aminatou: And I remember seeing that, you know, but thinking through they still came out of that thing with a declaration. It's been hugely influential but it was definitely bittersweet, right? And thinking about the parallels to the climate talks were really interesting for me but also heartbreaking at the same time where you're like we want to change everything and we can't change it all at once but thank goodness we're doing something about it.

Cameron: Yeah, and I felt like watching as negotiators, you're holding those two realities in your head because you have to know what's really going on, like is the outcome for my country this really horrific crisis? And on the other hand you have to hold the reality of what can I really think that I'm going to get from these big countries who are basically greedy and whose populations like us, we don't want to drive 8% less or we don't want to . . .

Aminatou: Right. Exactly. Like we're not going to be completely underwater like some of these small countries.

Cameron: Yeah.

(15:55)

Aminatou: Or see the devastations that terrorism is bringing because of climate change in some of these other places.

Cameron: Exactly. And then how do you go into that compromising humanity? I'm not being articulate about it but there was something about watching that that felt like how could you not break inside yourself to go in and make those compromises?

Aminatou: Humans, that's how we make all sorts of big decisions. It's just like -- it's just gross to see how the sausage gets made.

Cameron: Yeah, and all the rest of us are totally implicated. We're just not . . . we just are ignorant and that's sort of our . . .

Aminatou: I know. It's like watching all that coverage, that's all I could think is oh, man, I'm so ignorant about this thing and if we don't . . . well, I think it's already too late. I think that generations from now we will be remembered as the generation that didn't care enough. It's like obviously it was everybody's problem, but I think that we played a really central and pivotal role and I was like this is . . . in the same way that we rage to boomers about the economy, people will rage about us and climate and I can't handle it.

Cameron: I mean I think that 90% of the time and then I have the 10% of me that is like okay, there are some great examples of people . . . I think Occupy Wall Street divested or changed to credit unions 4.5 billion dollars in a day and we've divested trillions of dollars. I watched this documentary the other night about the Freedom Writers and it was started by something like eight students or twelve students.

Aminatou: Yeah, like a tiny group of students, they changed the Civil Rights Movement.

Cameron: Yeah. I mean you just look at that and you think like okay, they did it. Eight people did it so it's possible.

Aminatou: It is, it's possible, but god it's so hard sometimes. It's just like yeah, you know, it's just like keeping that focus on things like that, to me sometimes it just feels impossible. It feels like you're just swimming against the current of just garbage, awful human ideas all the time. But I'm glad there are people in the trenches like you who care more than I do and who are less cynical than I am.

(18:00)

Cameron: Just on air, you know? [Laughs]

Aminatou: Just on air. We'll read our Kindles side-by-side and not really change the world. That's what will happen.

[Music and Ads]

(21:30)

Aminatou: You were saying that another way that you kind of decompress is your friends. Who is your crew?

Cameron: Pretty much people from school and from, yeah, high school and college and . . . I wish that I had a Taylor Swift girl squad that I could list off right now because I think that'd be . . .

Aminatou: Please, we all have Taylor Swift girl squads. Our girlfriends are as important to us as Taylor Swift's girls are important to her.

(21:50)

Cameron: Yes, I have lots of girlfriends that don't have famous names.

Aminatou: Yeah, it's crazy. So are you still friends with a lot of people from high school? I always find that so interesting because I grew up moving all the time so I don't have a ton of high school friends and I went to a tiny high school. There were 29 people in my graduating class.

Cameron: I had 35 people in my graduating class.

Aminatou: Man, and you're still friends? So I kept like one really good friend from high school. Everybody else is just like . . . like I am very fond of most of them, but I'm just like I have emotionally moved on from this time of my life, because I went to boarding school.

Cameron: Oh, wow. I mean, yeah, that's true. I guess I see them maybe once every three years and I'm like oh, you guys are really cool. But then I have my two close friends that I keep from high school.

Aminatou: Yeah, I know.

Cameron: I feel like when you see them it's kind of like when you're with your parents and suddenly you kind of act like a 12-year-old.

Aminatou: Yes, this is a thing that is so crazy to me is that no matter how old you are you just revert to your teenage self.

Cameron: You really do.

Aminatou: And I thought that it was only me except recently I went to visit a friend's family with a friend who is older, like she's in her 40s, and those three days she was a teenager also. I was like I have never seen you like this before.

Cameron: [Laughs]

Aminatou: But it gives me a lot of hope because that's my secret shame all the time is that I just turn into a child any time I'm with my childhood people. And so it was good to know that it's a universal thing.

Cameron: Yeah, that's the amazing thing. You hang out with a group of high school friends, I'm totally like back in the basement ready to play Twister.

Aminatou: Oh my god, that's crazy. So you're reading really smart books. You have a fun, good, loyal crew. Do you have any cool projects coming up?

Cameron: One of my New Year Resolutions was to be more thoughtful and strategic and not . . .

Aminatou: Oh, like you already are? Yes, tell me more.

Cameron: Like rather than just trying to do every project, do a couple projects really well. I guess that's like a constant learning curve is focus, but I don't know, I'm in the early stages of a couple . . .

Aminatou: That's cool. Well when you are ready to talk about them you should come back and tell us about them.

(23:58)

Cameron: Yeah, we'll follow-up this phone call when I have a much better thing to say. [Laughs]

Aminatou: Yes! When you start the focus agency.

Cameron: You know, I love your . . . did you guys come up with the shine theory or did you just talk about it?

Aminatou: Yes, so shine theory, yes, Ann and I, we're the inventors of shine theory.

Cameron: I love that theory. That's like a great theme for the podcast. I love that.

Aminatou: Well that's why you're here, you know? We're always like what are other really cool ladies doing and how can we really amplify their message, but also learn from them, you know?

Cameron: I've been thinking about that kind of similar thing in my activism because there's this word that I totally despise that I think is used in fashion a lot which is charity, and they always ask you in interviews "Do you have any charities?" I don't know.

Aminatou: Right. They're just like "What are you a patron of?"

Cameron: Right. It's such a weird word or relationship and I've been thinking about how in activism there is that type of shine theory which is seeing everybody -- I mean the example of the women in Vogue, I felt so incredibly honored when they would reply to my emails and then be willing to show up at this crazy fashion thing I had concocted.

Aminatou: Yeah.

Cameron: And I know afterwards they were emailing me that they were so happy to be featured but I mean mostly I felt like I was the grateful one. And I think that we have to maybe make that relationship more transparent.

Aminatou: Yeah.

Cameron: In productive and progressive relationships you have, I don't know, gratefulness on both sides.

Aminatou: No, I think that's true. I think for me the lesson -- the biggest lesson I learned in life in my 20s but in life in general -- is that women are just more effective when we hunt in packs.

Cameron: Yeah.

(25:55)

Aminatou: I don't know. It's like for me it's like working in tech and then just all these super dude-dominated industries. A lot of women just come from this place of scarcity and fear. It's like the Highlander model. There can only be one. And so you have to be the only woman or you have to be the only minority or whatever, and that's the only piece of the pie that's there for you. And it's so limiting and exhausting, right? But it's like once you start looking at the whole pie and you say "I can have all of this," you just come from a place of abundance instead, it's just changing . . . it's like a really radical thinking shift.

Cameron: Yeah.

Aminatou: But I've just found that I am much more effective when I'm in that place than when I was that miserable how do I be the only person here? The only minority here that's relevant. There are a lot of women that are like "I don't know, I'm friends with only men, or women are intimidated by me, or whatever." And I'm like I don't know what movie you saw this in.

Cameron: I always say that's a movie line too.

Aminatou: Yeah, it's like always such a movie line. Whenever I hear a woman say "I'm mostly friends with men," I'm like what are you even talking about? We're so past that in the culture. But I'm like I've never not had fun working with women.

Cameron: I don't understand. I don't know where that line is coming from. It's very kindergarten to me. I don't know.

Aminatou: Yeah, it definitely predates the Mean Girls movie but it's a sentiment that's still so prevalent whereas for me I definitely did not grow up around a lot of women. All the women I knew were in my family because my high school for some reason was a ton of dudes. But I never resented the other women; I was just like oh, there's not a lot of them around. And when I went to college and I was like oh my god and I wanted to do . . . I lived in a women's dorm. I joined women's organizations.

Cameron: [Laughs] You went woman crazy.

(27:45)

Aminatou: Oh yeah, no, I went lady . . . I racked up the lady friends. Women are amazing.

Cameron: Women are amazing. I think part of that -- watching what was happening at COP and all those women in that photo series, they have a totally off-the-books type of rapport, the same as the old boys club or whatever they call it.

Aminatou: Right, like there's always a really power lady back channel that's happening. Always.

Cameron: Yeah, yeah. And they have very interesting . . . it was totally amazing to see this hyper speed happen because I met them in like August or September and then three months later I'm watching all their relationships develop and how they're working with each other and working with this network and it was so incredible to see exactly what we're talking about, like shine theory. Like okay, this person realizes that this person has a great message that can be used here and we're going to call this . . . it was really incredible to see that lattice happening.

Aminatou: Ugh, I'm so glad that you're confirming to me that this is happening at every level of power. That's really awesome. Oh, one question I had for you, I wanted to ask about your mom if that's okay.

Cameron: Yeah, of course.

Aminatou: So your mom is like a tech founder.

Cameron: She is. She started Zipcar.

Aminatou: She did.

Cameron: When I was 12 years old.

Aminatou: That's pretty amazing.

Cameron: Yeah, she's amazing. I mean one of the reasons I think I've been such an outsider to fashion is because the household that I grew up in was so academic and feminist and kind of socialist and everything that mainstream American culture isn't and fashion isn't. She did not shave her legs until she went to talk to the first potential investor for Zipcar, and then she did it only because she just didn't want it to be a topic of conversation. She never dyed her hair. She never wore makeup.

Aminatou: I love that.

Cameron: And I didn't even realize all the sort of things that she was imbuing to me until I interacted in the adult world and then I realized, you know, this idea that founders have to be single, 28-year-old men when in fact my mom started a company when she had a 12-year-old, a 9-year-old and a 6-year-old and had never started a company before. And, you know, all these kind of things that she never said about -- said anything. When you become an adult you're like oh, that's why she never told me that . . .

(30:10)

Aminatou: Right. You always take your parents for granted and then you go into the real world and you're like oh my god, the crazy people are the ones out here. Yeah, no, your mom and the tech lady mafia are definitely in the shero pantheon of you can do whatever you want so I love hearing that anecdote about her. That's really rad.

Ann: She's totally in my hero pantheon. I love my parents. I'm not embarrassed to say that at all. [Laughs]

Aminatou: That's cool. I like that a lot. Cameron, you're really rad. You're going to have like . . .

Cameron: It's so nice to talk to you.

Aminatou: It's exciting to watch you make things and do things and be so graceful while navigating all of your world so it's just like . . . it's exciting to watch you do all of that stuff so we're rooting for you.

Cameron: And you're a total inspiration. When I just was starting to figure out what I wanted to do in media, I think I saw your website The Weight We Carry.

Aminatou: Yeah!

Cameron: That was so inspiring to me. That was such an incredible storytelling and valuing of humans. I was just like oh, man, this is insane. I sent it to so many people.

Aminatou: Yeah, veterans are a population that are very near and dear to my heart, because yeah, I worked for this veteran's non-profit and I'm not a US citizen. I only know one person in the Army. And I was like if people just knew, if you could explain it to them, they would be as fucking outraged as I am.

Cameron: Yeah.

Aminatou: And that's always my stance on a lot of these things. I'm like if you can make me care, because I'm like an asshole, if you can make me care then anybody can care honestly.

Cameron: [Laughs]

Aminatou: So that's so cool that you saw that website.

(31:55)

Cameron: I think I heard some line from Gandhi that I'm totally misquoting but he said "Oh, I'm a good leader because I kind of can see the dark side inside me." So I think you're on the right path with that sentiment.

Aminatou: [Laughs] Tall, tall Gandhi quote order.

Cameron: Yeah, and also totally mangled. Don't Google that.

Aminatou: Don't worry. I promised myself that the Ben Kingsley Gandhi was the last Gandhi thing I would ever consume so we're on a good track there. [Laughs] Hey, I hope that you have a great day and thank you so much for talking to me. I really appreciate it.

[Interview Ends]

[Music]

Ann: Ugh, you can find us so many places on the Internet, like almost one million. On our website, callyourgirlfriend.com, you can download this podcast anywhere you listen to your favorite podcasts, or on iTunes where we would love it if you left us a review. You can tweet at us at @callyrgf or email us at callyrgf@gmail.com. You can also find us on Facebook -- look up the link -- or on Instagram at callyrgf. You might be noticing a pattern. You can even leave us a short and sweet voicemail. That's at 714-681-2943. Again 714-681-CYGF. This podcast is produced by Gina Delvac.