Looks aren’t everything. Believe me, I’m a model. | Cameron Russell


Translator: Joseph Geni
Reviewer: Morton Bast Hi. My name is Cameron Russell, and for the last little while,
I’ve been a model. Actually, for 10 years. And I feel like there’s an uncomfortable tension
in the room right now because I should not have worn this dress. (Laughter) So luckily, I brought an outfit change. This is the first outfit change
on the TED stage, so you guys are pretty lucky
to witness it, I think. If some of the women were
really horrified when I came out, you don’t have to tell me now,
but I’ll find out later on Twitter. (Laughter) I’d also note that I’m quite privileged to be able to transform
what you think of me in a very brief 10 seconds. Not everybody gets to do that. These heels are very uncomfortable,
so good thing I wasn’t going to wear them. The worst part is putting
this sweater over my head, because that’s when
you’ll all laugh at me, so don’t do anything
while it’s over my head. All right. So, why did I do that? That was awkward. (Laughter) Well — (Laughter) Hopefully not as awkward as that picture. Image is powerful, but also, image is superficial. I just totally transformed
what you thought of me, in six seconds. And in this picture, I had actually never had
a boyfriend in real life. I was totally uncomfortable, and the photographer
was telling me to arch my back and put my hand in that guy’s hair. And of course, barring surgery, or the fake tan that I got
two days ago for work, there’s very little that we can do
to transform how we look, and how we look, though it is
superficial and immutable, has a huge impact on our lives. So today, for me, being
fearless means being honest. And I am on this stage
because I am a model. I am on this stage because
I am a pretty, white woman, and in my industry,
we call that a sexy girl. I’m going to answer the questions
that people always ask me, but with an honest twist. So the first question is,
how do you become a model? I always just say, “Oh, I was scouted,” but that means nothing. The real way that I became a model is I won a genetic lottery,
and I am the recipient of a legacy, and maybe 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. And I know there are
people in the audience who are skeptical at this point, and maybe there are
some fashionistas who are like, “Wait. Naomi. Tyra. Joan Smalls. Liu Wen.” And first, I commend you on your model
knowledge. Very impressive. (Laughter) But unfortunately,
I have to inform you that in 2007, a very inspired NYU Ph.D. student counted all the models on the runway,
every single one that was hired, and of the 677 models that were hired, only 27, or less than four percent,
were non-white. The next question people always ask is, “Can I be a model when I grow up?” And the first answer is, “I don’t know,
they don’t put me in charge of that.” But the second answer, and what I really want to say
to these little girls is, “Why? You know? You can be anything. You could be the President
of the United States, or the inventor of the next Internet, or a ninja cardiothoracic surgeon poet, which would be awesome,
because you’d be the first one.” (Laughter) If, after this amazing list,
they still are like, “No, no, Cameron, I want to be a model,” well, then I say, “Be my boss.” Because I’m not in charge of anything, and you could be the editor in chief
of American Vogue or the CEO of H&M,
or the next Steven Meisel. 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. It’s out of your control,
and it’s awesome, and it’s not a career path. I will demonstrate for you now
10 years of accumulated model knowledge, because unlike cardiothoracic surgeons, it can just be distilled right now. So, if the photographer is right there, the light is right there, like a nice HMI, and the client says,
“We want a walking shot,” this leg goes first, nice and long,
this arm goes back, this arm goes forward, the head is at three quarters,
and you just go back and forth, just do that, and then you look back
at your imaginary friends, 300, 400, 500 times. (Laughter) It will look something like this. (Laughter) Hopefully less awkward
than that one in the middle. That was — I don’t know
what happened there. Unfortunately,
after you’ve gone to school, and you have a résumé
and you’ve done a few jobs, you can’t say anything anymore, so if you say you want to be
the President of the United States, but your résumé reads,
“Underwear Model: 10 years,” people give you a funny look. The next question is,
“Do they retouch all the photos?” And yeah, they pretty much
retouch all the photos, but that is only a small component
of what’s happening. This picture is the very first
picture that I ever took, and it’s also the very first time
that I had worn a bikini, and I didn’t even have my period yet. I know we’re getting personal,
but I was a young girl. This is what I looked like with my grandma
just a few months earlier. Here’s me on the same day as this shoot. My friend got to come. Here’s me at a slumber party
a few days before I shot French Vogue. Here’s me on the soccer team
and in V Magazine. And here’s me today. And I hope what you’re seeing is that these pictures
are not pictures of me. They are constructions, and they are constructions
by a group of professionals, by hairstylists and makeup artists
and photographers and stylists and all of their assistants
and pre-production and post-production, and they build this. That’s not me. Okay, so the next question
people always ask me is, “Do you get free stuff?” (Laughter) I do have too many 8-inch heels
which I never get to wear, except for earlier, but the free stuff that I get
is the free stuff that I get in real life, and that’s what we don’t like
to talk about. I grew up in Cambridge, and one time I went into a store
and I forgot my money and they gave me the dress for free. When I was a teenager,
I was driving with my friend who was an awful driver
and she ran a red and of course, we got pulled over, and all it took was a “Sorry, officer,”
and we were on our way. And I got these free things
because of how I look, not who I am, and there are
people paying a cost for how they look and not who they are. I live in New York, and last year, of the 140,000 teenagers
that were stopped and frisked, 86% of them were black and Latino,
and most of them were young men. And there are only 177,000
young black and Latino men in New York, so for them, it’s not a question
of, “Will I get stopped?” but “How many times will I get stopped?
When will I get stopped?” When I was researching this talk, I found out that of the 13-year-old girls
in the United States, 53% don’t like their bodies, and that number goes to 78%
by the time that they’re 17. So, the last question people ask me is, “What is it like to be a model?” And I think the answer
that they’re looking for is, “If you are a little bit skinnier
and you have shinier hair, you will be so happy and fabulous.” And when we’re backstage, we give an answer
that maybe makes it seem like that. We say, “It’s really amazing to travel,
and it’s amazing to get to work with creative, inspired,
passionate people.” And those things are true,
but they’re only one half of the story, because the thing
that we never say on camera, that I have never said on camera, is, “I am insecure.” And I’m insecure because I have to think
about what I look like every day. And if you ever are wondering, “If I have thinner thighs
and shinier hair, will I be happier?” you just need to meet a group of models, because they have the thinnest thighs,
the shiniest hair and the coolest clothes, and they’re the most physically
insecure women probably on the planet. When I was writing this talk, I found it very difficult
to strike an honest balance, because on the one hand, I felt very uncomfortable
to come out here and say, “Look I’ve received all these benefits
from a deck stacked in my favor,” and it also felt really uncomfortable
to follow that up with, “and it doesn’t always make me happy.” But mostly it was difficult to unpack
a legacy of gender and racial oppression when I am one
of the biggest beneficiaries. But I’m also happy
and honored to be up here and I think that it’s great
that I got to come before 10 or 20 or 30 years had passed
and I’d had more agency in my career, because maybe then I wouldn’t tell
the story of how I got my first job, or maybe I wouldn’t tell the story
of how I paid for college, which seems so important right now. If there’s a takeaway to this talk, I hope it’s that we all feel
more comfortable acknowledging the power of image
in our perceived successes and our perceived failures. Thank you. (Applause)

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