Cameron Russell isn’t your average Victoria’s Secret model. In 2012, she gave a TED Talk called “Looks aren’t everything. Believe me, I’m a model.” It’s since been viewed nearly 15 million times. “Being a model like winning the PowerBall,” she says in the talk. “It’s awesome, and it’s out of your control, and it’s not a career path.” In 2013, she launched Interrupt Mag, a web platform for women to contribute stories on body image and race. Now, she’s an activist for climate change, all while continuing to model for Vogue, Elle, Prada and more. Yesterday, she made a quick trip to Philadelphia for the Democratic National Convention, where she encouraged young people to vote in the DNC Live Studio. We caught up with the 29-year-old shortly after her TV spot to talk fracking, Trump and why 2020 is an all-important year for our climate.
Why was it important to you to go to the Democratic National Convention? I was called in last minute by some folks at Rock the Vote. I’m a campaign finance reform activist, [and] at certain moments I’ve not wanted to vote, and felt like the system was rigged. Watching what was happening at the DNC, and hearing all the booing and hearing the interviews with lots of young folks that didn’t want to vote. I felt like it was the right moment to talk about why I was going to vote. Because I had been in that Bernie camp and activist camp, and I don’t feel far away from people who are talking about the system being rigged.
What was it like, being at the DNC? I wanted to be president when I was a kid until I was probably 17 or 18. So I always totally had a fantasy of going to one of those. Obviously as an older person and an activist, some of the charm wears off, but I still had some of the youthful dream. So it was really exciting to go and see everyone there. I think the hopeful thing, regardless of how you feel about what the choices are, is just feeling like there are so many people who are activated and who are participating. That’s a really lovely thing to see.
So you were a Bernie supporter, but now you’re with Hillary. Was it difficult for you to make that transition? I have to say that I was not super passionate about Bernie. I felt like none of the choices were ideal. The reason that I did like Bernie and that I voted for him initially was because I feel like there are so many people marginalized from our economy, from our political system, and the rhetoric that he was using was a rhetoric of abundance and inclusivity, about free college and universal health care. He was running as a Democratic Socialist, and I feel like that’s what we need right now. We need to talk about abundance and inclusion, because the alternative — which is so scary — is a rhetoric of scarcity and fear. When I was watching the RNC and when I was engaging with Trump, which I try not to do too much, I think mostly I just feel really sad that the majority of the people who are going to be voting for him are people who feel marginalized and unheard. And that’s the choice that they think they have.
What do you like about Hillary? To quote Bernie, we live in the real world. It’s just totally irresponsible and reckless to allow Trump near the White House. And that is the main reason I support her. I also think that, of our choices, she is the smartest and I think she will listen to reason. I say this as a student of political science, and also as a person in fashion who gets access to people who are rich and famous and powerful: I think people who are rich and famous and powerful can operate alone and create havoc. If you want to create progressive change, if you want to create positive change, you actually need to do it with the people. My hope is that when Hillary gets into office, she realizes that, and she realizes the people who are making change in this country. We have so many change makers and so much political capital being built in the movement for black lives, DREAMers, #Not1More, Occupy, the resurgence of feminism, the divestment movement and the fight against Keystone — all these movements and all these people across the nation who are ready to build a better world, and are building a better world. Hopefully she’ll see that, and realize that progressive change requires including these people.
I think also think there’s a pragmatism to voting. I just don’t think we can elect someone who is hateful and loveless and could — and I think would — result in a lot of unnecessary suffering. And that’s a real motivation to me to show up. I think as an American citizen with a vote, it’s totally irresponsible to allow someone who does not believe in climate change to be elected. He would be the only head of state in the entire world that denies climate change. And that’s just ridiculous.
How did you get involved with climate change? I’ve done climate change activism on and off for a long time. I grew up with a mom who’s a major environmentalist. When I was 12, she started Zipcar; she always was telling us that we have to recycle and I had to bike to school even on the coldest day in Boston with a cello on my back. She was very conscientious, and I definitely got that from her. Eight-ish years ago I made a short film for 350.org [the global grassroots climate movement]. Then I took a step back because I felt like I made some mistakes with that and I wanted to learn more. Engaging with climate is hard because so much of the work is scientific and policy, and the language can sometimes feel very inhumane. Also because I had not been feeling really hopeful about it. I would get engaged and then just get depressed. But two years ago I forced myself to do a bunch of reading, and was invited to join this women’s climate leadership group. And started to engage with it.
What really motivated me to start thinking and acting on climate is that I felt like a sustainable future is actually not one of scarcity and suffering, it’s one of abundance. It’s one where we have to share things, it’s one where we have to see more people. Addressing climate change means addressing systemic racism and sexism and inequality. So I realized that was just a lens that I needed to add to the work that I was doing already. For example on the DNC platform, they didn’t end up including a ban on fracking, which is devastating. We need to reach a tipping point in emissions by 2020 and we need to build an economy that is renewable and sustainable.
Tell us about the 2020 tipping point, which you mentioned in the DNC Live Studio. The 2020 tipping point is the window scientists have given us to have hope of really living in a world without a lot of suffering. Coming out of Paris [for the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference], what was incredible was that they included a [legally binding goal to limit global temperature rise to] 1.5 degree, and it had been 2 degrees before that. Lots of vulnerable nations have pushed for 1.5, because at 2 degrees they did not have a future. So to keep that warming below 1.5 we need to reach a tipping point [of emissions] in 2020, and we need to reach 0 by 2050. And those are targets provided by scientists with a lot of consensus around them.
How do we do that? I think that’s the first question that everybody has: What do I do to get engaged? And there’re so many different answers. I think for a long time the environmental movement has been encouraging people to do these small actions. Change your lightbulbs, recycle … and all of that is important, and we have to practice what we preach. But we really need structural change. We have to be unafraid with structural change, we have to be unafraid of protest, we have to be unafraid of thinking about what structural change means, and who needs to be the leadership for this type of structural change to happen. Obviously, we need to vote and hold our leaders accountable. But I think more than that, it’s about all of us becoming activists.
People frequently [pose] an undertone of a question or an overt question to me which is, “How do you possibly do climate activism when you work in such a dirty industry?” And I actually see that as an opportunity. Fashion is one of the dirtiest industries in the world, but that means if we change how we work, some of how we work, we can make an enormous difference. Same goes for everyone; if you live in the reddest state, if you work for one of the biggest offenders, if you drive the biggest car, well then, your change can mean a lot. And you can choose to see that as powerful potential, rather than negative.
Is there anything else you took away from the DNC? We’re in such a complicated moment and finding the language to talk to people who are just feeling really disenchanted by this election is the challenge that we have right now. Also, I think it’s so important for us to start thinking about what it means to be political, what it means to be an activist. We just had a two-term black president. And we might get our first female president, and we just have to keep expanding that, and pushing for who gets to be included. And just let this be the tip of the iceberg.