Cameron Russell Confronts Sex, Power and Exploitation in Modelling — Book Excerpt

1. On my first shoot the stylist says to his assistant: Let’s go for an S-N-M vibe. Mom, do you remember? I go to the toilet and call you and say, They want to put a belt around my neck, it’s an S-N-M vibe, and you say no belt around my neck, S and M is a sexual fetish. So I say no to the belt, and he thinks I’m ungrateful.

By way of explanation I say: I want to run for president. I have to be careful about the kind of pictures I take. He looks me in the eye and I look back. Normally adults are pleased or amused when I tell them this. But he rolls his eyes and takes off the belt. He gives me a tiny black bikini. Go! he says, and turns his back.

I’ve never worn a bikini before. I didn’t know I would be wearing one, but I don’t have enough pubic hair yet to need to shave. On set I suck my stomach in until my ribs poke out. How do I stand when my stomach is showing? The photographer keeps telling me, Relax. He has a fart-machine prank he does. I laugh because I’m supposed to.

When the photo comes out, my agent makes it my comp card and sends it to clients. I carry it around to castings to give out. Your body looks amazing, she says.

The stylist won’t work with me for another seven years. When he finally books me again, he jokes: You were such a spoiled brat.

2. On my second shoot the makeup artist paints my lips red, and in the mirror of the RV bathroom my teeth look stained next to the bright colour. She tells me I have cock-sucker lips. The stylist says I’m going to be huge.

3. My fourth or fifth shoot, the photographer — a legend — kisses me on the lips when I’m standing at the elevators waiting to leave. I am sixteen and the double kiss everyone does is awkward, and so I think maybe I messed it up. A dozen shoots and fifteen years later he will still call me “girl” when we work together and pretend he does not know my name.

4. The photographer adjusts my hair and clothes by placing his whole hand — heavy, warm — on my face, my shoulder, my hip, and then drawing it slowly back from my skin. He stands behind me in the mirror and looks at me and I look away and he squeezes my shoulders. Electricity shoots through me and I think about this feeling even after the shoot is over, when I’m back home, for weeks and months.

The agents keep telling me how much money I can make, but all I want is to experience this feeling again.

It turns out this shoot launches my career. A famous art director visits the set that day and says, Fuck, she’s sexy, to the photographer. I try to be polite and make uncomfortable eye contact while they talk about how I look. Then, since I don’t know what to say, I walk away and sink into a couch on the other side of the studio. I can still hear them looking through the images on the computer: Fuck, fuck, fuck, they say.

5. The next time we shoot he will ask me to shoot topless. But I’m sixteen, I say. I feel like I might cry. It has to be topless, says the stylist. I text you, Mom, and my new agent. The photographer asks me if I’m okay. I’m going to leave, I say, even though I don’t want to, I just want to shoot with him wearing a top. I hug and double kiss him goodbye and walk out. Like we’re breaking up. Of course, nobody cares; they have six other girls on set, ready to go.

6. The famous art director will nickname me “Camarones.” He makes me lie in the dirt next to a swampy river, my body fake wet, sticky with baby oil, and tells me to arch my back and close my eyes. I stay lying in the mud, wondering if there are leeches, because they want my legs to stay where they are (positioned just so, spread at the water’s edge) while the crew looks through Polaroids. The art director will come over and take pictures on his personal camera. Fuck, he says.

Mostly, though, they shoot their contract girl. At the end of the first day the sky turns dark and the wind picks up and they turn a big spotlight on her lying in the reeds, wearing just jeans. The air is thick and wet. She is glowing. She covers her breasts with one arm and rolls around looking into the camera. Her lips get an extra spray from the makeup artist’s glycerin bottle; they open. She is dripping. The rest of us disappear into the evening drizzle. When they are done, an assistant brings her a white robe, which she ties loosely. The art director throws an arm around her, the robe bunches, and I see her nipple. They walk together to a car, which will take them back to the hotel. Production shepherds me into the van with the rest of the crew.

The next day they shoot me again in the afternoon. God, you’re sexy, says the art director. I don’t know what to say. I wish I could have heard what their contract girl said when she was on set, but I couldn’t get close enough.

7. I shoot a fragrance campaign with this same art director, and nobody tells me that I am the star of the campaign. Instead I sit alone for a day while everyone else shoots, wondering if I haven’t made the cut. The second day he tells me, We need you making out with a guy. He suggests a model who is loud and obnoxious. I point and suggest another model whose name I don’t know. It’s just acting, I think. He laughs and says okay. So my first kiss is standing in a pool in underwear and a tank top. We kiss over and over for the cameras.

8. At castings — where the only time I get to speak is when I say, Good, thank you, after they ask, How are you today? — I get called pure-bred, all-American, well-educated, from a good family, maybe perfect for a contract, timeless, classic, but a little exotic, almost a little ethnic, do you have any Native American ancestry, the whole package, a triple threat. I’m still in high school, can’t really sing or dance, and the last time I acted was in fourth grade, so I sense that what they mean is, I have the body, the face, and the White skin they’re looking for.

The walls at castings are covered with photos of nearly identical-looking White girls, for the summer season with tans, paler for fall/winter and couture. I am White, hip 33, waist 21, bust 33, 5′ 9.5″ but we could round up.

9. An art director who owns the magazine we’re shooting for in Paris looks through the back of the RV while I change. At first I don’t notice. He convinces my agent to have me take Polaroids with him. He asks me to go topless, I say no. Chérie, he says, this is Paris. But I want to run for president of the United States, I say. I can’t take topless pictures.

I wonder if the reason why I’ve been saying I’m going to be president all these years is because I want to be treated like someone who might be president one day.

He shrugs, leaves the room, and returns with a strapless bra. When he shoots, one of his hands holds the camera and the other reaches to pull the top down.

Is it twisted? I ask.

Just need to hold it straight, he says. Eyes here, he says. The Polaroids fall onto the floor while he takes them.

When he’s done I look down and my nipples are exposed. How did I not feel the elastic sliding so low? The pictures develop and I see he has made me look topless.

As soon as I’m in the stairwell I feel my face get hot and tears roll down my cheeks. The whole thing happened too fast. I feel weak and stupid.

Dad picks me up from the airport when I get home, and I try to tell him about it.

Couldn’t you have just said no? he asks.

I tried but the agency thought it was important.

I guess you’ll know for next time.

When the magazine comes out, he’s put me on the cover.

10. Next time is a decade later, when he requests me for a shoot and I waver while my agent convinces me, yes, I should do it. You need good editorial, she says. Okay. The shoot takes two days and the photos are fine. He treats me like an old friend and I act like one.

11. Photographers call me jail bait. One invites me to drinks. Eventually, I find my body in a bed next to him. Not myself: A lot of myself will be surprisingly gone by then. (You don’t know how much of a self you are until you aren’t.)

12. A French agent takes me out to dinner at a sushi restaurant where you can text other tables. Lots of men are there and they start texting our table. The agent brought his cousin too, and they are laughing, replying for me in French I don’t understand. He takes me home on his motorcycle and I have to hold on tight to his body to be safe.

The agent gives his cousin my number and his cousin texts me asking if I’ll go on a date with him. I say no — his cousin must be at least thirty and he lives in Paris and I didn’t like him at dinner — but I save his number and his name in my phone, because I’m 17 and nobody has ever asked me out before.

My French agent sends me emails and says he’s in love. He says all the boys must be in love with me but I should go for a Frenchie. I try to respond like an adult, with sarcasm and distance. “You need a hobby,” I write. Other emails I ignore, because what do you say?

13. My agent tells me they aren’t shooting me because I’m a virgin.

14. My agent tells me they aren’t shooting me because I lost my virginity.

15. During a night shoot the photographer keeps telling me, I want the in-between moment, not posey. Get into it, touch the guy. The male model, he means. Finally he gets a frame he likes where I am adjusting my dress and looking off camera. See, he says, showing me the shot, see here, it looks like you just got fucked.

16. I get my period in a white bikini on a beach when the whole crew is cis men. One of them asks if I cut myself. Blood runs down my leg and soaks through the white robe they gave me, and I have to wait to drive back to the hotel to get a tampon. I have to change in the photographer’s bungalow room because this is where we are doing hair and makeup and styling. The bathroom does not have a door, just a wall that divides it from the rest of the room, where the crew is sitting, passing a joint. Everyone is chilling. I am acting chill too, but the stylist asks me to remove my thong to wear a swimsuit they like, and I have to stay standing completely naked in the middle of the room while they untangle the swimsuit. I look at the floor. I do not know if the crew or the photographer are looking at me, or if I did a good enough job hiding my tampon string.

The photographer has me lie in the ocean at 5:00 AM as the sun rises, and I feel sick to my stomach, cramps, the water feels cold, and I am angry with myself for being spoiled.

17. I have enough money to buy an apartment and pay for college every semester. I have enough money that one day at the supermarket I realise I don’t need to tally the groceries as I shop.

18. My agent tells me I need to sleep at the photographer’s apartment in London because he cannot afford a hotel.

Don’t worry, she tells me, he’s gay.

Years later the same photographer will ask me to change swimsuits on the beach in front of his assistants. When I say, No, I want a changing tent, he asks me, in front of everyone during lunch, Were you raped as a child? Is that why you’re so sensitive?

19. The stylist puts me in a sheer shirt. I ask to wear a bra, and she says they don’t have one. I ask the photographer to promise to retouch my nipples because, I tell him, I never shoot topless or with nipples showing. He says, Of course. The pictures are published unretouched. When I email him, he says he remembers our agreement but it just didn’t work artistically.

20. Okay, mami there, the photographer says. You really look Latin to me, he says. Normally I go for blonds, blond everywhere. He winks. Yes, lean there, touch your lips, hip out, yes. Like that. Legs crossed. Sometimes I think I could be straight, you know.

Oh yeah?

I mean, could you date a girl?

Sure, I say.

Yeah, me too. I’d be with *****. Not just ‘cause she’s the super of all supers. Not just because we are really good friends. The thing is, this girl is amazing. She’ll do anything. She’s perfect. She’s so sexy, she’s the ultimate, you know?

Yeah, she’s gorgeous.

The next morning the hairdresser will tell me the reason why ***** is so amazing is because she’ll do anything. Anything. The highest praise for a model. She’s just nineteen but she gets it, he says. The new story they shot with her is out and everyone is looking through it.

Finally, we shoot the cover. You won’t look like this forever, the photographer says, waving at my body. He lets the camera down and takes a step back. You really should let me shoot you naked. I love your body. When we’ve got the shot, everyone claps. I thank the photographer. We walk back to base camp together. He puts his arm around my waist. I’m so glad my first ***** cover was with you, I say, and lean my head on his shoulder.

Cameron Russell is a model, writer and activist. She is the co-founder of Model Mafia, a collective of fashion models advocating for a more equitable, just and sustainable fashion industry. How to Make Herself Agreeable to Everyone is published by Penguin Random House.

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