Genetics are a lottery that you probably didn’t win

Published: February 20, 2013, 9:48 pm ET
Opinion Editor

In October, model Cameron Russell gave a TED talk on beauty. It was posted to the TED website in January, and less than a month later, it has been viewed 1.3 million times.

What she said was nothing revolutionary. As a model who has posed for Victoria’s Secret, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Vogue, she admitted that she’s only achieved success because she won the “genetic lottery.”

“Hard work is not why I have been successful as a model,” she said. “I’m not saying I’m lazy. But the most important part of my job is to show up with a 23-inch waist, looking young, feminine and white. This shouldn’t really shock anyone. Models are chosen solely based on looks.” She admits that she has been offered appearances on TV shows, movie roles and even a book deal because of how she looks, even though she knows she doesn’t deserve it.

We’ve read her words time and again, but almost always in the comment section of a YouTube video, or on a blog, or coming from someone who doesn’t fit the “young, feminine and white” description. It often comes off as ranting, or jealousy. For those words to come from the mouth of someone who not only fits the description but has been able to build a career upon it that has brought her fame and the opportunity to appear in some of the most celebrated brands and magazines in America, is incredibly refreshing.

It can often feel like the world is built upon secret truths that we’re expected to accept on a day-to-day basis and not publicly acknowledge. For example, the fact that doors open more quickly and easily to beautiful people. According to The Economist, “Physically attractive women and men earn more than average-looking ones, and very plain people earn less.”

Or, perhaps more close to home, the fact that most reputable internships are based on the assumption that the student comes from a wealthy family. As a journalism major, for example, I’d only be able to intern at Vogue or USA Today if I were able to support myself in New York or D.C. on an unpaid internship — no matter how qualified I was for the job. Russell’s talk felt like a very public nod to those of us who can’t, don’t or aren’t heard when we acknowledge those truths.

Obviously, the door will always be open to Russell because of how she looks. The fact that her TED talk has 1.3 million views while a talk given by Colin Powell uploaded the same day only has 300,000, or that an op-ed she wrote for CNN today was posted with a slideshow of pictures of her modeling is only proof of that. I don’t think she was suggesting that things should — or ever will — change. Modeling is her career, after all.

I think she was just trying to open up an honest discourse, which few in her position are willing to do. And it seems to have worked. At the end of her CNN article she asks, “…what should I talk about? Do I refuse these [public speaking] offers outright because of my lack of experience, because I’m not the right person to tell the stories that are missing from the media? Can I figure out a way to leverage my access to bring new voices into the conversation?”

And in response, there are already 431 comments on the article — and it hasn’t even been up for 12 hours.

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  • Katrina Battles

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  • Melinda

    Anyone who knows anything about genetics knows that this woman did not “win the genetic lottery.” I’m sorry, but that’s not how it works and it certainly is not how modeling works. Has anyone ever seen a lot of models without airbrush and makeup so thick that their real face is unrecognizable? A lot of these models have pock-marked faces from constant heavy makeup and acne issues but all of it can be glossed over and it magically disappears. Modeling is airbrush and makeup…period…there is no real “beauty” and definitely not a lot of genetic lottery winners. A lot of models even have quite ugly or peculiar faces but they just happen to have starved themselves enough to have the body of a little boy so the agencies are fine with that. I think it is even quite obvious that a majority of models appear to have come from a very shallow gene pool. In conclusion, there is nothing that modeling has to do with genetics. There is nothing special or unique about these models genetically. The entire issue revolves not around genetics but the fact that fake is praised in our society.