The Power of Beauty: A Q&A with Model and Journalist Gail O'Neill
by AMNH on
As a fashion model in the 1990s, Gail O’Neill got an education in the creation and commodification of two-dimensional beauty. But O’Neill’s subsequent career as a TV host and reporter (CBS News, CNN, HGTV) and magazine editor convinced her that without engaging all five senses, our perception of beauty is incomplete.
This Saturday, at 1 pm, O’Neill will moderate a Museum panel on the Power of Beauty, at Expressions of Beauty: Sights and Sounds, a two-day festival about beauty across cultures and time. The panel also features photographer Jimmy Katz; LaShonda Katrice Barnett, a visiting assistant professor of ethnic studies at Brown University, and Jasmine Morrell, who is a Universal Mind tattoo artist. As a group, they will examine how members of a civilization perceive beauty. Is rarity a necessary component of beauty? Is difference?
We spoke recently with O’Neill about how her perceptions of beauty have changed with time, and more.
Did you feel beautiful growing up?
Beauty, or a lack of it, was not something I ever thought about as a young child. In fact, I think children are far more adept at perceiving true beauty, because they haven’t been corrupted by outside forces. Likewise, the older we get, and the more we buy into mass media’s definition of beauty, the more likely we are to find fault with ourselves and others.
I was no different, and by the time I was 11 or 12 years old I was convinced that my tall, skinny frame was some kind of cosmic joke...with me the punchline. But show me a child who looks like that today, and I see how beautiful they are—like a little gazelle or a baby giraffe!
You take photographs of other people, too; how has that shaped what you find beautiful?
There is nothing more beautiful to me than authenticity. When a subject trusts me enough to drop their mask and show me who they really are, magic happens! My Aunt Rosie is my favorite model for this reason. Her child-like nature, playfulness, and big, exuberant personality always come through in my pictures.
In addition to the panel you’re moderating with Jimmy Katz, LaShonda Katrice Barnett, and Jasmine Morell, what are some of the beautiful objects visitors will see at this weekend’s festival?
The most beautiful object I’ve seen is a ceremonial cape worn by Hawaiian aristocracy in the 1800s. It was made with tens of thousands of feathers from the honeycreeper bird, many species of which are now extinct due to avian malaria and human ecological disturbance. At the time the cape was made, only a few feathers, from under the bird’s wing, would be plucked at a time—and the competition to find the most feathers took place each spring.
Think about how many years it took to collect and assemble the feathers on this cape, by hand, then ask yourself what could be more valuable or luxurious. What is your favorite luxury item at home that was not purchased in a store?
The Power of Beauty, moderated by Gail O'Neill, is at 1 pm on Saturday, April 27, in the Museum's Linder Theater. To RSVP, click here. Learn more about the panel here. The panel is followed by a Beauty Highlights tour of exquisite artifacts on view in the Museum, led by Jacklyn Lacey, curatorial associate in the Division of Anthropology.
Expressions of Beauty: Sights and Sounds also features hands-on activities (including henna design; Egyptian mirror decoration; and more), and, on Saturday, musical performances by players from around the world.