The Power of Beauty: A Q&A with Model and Journalist Gail O'Neill main content.

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. 


Gail O'Neill
Model and journalist Gail O'Neill, pictured, will moderate a panel this Saturday, April 27, on the Power of Beauty. The panel is at 1 pm. 
© Tim Bell


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

Jimmy Katz photograph (Expressions of Beauty 2013)
This photograph, taken by Jimmy Katz using a large format camera, appears in his book World of Wonders. On Saturday at 1 pm, Katz will participate in a panel on the Power of Beauty at the Museum. 
© copyright Jimmy Katz

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. 

Feather cape
Dating from the early 1800s, this cape, now on view in the Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples, is one stop on the Beauty Highlights tour, happening Saturday, April 27, as part of the festival Expressions of Beauty: Sights and Sounds. The cape was made in Hawaii, from the feathers of honeycreeper birds, and was worn by Hawai'ian aristocracy.(Catalog No. 80.0/784)

 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.