Summer Rayne Oakes
By Ash Hoden
I met with Summer Rayne Oakes during a strange period in my life — shortly after launching Deviation in its new form, yet having no answers as to how I would provide for myself going forward. I had a mission but little stability in which to pursue it. (Instability is a reality for all missions, I’ve come to believe. Lacking risk, it’s not a mission so much as it’s a hobby or fleeting fancy.) Summer is also on a mission, I would learn.
We met for our talk at a cafe in a converted Williamsburg warehouse. A vertical plane of plants served as a backdrop to the vast room. Sun streamed in at a low angle through the skylights, spotlighting the vibrant green wall at the end of the day. Summer also lives in a converted Williamsburg warehouse with an interior plant wall, although her wall exists within a sea of other plants. Summer loves plants and plants love Summer. Prior to our meeting I knew little more than that. In the course of our talk I would learn quite a bit more about her life and her work, and I would also learn some things about myself.
In talking with Summer I recognized how thoroughly beneficial, on a personal level, these Deviation conversations have been. Every artist or creative that I’ve sat with has discussed ideas or approaches to life that were immediately relevant to my own, but Summer was the first to challenge me to be a better person. Not directly. She never pointed her finger and said, ‘You can do better.’ It’s just that she said things that impacted me; things relevant to that specific time and place in my life.
Her commitment to resolving large-scale environmental issues — and the various endeavors she’s pursued along that path — contributed to her becoming an extremely powerful, focused, and more complete human. Being oriented around a cause affords solid grounding in life in general. Summer exemplifies the importance of establishing sound principles to live by, and then living by them. It is the difference between having purpose and merely existing; taking action or being neutralized by the trivialities of contemporary life. And Summer does not get distracted. If you hear what she’s saying, talking with her can be transformative:
I read that you essentially raised yourself.
“My parents separated when I was nine so I moved in with my mother, who at that time was a ballet teacher. My parents were only high school educated, so my mom went to the community college and started taking class; really enjoying it, started to tutor other kids. During that time there was a certain jealousy with my parents. My dad was maybe getting a little bit jealous that she was looking to better herself so that she could get a quote-unquote real job.
“This is my perception right. Everybody has their own reality. I think there was probably a lot of strain in their relationship to begin with, and they started to pull apart from one another. As a nine-year-old viewing this you realize shit was about to hit the fan. It got into a place where the living arrangements with my dad and mother were getting very tumultuous and I had to tell my mother to get a divorce from my father. It was not something that she initiated herself, or could initiate herself.”
At the age of nine?
“At the age of nine. I told my mother, ‘You know you need to get a divorce from dad.’ The next day my mother filed for divorce. I think that she knew but it’s almost like you need the extra little push.”
That’s amazing. My parents split when I was nine and I never would have had the—
“Audacity to go and say something to your parents?”
The awareness. I saw that certain things were off but the idea that I would have had the capacity to step in? That is amazing.
“I think it could be a little different being a boy versus a girl. I feel like a lot of girls are a little bit more in tune with communication and things like that. But again, I have a very good relationship with both of my parents. I’m actually closer to my father now than I had been, which is very interesting. My father is the generation where you work really hard: ‘I might not be around but I’m putting food on the plate and a roof over your head.’ I respect that now. I didn’t know how to respect that then.
“When you’re nine-years-old you only have this single perception and I was way closer to my mother because she was around. My mother put me into piano lessons and art classes and my dad was always like, ‘Do you really need to take art lessons? They’re so expensive.’ My mother had to fight for those things sometimes with my father. They just came from two different perspectives. So I felt very in tune with my mother and you could see that she was hurting. It was a pretty toxic atmosphere and I didn’t want to be in that. I do have to give them credit because I remember them coming into my room and I’d be crying or whatever, and they’re like, ‘You know we’re not doing it because of you.’ And I remember thinking in my head, ‘I know that! It just sucks that you’re fighting all the time.’
“In hindsight, that whole situation — it’s really what made me who I am today. When my mother finally decided to separate, my father got the house. My brother essentially lived with my father and I chose to go with my mother. I didn’t feel like there was any other way. My mother needed somebody. So we kind of traveled from place to place. We stayed at her uncle’s house for a little while. Then we stayed in my grandmother’s house for a little while, but her sister was in there after a divorce so my grandmother didn’t really have any room. Then we finally moved into this little tiny dollhouse. It used to be a storage shed and they converted it into this house. I remember walking in and a door fell off. I was going into high school and I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is the worst situation.’ You’re almost embarrassed for yourself.
“But I knew my mother was struggling and she had to give up dance, which was the one thing that she absolutely loved. In Northeastern Pennsylvania it’s a very depressed area. It’s very hard to get a job. She ended up training to be a paralegal and then she was working a night job at the desk of a racket club. All of a sudden she was working two desk jobs when she was very active before. She was always tight as a frog’s ass, you know what I mean. It’s weird to see my mother now because she had to make this choice to support me and had to give up the things that she loved. That really stuck with me.
“When we moved into this tiny little house it became this joke among some of my friends in high school that I didn’t live with my parents because my mom was always working. Then my mom started to date this new boyfriend, who I hated at first. I was very protective of my mother and I didn’t know how to deal with it so I was a little bit of an asshole with the whole situation. It was almost like an intruder in your home. But he was a nice guy. It was clear that he wanted to give me hope beyond the walls that I lived in, so he got it in his head, ‘Why don’t we take her to some of the universities around the area and see what she’s interested in?’
“Interestingly enough though, when my parents were going through what they were going through I became really focused at school. I was never “the smartest kid” but I really worked hard and I think it showed that I was enthusiastic or creative.”
Why do you think you started to get involved at that point?
“I needed to have my mind focused on something that wasn’t going on in my home life.”
Are you fairly competitive?
“To a certain degree. Lesser so now than I was even five years ago. I don’t feel that sort of competition nowadays, even with how I work out. I think because I’m more comfortable with who I am. I remember I was way more competitive back in the day, and maybe a little bit more catty, but I don’t feel that way now. Being a go-getter and being competitive are two different things, so I’d probably consider myself more of a go-getter.”
Competition can be a motivating force, but the goal can just be personal. ‘Where can I go? Where can I take myself?’ Other people are essentially gauges for where you’re at.
“Exactly. It helps you see yourself in a way. So Bob started to take me to different universities and I became very interested in university. It was a definite for me, which is not something I could say for everybody coming out of Lakeland High School. I was the first person ever to go to an Ivy League university from my high school. I was the only person who went and finished. It wasn’t expected. It’s just not done.”
And you visited schools to see how they differed — what they offered or what the environment was like?
“Exactly. Then I started getting pretty serious. I was like, ‘I want to go to school for Environmental Science.’ I started looking at the different programs and I really whittled it down: University of Delaware, University of Vermont, or Cornell University. Those were the three that were on the East Coast and they had the programs that I wanted. So Bob moved out to Cleveland because his company got moved out there and my mom started to go there on the weekends. It became that joke, ‘Oh, Summer is not living with her parents.’”
She’s working two jobs, five days a week, and then she’s gone on the weekend.
“She’s working two jobs and then she’s gone. I didn’t realize why my mother was going out there but she was thinking of moving. I had no idea. One day we were going to Cornell. I went there during the summer because it was beautiful and I remember going on that campus and I spun around on my heel and I was like, ‘I’m coming here!’ It was just this thing that I knew. It was the aura. It was perfect. And my mom was like, ‘Oh fuck. Fuck me. It’s probably the most expensive school ever.’ But it was great. We went to this greenhouse on campus and I’m like, ‘I want that plant.’ Which was a banana tree. We were milling about the greenhouse and somebody came out about fifteen minutes later. I was ga-ga about the whole thing and then she’s like, ‘I have something for you.’ And she gives me a fucking banana plant. And I feel like the fate was sealed. I came back home and I was so jazzed. It became my focus.
“So my mom started more frequently going out to Cleveland. Then one day she came back and she was in tears and she said, ‘We’re moving to Cleveland.’ You have to understand that by that time I was so embedded in my community and my school. I was three sports, I was HIV/AIDS peer educator, I was a sex educator, I was tobacco peer educator, I was working with my County Conservation District, I was doing recycling volunteering, I was the president of my high school, I started their suicide prevention program, I was the editor for the newspaper… I did everything. It was insane. When my mom said that [we’re moving] I was like, ‘No way!’ I was fucking flabbergasted.”
Here I make a comment about the film Rushmore, which Summer has not seen, and as I’m faltering through my explanation of it being about a high school student who is involved with an endless array of clubs and extracurriculars — a film by Wes Anderson nonetheless — I’m forced to mentally acknowledge the thousands of extracurricular hours I devote to lazing in front of a screen, whereas Summer spends those hours accomplishing something. So I move on and ask how old she was when her mom went to Cleveland:
“I think I was going on fourteen. It wasn’t about my friends or anything. It was more about, ‘I’m building something here.’ To uproot me and then re-establish yourself? I just couldn’t even fathom it. I thought my mom was talking a different language or something.
“An important point to acknowledge here is that during my parents’ breakup my brother didn’t talk to my mother at all. So when my mother pulled this on me I basically told her, ‘If you don’t leave me here I’m going to live with dad and you’re never going to see me again.’ I used that, as a terrible tool I have to say, to get my mother to understand that, ‘I’m staying here in Pennsylvania and if you want to go, go.’ We were really hitting right around poverty level, living in Northeastern Pennsylvania. I was so embarrassed because you get those blue punch cards, which I heard they don’t give out anymore. You can’t afford lunch so they give you free lunch. No one wants to carry those blue punch cards around so I just started bagging my lunch, which has probably kept me healthy anyway. It’s a situation that you’re kind of embarrassed by. I never had my friends over or anything like that. My mother, I remember her face. She was like, ‘I’m gonna get arrested.’ And I was like, ‘Look at me. I already take care of myself. You’re not here most of the time.’ In Northeastern Pennsylvania there just wasn’t jobs available. People who I tell this story to, they’re like, ‘I can’t imagine ever leaving my kid.’ I’m like, ‘If you were in that situation and you’re making $14,000 a year…’ No-one can fucking survive on that. For a couple of years I didn’t have a refrigerator.”
“Yeah. We didn’t have a phone line because we couldn’t fucking afford one. It was like the greenest living you could possibly do. Reality is, most people live on paycheck. Every day that little paycheck. God forbid if you’re sick. That’s the reality my mother was in.
“So that’s how I started to live alone. Then I ended up taking a gig with my County Conservation District. I ended up taking a position at a grocery store when I was fifteen, so I made things work. During that whole time I never had anybody over at my house.”
I would imagine you didn’t have a lot of free time either, with all of the activities you were doing.
“No, not really. I’d be free on the weekends if I wasn’t doing a basketball game or whatever. I would play in the forest. I had a nice forest behind my house. I would go collect birds’ nests and insects and do mushroom hunting. Things that I love to do right now.”
How did environmental issues become important to you?
“Because of my artwork. All of my art was inspired by Native Americans or the earth and the environment. I was always the kid who brought things indoors. I wanted to go to school for art for awhile but then I realized that all of my art was inspired by nature. I was like, ‘I should probably just go to the source. I like being in nature so let’s study that.’ I figured it was a much better job, eventually. I definitely have an art propensity in a lot of what I do but I think about marketing too. Even the model stuff that I was doing, I really felt like that was using my whole body as art. There was a way to put forth my values in that capacity.”
When did you start modeling?
“That I started in college. I applied early decision to Cornell. I got in. Actually, one of the awesome things about Cornell is that they have a program called Red Carpet Society. I’d take the bus to Cornell and I would stay overnight with students. Most people did it when they were in their senior year. I was doing it when I was a freshman and a sophomore. I would stay overnight with students. I would go to classes, and one of the programs that I was working on with the County Conservation District had been a program called biosolids, which was wastewater management and sewer sludge. I actually found out that there was a sewage sludge meeting that was happening at the Cornell Waste Management Institute and I busted in on the meeting. I was fifteen-years-old and I was sitting there and everyone was old and they’re like, ‘And who are you?’”
“I didn’t realize it was this closed-door meeting. Funny enough, by the time I got back on campus and I matriculated as a student, the Cornell Waste Management Institute was looking for work-study positions. I went and interviewed for it. Ellen Harrison, who was the director at the time, was like, ‘I know you.’ I’m sure at that time there weren’t a lot of kids who were vying for waste management jobs. So I ended up getting the position of course.”
Did you relate to older kids when you were growing up — more than kids your age?
“Yeah, older people in general. My cousin Kimmy, who’s ten years older than I am, she was probably my closest comrade of my family members. She and I just had similar interests. And I’ve always liked old people. I don’t know if that’s something my mother instilled in me. My mom always exposed me to older people. And I’m more of an old soul, if that’s what you’re asking. But I always was hanging around older kids. I really had no interest in people in high school when I was in high school.
“When some people learned that I lived alone, it was towards the end of graduation, they were like, ‘We should fucking party. Can I store my beer there?’ I was like, ‘No. Absolutely not.’ I realized that most kids would have totally taken advantage of it, and I had way too much responsibility. I had way too much integrity in the whole situation. I didn’t want to ever offend my mother. I never came home late. I never had any strange guests over. ‘Honestly,‘ I told my mother, ‘I literally was the best kid ever.’ Strangely enough though, my father didn’t learn that. I always looked at my dad as a really tough guy. He’s a truck driver, he’s bald, he’s a big guy. I was eighteen and he found out I had lived alone all those years. I remember his face. This despair. I felt like I literally took a sword and just eviscerated my father.”
Almost like, ‘Am I such a bad guy that she would prefer that over living with me?‘
“In my mind, again, I didn’t have any other option. My mother needed me. If I lived with my father my mom would have felt she lost me. It would have been the last little thread of hope that she had. Honestly, this whole thing was such a formidable part of who I am today and I think why I’ve become so independent.
“Forgiving people was such a big thing. If you want to go out and do the work that you do, you have to learn to forgive people. I’ve seen it. People in my family who have not learned to forgive, it eats them. It prevents them from growing. I never wanted that. I didn’t want to carry that bitterness because I was so focused on much bigger goals in life. It was like, ‘Well, if I want to do that, all this stuff is crap.’ It’s minor.
The image of a bitterness-free existence hits my brain and it stands in stark contrast to the manner in which I’ve actually conducted myself in life — particularly pertaining to my most intimate relationships. Summer is speaking a truth that has the power to change the world should the majority of us do similarly. She continues:
“I remember actually walking the street with one of my mentors and my colleagues (Martín von Hildebrand). We were doing fundraising for a project in the Amazon. This is a guy who has saved over 67% of the Colombian Amazon rainforest over forty years. He’s amazing. He’s now working on creating the largest ecological corridor in the world across the Amazon. It crosses eight different countries. We were talking about how to get Peru and Ecuador on board and as we’re walking the street, having a walking meeting, right on the corner there’s these two people bickering about something that’s probably of no consequence whatsoever; because that dude didn’t come home last night. They’re just mired in it. They’re in a swamp of their own doing. And this man is talking about creating a connected corridor for indigenous people and ecological wellness. I never wanted to be there — all that trite and trivial crap that people get stuck in so much in our society, and in other societies.
“I made a commitment. One of the things that, at least my friends seem to be impressed by, is the fact that I am friends with all of my former boyfriends. I love my former boyfriends. I would give so much to them. I’ve dated people who were older than me, I’ve dated people who were younger than me, I’ve dated people my age — all of us have learned something from one another and have become each other’s biggest fans. I always looked at it from the standpoint of: things could happen in your life and you could be affected by them and become them, or you could look at them as if you are outside of yourself; 30,000 foot approach looking down and you’re like, ‘That’s what I’m not going to do.’”
You were you able to steer clear of that type of bickering?
“Yeah, because I didn’t have resentment. I approached it a different way. I remember my first boyfriend in college cheated on me. I didn’t even know. All of his friends were trying to tell me but they were in a fraternity and the brotherhood thing or whatever. I got so pissed. I had this rage and he was smaller than me so I picked him up and I put him against the wall. I was like, ‘You’re such an asshole.’ He was a little drunk and then he was eating a pickle and it started to dribble out of his mouth. It was the saddest sight, and I started laughing. Then we started laughing, hysterically. I kind of looked at him and I was like, ‘You know what. I’m actually really happy because I’m the best girl you’re ever going to have.’ And we’re still friends.
“It’s just really funny, this energy that people put out. During that time he cheated on me with another girl who was at Ithaca College. That girl was younger than I was and she learned of the situation as well and it really dug into her. I was over it in five days. It still hurt me, but I was like, ‘Yeah, time to move on.’ No resentment. I look at it and I think it’s just a mind shift. The second aspect of it was like, ‘Thank you for doing me a favor. You let me go so I could be with somebody else who is more awesome.’”
Did that happen?
“Oh yeah. I feel that way about all of my relationships. Even the relationships that I feel were awesome might have not been as awesome for them for whatever reason. I’ve met very few people who say to me that they have relationships with their former boyfriends or girlfriends the way that I do. I find that to be shocking because you spend so much of your time and life with these folks. That being said, most people get into relationships in weird situations where they’re drunk at a bar and then they start dating and they’re never meant to be with one another anyway. But I don’t drink. I’ve never had the stuff.”
You never drank alcohol?
“I never drank alcohol. Part of it because I grew up extremely responsible. I had to pay my way through college. There was no way I was ever going to get fucking drunk. By the time I got out of college I was like, ‘I never needed this stuff in the beginning. Why drink now?’ So I met people in situations that were very sober. I think I attracted people who were of that ilk and I ended up having very substantial relationships with people that exist to this day. I look at it from the standpoint of: if I truly want that person to be happy, and if that true happiness is not with me at an intimate level, then so be it. If I really want true happiness for that person then I would want that person to go do what he or she should do. If we had that emphasis in our relationships, versus me me me me me, then you would realize that the relationship is on way more solid footing and your breakups would become much easier. You realize that it’s not a breakup. It’s a continuation in a different form of a relationship.
“If I have jealousy or if I have something that I deem a negative emotion, I turn into the wind: ‘Why do I have that emotion? Obviously something is unresolved for me.’ So if something’s unresolved for me I’ve either learned or taught some of my boyfriends how to communicate. Some of my relationships are very good at communicating. You just start talking to them and they open right up. I feel like I’ve given that to them. I’ve given them the space and I didn’t jump down their throats when something went awry.”
That’s a huge gift.
“It’s a huge gift. I joke about this with some of my girlfriends. I’m like, ‘I really want to run a finishing school for young boys on how to be a man.’”
I don’t even think that’s a joke. It’s necessary.
“It’s so necessary.”
We need healthy masculinity.
“Exactly. So I love the people that I’ve fostered and that have fostered me along the way. But when I moved to New York City one of the biggest challenges that I had was asking people for help.”
As a student at Cornell, Summer was able to forego general education classes such as ecology because she was so far beyond the curriculum. She moved on to the more advanced classes and was ultimately able to propose her own courses that she would complete under the supervision of an advisor. One of the first classes she proposed was an organic portraits project involving environmental fashion. And fashion is what led her to New York.
“I was on a mission and I started going to New York and I just didn’t deal with girl shit, you know. There was a lot of girl shit going on there and my guy friends were just cool. So I ended up moving in with four guys and having a fun time with it. But they weren’t environmental people. I wasn’t getting through to them. That’s when I started to formulate in my mind: ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting to go into an industry that was pop culturally oriented; something that they would get.’
“While doing my research in sewage sludge I started to see all these connections. Again, it’s the ecological systems thinking. I was looking at the toxic organic contaminants in sewage sludge and a lot of those toxins were pesticides that we were putting on our cotton crops to grow our clothes. Really, the source isn’t fashion. The source at the end of the day is: why do we consume the way that we consume? Why are there two seasons in fashion? We’re born in the world, we’re given what it is, and then we never question anything? Why can’t we question?
“There’s not enough people who are critically thinking about those things and then actually implementing something different. The fashion thing and coming to New York, really, was trying to find people during that time who were working on the nexus of sustainability and fashion. This interaction of human design and politics and all this other stuff — that really fascinates me.
“I started formulating my schedule to go to school Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and then I would take a bus down to New York every week; five hours, coach bus. Then I became friends with the guy who drove the bus, Anthony, and he would comp my ticket half of the way. It was like an $86 ticket. It was expensive for a kid. Anthony was Jamaican. He was like, ‘Nah, nah, just hire me as your personal driver when you’re famous.’ He was so funny. But people come to your aid. If you share and you talk about it, people want to help.”
If you’re doing something meaningful.
“If you’re actually doing something. If you’re doing something period. They want to be part of the story. And Anthony’s made my story multiple different ways. So I was taking anywhere between fourteen and twenty credits, I was holding sometimes four jobs at a time, and I was going to New York City. I was really focused.”
“I would have four work-study positions at one point. Most of the time I was holding two. I worked my ass off in college. Up until that point I thought I was going to work on ecosystem management. I didn’t think that what I was doing was going to become a career. One of the most empowering things was speaking sustainable fashion into existence. It didn’t really exist. The fact that I started to model with my values didn’t exist. I didn’t come out of college saying, ‘Oh, I’m going to be an eco-model.’ That didn’t exist.”
From what I’ve seen it seems that models don’t have much say in what they do, period.
“That’s true. I have a lot of friends who have started to find their voice but they still are betroth to the paycheck. I had an agency out of college but we stepped away from one another. I started my company and I had to reestablish myself as a businessperson. By the time I went back to an agency I had a book deal, I was with Discovery Networks, and I had a fashion deal under my belt. I had some clout. I came in and I said, ‘Listen, this is who I am. I’m only going to work with people who share my values. Do you want to take your twenty percent?’ That’s how I approached it. I am not right for a lot of the clients but I didn’t need to be right for a lot of the clients because I didn’t want to work with a lot of clients. I wanted the clients to work with me, if they wanted me; if they wanted the authentic self. Not everybody does. Girl comes in — a lot of times they come in young — and they are given a situation and you go and do your job. But to me it never made sense because I only joined the fashion industry to make a point.“
You were using it as a tool.
“As if I was writing a book or something. It was this tool to communicate environmental issues.”
So you were coming here on weekends to promote your cause?
“I was networking. I didn’t know that’s what it was called at the time, but I was meeting with photographers and agents and models and people who were in the industry. I had two agents, James and Justin. Justin was like, ‘Eighty percent of jobs are not going to be available to you. Your hips are two inches too big.’ Which is such a standard line of bullshit. My hips are two inches too big but that’s beside the point. I was like, ‘Well, I don’t want eighty percent of the jobs. I just sat here with my heart on my sleeve telling you about the work that I’m trying to do on the environment. Do you think for one second that two inches on my hips are going to stop me from doing what I want to do? Honestly, what are you fucking thinking right now?’ They signed me, they took a chance on me, and they couldn’t sell me to a lot of people. So we ended up going on different paths. I ended up starting my company after that and obviously had a lot of hardship that follows when you go and do those things.”
What was the company?
“One of the people at Aveda was like, ‘Well, I want to hire you for your ideas but I can’t hire you through your agency. Have you ever thought about starting a company?’ And I was like, ‘No, I don’t know anything about starting a company.’ I had to ask a few people and I ended up incorporating as a consulting firm. Environmental communications. I remember I was like, ‘How do you first get a client? I never asked for anything in my life. How do I ask somebody to give me money to do work?’ I had no idea. That was my biggest learning experience. Strangely enough, I want to say three or four months after putting up the website, somebody reached out to me who also ran a consulting firm and said, ‘We were recommended to you through Condé Nast and want you to work jointly on this project. Would you be interested in coming in?’ I had no idea who at Condé Nast had referred me.”
It’s your first project and you were already referred?
“Well, that’s the thing. I was doing a lot of pro bono work and I had ideas. I met a lot of people on the way. Then I met with this guy and he hands me $1000 check and he goes, ‘This is to show you how serious I am about working with you on this project.’ I was like, ‘That’s weird.’ No one ever just hands you $1000 check without some strings attached.”
No contract in place about what the roles are or anything like that?
“No contract, nothing. So I took the check and I put it in a book and I didn’t cash it. I sat on it because I was like, ‘What the fuck does this guy want from me?’ That’s what was going on in my head. It was very hard to read at the time. Became pretty good friends with him… He’s a little bit of a weirdo and he’s burned a lot of bridges with a lot of people that I know, but I know how to handle somebody like him. Alex is his name. He’s a bruised little boy deep down inside and I recognize that and I can call him out on his shit, but a lot of people can’t. I don’t really deal with him a lot now because his energy is off, but he really was a mentor to me. He’s like, ‘You act like a nonprofit for for-profit companies.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, but I believe the work needs to get done.’ I was just so passionate about the work. And he’s like, ‘Yes, but you have value. You’re giving people value and you need to get value back.’ That was some of the formidable years for me — to understand that I was bringing value and I should get paid. So I moved to the city after graduation in 2005. I started my company shortly thereafter. And then my modeling started to pick up.
“The funny thing is, I was doing the consulting work and then I said to Alex, ‘Well, you know I’m modeling on the side and it’s with my values? There’s this thing that I’m building. People are out there who aren’t Julia Roberts or Edward Norton who want to do really cool things but need management.’ I said this in 2005. There were no talent managers outside of the people who were famous. There weren’t people like me who were signed. I said, ‘I think there needs to be a management company for those types of people.’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, whatever. I’d rather you be a consultant who is hot rather than a model who happens to be a consultant.’ So I kind of walked away from that and fairly shortly afterwards the blogosphere started to take shape. Inconvenient Truth came out, everybody was doing their green issues in magazines, and people started focusing on my work because I was the only one doing it. I had a lot of projects going on.”
What kind of projects?
“I did this environmental education curriculum with a group called Recycle Bank called Eco-Fashion 101, which was taking sustainable principles but putting them into curriculum. For instance, you could learn about the lifecycle of the silkworm for biology and you would raise a silkworm and you would understand what it would take to build silk. Researching the chemicals that were used in bluejeans for chemistry class and then seeing how much are potentially bio-accumulative. Then you would suggest ways in which you could write to the EPA to regulate certain things. Things like that that used a lot of critical thinking but applied it to the things that we were wearing.
“I also did a newsletter at the time called S4, which was on sustainability issues and fashion. Since I was really one of the only people who was doing it I had a lot of brands sign up for that. Then I got a request from Vanity Fair and they did a two-page spread of my work. Then Alex calls me and he’s like, ‘Now I know what you’re doing.’ After that he saw what I was building. Because you see yourself as something and not everybody sees you as that.”
I understand that very well.
“The first part about it is making sure you don’t build a fence around your perception. A lot of people talk themselves out of it first. At the time I could have said, ‘Yeah, you’re right. I’m just a consultant who’s hot.’ It’s important to understand what their perspective is. But you’re like, ‘I’ve gotta go out and fucking build this so that people understand.’“
And you don’t want to let them get in your way.
“Yeah! Exactly. Because he’s obviously not going to be supportive. And when that happened it crystallized for him. So he became my management. He was the one who helped me get my first book deal. He was the one who helped negotiate my contract.”
What was your first book?
“Style Naturally, which was a guide to sustainable fashion, beauty. Then I signed with Discovery. They turned Investigative Discovery into Planet Green. They had this green channel for awhile. Short lived. I was supposed to get my own show but I didn’t want to do any of this stuff that they were going to give me because it was fucking boring. I was like, ‘I don’t want to be on TV just to be on TV.’”
And they’re shocked because nobody says that.
“So I ended up doing two shows that I wasn’t hosting and then I ended up representing them on a lot of the circuits about what Planet Green was; its ethos and all of that stuff.”
Doing lectures or going to events—
“Exactly. I was the talking head. Everybody else were celebrities. I told my agent eventually that I got, ‘The difference between me and those people is that I’m going to be doing this when it’s not the thing anymore. It’s not like I’m going to reinvent myself and do the other thing that’s popular.’ I’ve really learned in the fashion industry that you shouldn’t get bent out of shape that people don’t want you for whatever reason. I was in a group called Models for Wellness and one of the athletic companies approached us to possibly do a thing. I had a bio and it was short but it was dense. My girlfriends were like, ‘Maybe we should just dumb your bio down a little bit.’”
It’s horrible that being so accomplished can be seen as a negative.
“Actually, that was one thing that Alex told me. He was like, ‘Your smarts might not serve you all the time in this industry.’ And I was like, ‘You’re probably right but I’d rather own it and that’s who I am — just accept the fact that I’m not going to be accepted all of the time. I don’t want to work with those people anyway. It’s a waste of my time.’ The only way I was able to build my second company was because I didn’t have to go on these regular casting calls.”
What was the second company?
“Source for Style, which is now called Le Souk. My former business partner runs that. It is a B2B marketplace that connects designers to sustainable suppliers around the globe. That became big. Now I’ve spent the last three or four years primarily working in food. My second book was a project that I was doing on the side called SugarDeTox.me. I was like, ‘I fucking have a sweet tooth. How do I deal with this issue for myself?’ I did a project. It started to take off and other people were dealing with it, so I’ve been in the world of food. It’s funny because fashion was a tool for me to explore sustainability and I kind of got a little bored of it to be honest with you. The innovation happening within my little sector, it’s not much. It’s not enough to excite me.
“The times have changed. We have to come up with much more creative solutions. I see myself returning to where I started from, in a weird cyclical manner. I had to go far away in order to be able to grow and connect the dots. My house recently went viral because of how I live in my home with all of the plants. That’s obviously resonated with people looking for a different way.”
What elements of how you live?
“I think just lifestyle choices. Plants, how I’m practically homesteading within an urban setting; being more self-sufficient within a city area. Making your own things, growing your own food, wasting less, all these sorts of things that people learned in the country but they can’t apply here because the city system doesn’t allow them to, for whatever reason. I see this as a way to connect with people but if I came out with that kind of stuff initially it wouldn’t have affected anybody. The climate wasn’t right at that time.”
And SugarDeTox.me is about eating—
“It’s a cookbook and it’s reducing sugar intake. I took it from a very practical perspective of a lot of things that I’ve gleaned over the years and also things that I’ve done for myself in order to nix my sugar tooth. Although I never had any dire need to do it. I wasn’t diabetic. But I definitely had a massive sugar tooth. It was something that I felt was separating me from optimal health. When I was born, when you were born, diabetes wasn’t a thing. It was called adult-onset diabetes. Kids didn’t get it. It was very rare. Now one in four kids have it. One in eleven people have it. Every nineteen seconds somebody gets it. And you can’t stick ‘em on a treadmill. It’s not our fitness levels. It’s what’s in our food.”
Corn syrup, etcetera.
“Yeah. And obesity. Everybody treats it like a disease, which is a shame. It’s not the disease. It’s a symptom of a broken food system. Martín said something so sagely to me. He repeated this story of when he was with a shaman. The shaman said, ‘You know, Martín, your doctors say, Oh, you have bronchitis or you have this disease. Let me treat you, the individual. When somebody is sick in our community we don’t treat the individual. We look. Something must be wrong in the environment, so we treat the environment. When somebody is sick, the whole community goes on a diet.’ And that made so much fucking sense to me. When somebody has asthma it’s not the person who needs to be treated, it’s the environment that they’re in.’ There’s people like that who are living simultaneously with us on this earth right now that we’re discrediting. Why not give these people the opportunity to have a voice? Who are we to say that we’re so smart that we know everything? Because we don’t. Clearly, the amount of depression and the amount of disease that’s happening in the area, maybe we should take a piece out of someone else’s book.
“A lot of the stuff that I write is so much more surficial. It’s encapsulated in a way for people to understand but it’s a piece to a larger ecological system thing that I’m addressing in my lifetime. I probably won’t get a chance to do everything that I maybe want to do or am supposed to do over the course of my life.”
I think that’s good.
“Yeah, and we’re hindered by it, right. We’re hindered by the idea of, like, ‘I have to make money.’ I struggle with that myself. Where I’m just like, ‘How can I live as simply as I possibly can so that I’m not betroth to the dollar?’”
But at the same time, if you could achieve everything that you wanted to achieve, there’s a limit on what you’re wanting to achieve.
“Yeah, that’s true. And there’s times when I want to just sit on my duff all day. There’s times I think about that too. You just need to rejuvenate.”
Indeed. Talking with Summer, for me, was a rejuvenating experience.
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