How a Self-Proclaimed Butch Lesbian Became a Fashion Supermodel
Ruth Bell never wanted to fit into the fashion industry. Now, she's one of the most in-demand names in the game.
April 23 2019 7:40 AM EST
May 26 2023 2:20 PM EST
Ruth Bell never wanted to fit into the fashion industry. Now, she's one of the most in-demand names in the game.
Cheryl Bell is absolutely furious. She had recently arrived in Paris "on holiday" with her 15-year-old twin daughters, Ruth and May. Just as she was trying to figure out where they'd venture next in Montmartre, the Parisian neighborhood best known for its sex shops and, of course, the famed Moulin Rouge, an older man approached her girls.
Maternal instincts fully engaged, Cheryl hightailed it over to Ruth and May, immediately shielding them with her body. The man insists that he's from an agency, and he believes Ruth and May "should be models." With her voice raised, Cheryl proudly tells the creep to fuck off, before hurrying the girls down the stairs of the nearest metro station. Right before he gave up (and unbeknownst to the trio), he slipped a business card into Cheryl's tote bag, and then went back on his merry way.
One year later, Ruth, while rummaging through her mom's purse, trying to find something she had misplaced, found that very business card in her hands. Remembering the incident in Paris all too well, she Googled the stranger to see if he was telling the truth. The search results indicated that, in her words, he was a "real legit guy."
Ruth figured an apology was in order, so she emailed him a note to the tune of, "I'm really sorry about my mum. I didn't realize you were a legit guy from a legit modeling agency."
To her surprise, the man responded: "Thank God you emailed me. I've been waiting a year for you guys."
Ruth Bell grew up in a town called Dover, about 75 miles shy of London. Her parents, Cheryl and Mervyn Bell, worked respectable jobs -- Mervyn as an accountant, and Cheryl as a government employee. The two are originally from government housing, but once family planning started to materialize, they moved to a nearby village to place their three girls in a more competitive school.
One might think it'd be easy to compare identical twins like Ruth and May Bell, but this pair is more of an exercise in contrasts. May was taken with her schoolwork and got good grades, whereas Ruth excelled outside of the classroom; May was a self-described "girly girl," while Ruth was more of a tomboy; May had a more dominant personality, while Ruth was shy, quiet, and even moody at times. "May was always one step ahead of me all the time," Ruth remembers.
This made the already challenging teenage years even moreso, especially because Ruth's interests diverged so much from the other girls in her peer group. In high school, Ruth found a place where she felt she could be herself: the Air Training Corps. The ATC is a youth
volunteer organization in the United Kingdom that's affiliated with the military, where students learn ceremonial drills, adventure training, and more. While May had set her sights on university, Ruth's eyes were straight up, into the sky: She was going to become an Air Force pilot.
But now, a 16-year-old Ruth stared at her computer screen in disbelief. The email from a stranger in Paris was offering her and her sister a chance at traveling the world, earning money (presumably more than she could earn from her weekend job cleaning toilets at a golf course), and a potential break from their school schedule. For her part, Ruth wasn't interested -- fashion wasn't her thing.
But May Bell was intrigued. And so the twins (and one reluctant mum) met with their first modeling agency.
Ruth and May initially came onto the fashion radar in 2013, after becoming finalists in Elite Model "Look," billed (via the agency's website) as "the world's most prestigious international modeling contest," which helped launch the likes of Cindy Crawford, Gisele Bundchen, and Alessandra Ambrosio.
"I remember their start -- they were two London, very pretty, Kate Moss lookalikes," says Helena Suric, the former bookings director of American Vogue. Not too long after the competition bowed, the twin sisters booked a Topshop campaign.
They were billed almost constantly as a pair, which started to inflame the dichotomy between them. "It's your twin sister! So everyone always told us we're exactly the same," Ruth says. "But then we got into the [modeling] industry, and they're like, [May is] the pretty one. She's the photogenic one.'"
"There was a 'May Bell' and a 'May and Ruth Bell,'" Suric explains. "But less of a 'Ruth Bell,' as it so often happens with model twins." And so, a year passed with May getting booked for jobs alone, while Ruth was only brought in if a client or editorial called for the twins together.
But if there was any real job perk, it was the traveling. On a rare solo gig, Ruth was booked for a swimwear campaign in Australia. "I don't know what my agency was trying to do," she says with a laugh. "It did not go well." So, she used that opportunity to go shopping for the first time -- in the men's section. "I bought my first pair of men's underwear, and I started wearing them underneath my girls' clothes," she says. "That's how I came out to myself, I guess."
This realization unhatched a yearning in Ruth to more fully express herself in the way she presented in public, with the proverbial cherry on top being the thing she had wrestled with the most: "I hated my hair," she says. "It just didn't feel right. I hated doing it. I hated thinking about it. So I wanted to shave it!"
But when Ruth presented the bright idea to her agency, she was met mostly with knee-jerk resistance. "They were like, 'We'll drop you if you cut your hair. It's in the contract you can't change your physical appearance without our say so.'"
Now, Ruth faced a dilemma: Do what she wanted with her body -- and, thus, feel more at home in her presentation -- but risk losing the potential income modeling offered her. "I thought to myself, I don't want to be a model for the rest of my life, I want to be a pilot. So this is a great way to end my career: Shave your head for the Queen and then fuck off and join the Air Force."
Before she could pull the trigger on her own, the agency called with some surprising news. The iconic fashion photographer David Sims was shooting a campaign for Alexander McQueen, and needed a girl to shave her head for the images. Before Ruth knew it, she was in the hands of the stylist Paul Hanlon, who eagerly took a buzzing pair of clippers to her long, blonde hair.
"The haircut is what made her," says casting director James Scully, who's worked with brands from Stella McCartney to Tom Ford. "Shaving her head is what put her on the map."
Once the photos hit, the phone started ringing -- and ringing again. "There was a point in time where, for two weeks, I didn't sleep in a bed once," Ruth says. With one dramatic haircut, she had unintentionally become the supermodel of the moment.
Hedi Slimane, then the designer at Saint Laurent, had Ruth flown to Los Angeles for a photo shoot. Afterward, she headed to Milan and Paris Fashion Week, where she met with the (now disgraced) photographer Mario Testino, who booked her and May for a Burberry campaign. She walked about 25 shows that Fashion Month and was met with more offers once the season ended. "She shot every major editorial going on at that time," says her agent, Joe Catt.
But something else had changed for Ruth -- something far more significant than booking what are considered the most competitive jobs in the industry. "Trying to hide a little butch lesbian is like acting, right?" Ruth asks. "You know, your mum puts you in a little dress, and you have to sit with your legs closed because you're a little girl, and you have to walk a certain way? I was doing the performance."
Now, however, the performance was over -- unless, of course, the job called for her to wear the pretty little dress. In public, Ruth began to tap into an aesthetic she'd always been too nervous to try, trading in the Kate Moss resemblance for one that was much more (forgive the reference) Justin Bieber. Her wardrobe, once a prison of heels and dresses, turned into what she calls a "soft butch" edit of hoodies, baggy pants, and Dickies beanies. In turn, the once-quiet girl on set was now vibrant, ebullient. "I worked with her on a Mario Sorrenti shoot, and their chemistry was instant," Scully remembers. "Within the first five minutes, she said she was gay, and everyone was all about it. [Models] just aren't that open right away -- but you could tell she was out there now. There was that point of no return, because she was established and had more license to be who she wanted to be."
Ruth's declaration of her queerness was decidedly less overt when it came to her loved ones: She simply texted her mother to announce she was bringing a girlfriend home. "In this house, it was exactly the same as if she'd brought a boy home," May says. In fact, one week after the homecoming, Ruth and May's older sister, Grace, would also come out of the closet.
For the first time in her life, Ruth was running a mile a minute -- career and personal success were intertwined, and she was coming into the woman she always wanted to be. But Fashion doesn't always favor models with big mouths or big ambitions, especially not when their last name isn't Hadid or Jenner.
Right at the height of her post-haircut fame, Ruth walked into a casting for what she calls a "huge, huge French brand." She and four other girls were instructed to stand and be assessed by a casting director who was hired for the house's runway show. Immediately upon gazing at Ruth, who stands at 5'9" and 112 pounds, the casting director announced to the room, "She'll need the bigger dress."
And so, Ruth was ordered to disrobe completely in front of an audience of models, under the scrutinizing eye of an adult woman she'd never met before. And then, naked except for a thong, Ruth attempted to put on the "bigger" dress. Before it was even hoisted over her shoulders, the casting director called out, "Actually, you know what? You're too big for this dress. You can leave," then snatched the garment from Ruth's grasp. Bare-naked again in front of the other girls, Ruth quickly pulled on her own clothes before walking out the door in shame.
"Do you realize how unhealthy that is for me?" Ruth asks now, incredulous. "Or for the girls around me? This industry fucks with you so hard." This all-too-common behavior has plagued the industry for decades, but it's part of a much more insidious culture of disrespecting -- and even abusing -- fashion models.
For the last seven years, an organization called The Model Alliance has run a grievance reporting service for girls like Ruth to report incidents that happen on set or at castings. In 2017, they partnered with the Harvard School of Public Health to conduct the largest study to date on eating disorders in the industry. "Fifty-seven percent of models who participated in our study reported being given diet or exercise regimens to lose weight, and 23 percent were even given diet pills and other weight loss supplements," founder Sara Ziff says.
Ruth recalls that moment -- and many others like it -- with anger etched across her face. If someone said that to her today, she promises, "I'd tell them to go suck my dick. If it doesn't fit me, you'd better find a 13-year-old who can fit it."
But there are other, even less publicized pitfalls of modeling life. While she was booking all of the major runway shows and editorials, flying all over the world for her work, Ruth says she was not reporting any sort of significant income gain -- in fact, she was actually in debt to her agency. "I wasn't making a ton of money, hell no," she says. "For the shows, I paid for my own travel and my own hotel. I was making more money back home when I was working at a pharmacy or cleaning toilets at the golf course."
Paradoxically, after a whirlwind "debut" Fashion Month where she was the "model of the moment," full of nonstop travel and rubbing shoulders with the biggest names in the industry, Ruth returned home to Dover with a whole lot of "prestige" -- and a whole lot of debt. In short, the Air Force was still looking like a pretty good exit plan.
Ruth Bell glances down at her fingernails. She is clear that her boundaries are intact when it comes to this next part of her story, so she keeps it short: After her big Fashion moment, she was sick for "a while," and started having seizures. Unfortunately, she learned, a history of seizures disqualifies you from any sort of eligibility in the Air Force. Her life's ambition -- and what she hoped for her future -- evaporated unexpectedly. Even her sister, May, had pushed modeling to a part-time gig and taken up a potential career in zoology. Now, in a twist of fate, Ruth, the tomboy who hated fashion from the beginning, felt "trapped."
On top of it all, Ruth's momentum had begun to wind down: "Nothing much was happening for me; it was kind of like I'd had my five minutes of fame, and then it slowed down," she says. But, once again, Ruth's story was unfolding in Paris, all unbeknownst to her. For the first time in almost 70 years, a woman was about to become the newly minted artistic director of Christian Dior. Maria Grazia Chiuri was settling into her role at the famed fashion house, preparing her debut collection, when she requested a meeting with the model whom she wanted to serve as her muse. "I thought it was just a casting," Ruth says with a shrug. "No big deal."
The designer, of course, had other plans. "I wanted her at my side as soon as I joined Dior," Chiuri tells Out. If before Ruth was a model of the moment, Chiuri and Dior helped to elevate her to another stratosphere entirely. "She's one of the top models now," Suric says. "Especially for her place as the face of Dior, in a market often lacking that type of loyalty for models rather than celebrities or social media stars." You can now find Ruth's face all over the world, and on everything from the Dior runways to the beauty campaigns.
More importantly, Ruth has landed at a place where she's seen for exactly who she is -- and not just as a mannequin. "She is the perfect illustration of a new generation of women and, with that strong character of hers, she's there for me in the complicated work I do on the Dior legacy," Chiuri adds. "She understands me."
Ruth has, finally, reached her turning point. "My career's gone in a completely different way now," she says about Dior, and her friendship with Chiuri. "I now have a different outlook on a lot of stuff. And I have a new appreciation for fashion, because I can be who I want to be in this industry. I can dress like this, like a butch little lesbian, and I don't have to explain that to anyone."
And luckily, the industry is finally catching up to her. Just recently, she was booked for a Vogue Hommes shoot, where she was supposed to be photographed alongside a male model, who would don the season's latest menswear. But once the team saw Ruth walk in wearing her street clothes, they sent the boy home. Ruth modeled everything instead. "I felt really bad, but it was a great story," she says, now animated. "There are so many women or gender nonconforming folks who like to wear men's clothes. So why can't a woman or a butch lesbian be in the campaign?"
Now, Ruth isn't so sure she plans on leaving fashion. Instead, she may want to be a part of what will make it better. "I think there are things that need to change, for sure, and if I keep going the way I am, it'll change soon enough," she says.
In the meantime, there are no real plans for her future beyond fostering a new dog with her girlfriend at home in Brooklyn. "My only goal is to not have to struggle, and to not have my family struggle. So if I can do a job that provides for me and my family, I'm cool. I just want my parents, and me, to be mortgage- and debt-free."
And luckily, fashion comes with plenty of perks for the decidedly more femme companions she tends to keep close.
"May gets all the shit I'm given," she says, smiling."So do my girlfriends."
Wait -- girlfriends? As in, plural?
"I mean, just one at a time, but throughout the...," Ruth pauses and tugs at her beanie, suddenly bashful. "Oh, please don't get me in trouble!"
Ruth Bell by Marilyn Minter one part of a double cover for Out's May issue. Guest edited by Kimberly Drew, the issue also features South African artist Zanele Muholi. To read more, grab your own copy of the issue on Kindle, Nook, Zinio or Apple News+ today. Preview more of the issue here and click here to subscribe.
Are you ready for the Pride concert event of the year?
Don't miss “Can't Cancel Pride: The Future Starts Now,” a celebration of resilience & unity presented by IheartMedia, Procter & Gamble, and equalpride!
WATCH IT online Thursday, June 15th at 8pm ET/5pm PT at advocatechannel.com or STREAM IT on the Advocate Channel App.
This year’s event is hosted by JoJo Siwa, with a star-studded line-up that includes performances by Big Freedia, Ciara, Billy Porter, Brandi Carlile, Hayley Kiyoko, and Adam Lambert!