Actress and activist Suzy Amis Cameron, creator of Red Carpet Green Dress and the sustainable MUSE School, now dedicates herself to raising eco-awareness—one child at a time
It is 2 p.m. on a dry, hot day when Suzy Amis Cameron breezes into the office at MUSE School CA, a nonprofit, sustainably focused school in Calabasas, CA, which she founded in 2006. She’s wearing white jeans, a white tee, and a long, flowy white sweater. Her thick auburn hair—with hints of sunkissed streaks—falls down to her waist and she’s wearing little to no makeup. She sets her backpack down (with an apple keychain from her husband, James Cameron, Academy Award-winning director of Avatar, The Terminator and Titanic) on a conference table along with a canteen containing a cleanse.
“It’s called ‘Clean,’” says Amis Cameron, of the 21-day cleanse with shakes and supplements, which she does about twice a year. “I would keel over and die if it was just a juice cleanse. I actually don’t believe in juice cleanses, and maybe it’s okay for certain people to do that, but for me personally, it doesn’t fit with who I am,” she continues. “I have to eat something. That’s why I really love this cleanse, because I’m always on the go during the day, but I love dinner. It’s the one time in the day where I’m not rushing around. It probably comes from living in Paris for three-and-a-half years and having long, luxurious dinners.”
For Amis Cameron, who grew up in a family of six children in Oklahoma City, OK, dinner with her husband is a very serious thing. “There’s always a soup [butternut squash, parsnip and yucca, corn and tomato] and a fresh salad, and I love hummus,” she says. “Jim and I went plant-based on May 7, 2012, and what we’ve realized is that our palates have completely changed. I used to be addicted to Tabasco and really, really spicy things. But I don’t do that anymore. A delicious squash is like a mouth explosion. When you realize you can create so many different flavors, and re-create old favorites, with sauces and whipped cream made from coconut, and cheese made out of cashews, it’s unbelievable.”
At 52, Amis Cameron—who has four biological children and one stepchild—opted for a plant-based diet after watching the film Forks Over Knives. “It hit me like a ton of bricks, because I thought I knew everything. And it made me angry, because I felt like there was so much being kept not only from me, but from the general public about what’s healthy for you. I realized I’m not feeding my family or my children right, and I’ve got heart disease and cancer on my side of the family. Now, I’m in better shape than I have ever been, and I think it’s from being plant-based. I wear a smaller size now than when I did in my 20s.”
But Amis Cameron—who has appeared in films including Fandango, Where the Heart Is and Titanic (where she met husband, Jim), and founded MUSE School CA nine years ago—didn’t follow one path to get to where she is today. Instead, she traveled the world including Paris, South Africa and Tunisia, modeling for Ford Models and obtained her pilot’s license. “I have a Cessna 182, and it’s recreational, and I struggle with it at this point because of the environment,” says Amis Cameron. “But, I come from a long line of aviators. We used to have a family-owned airport in Oklahoma City, Downtown Airpark, and my grandfather and my dad flew, two of my brothers fly, and I’m the only girl that flies. My grandfather and father financed the building of the twin-engine, Aero Commander.”
When she was 15, Amis Cameron wanted to be a veterinarian and fly around the world to take care of horses. A meeting with Eileen Ford, owner of Ford Models, when she was 17, quickly changed everything. “It was the best thing that ever happened, and it completely formed who I am on every level,” says Amis Cameron of her modeling stint. “When I speak to kids, I think it’s important to know that everyone has opportunities. You might go down one path, but at least try. The train doesn’t come around twice.”
After appearing in several films, Amis Cameron wanted to slow down. “I had been living out of a suitcase since I was 17, and I wanted to have babies, a dog and a garden,” says Cameron, who also has a working farm in New Zealand and a 100-percent off-the-grid ranch north of Santa Barbara where they grow 90 percent of their produce.
It wasn’t until daughter Claire was looking at schools that Amis Cameron had an epiphany. “I saw how they were feeding the kids, and trying to put them in a box,” says Amis Cameron, who later opened the first MUSE School CA along with help from sister, Rebecca Amis, who has a background in education. “It was one room and there were 11 kids. We had a kitchen, a garden, and organic snacks and lunches.”
Now, the Calabasas zero-waste campus, designed in collaboration with Los Angeles-based firm, Ecovations, is replete with zero-VOC paints, zero-emission buildings, classrooms with eco-friendly furniture, wave-control faucets, an organic garden, a museum made from an old shipping container, and a Maker’s Space where students can construct new pieces of art from found materials. (No plastic bottles or containers are allowed on campus.)
There’s even an on-site falconer to help ward off rodents. “We’re working with nature here, and we walk the walk—on steroids!” says Amis Cameron, who just opened MUSE’s first high school this fall with 200 students and plans to open more schools as part of MUSE Global, including one in France. She’s also working on four books on the connection between food and the environment, targeting everyone from thought leaders, women, teenagers and children.
“They all have the same message, but they are written with different language and different graphics,” says Amis Cameron. “There’s this guy in my life [Jim] that doesn’t do anything small, and he’s kind of a huge role model. His motto is: go big or go home. I’ve actually heard him say ‘If it’s not challenging enough, it’s not fun,’ and I think he has rubbed off on me. Although, my parents definitely raised a bunch of mavericks. But, I definitely think bigger than I used to. If you’re going to do something, why do it small? Just go for it.”
The Oscars: Red Carpet Green Dress
“We’re always looking for ways to raise money for the school, and someone came up with the idea for a global dress design contest where people would submit designs with an entry fee, and proceeds would go toward scholarship programs for MUSE School,” says Amis Cameron, who launched Red Carpet Green Dress in 2009 during her husband’s press tour for Avatar. She would wear the winning dress to the Oscars.
“The first thing they do on the red carpet is ask, ‘What are you wearing?’ And, I just thought it was the perfect opportunity. The criteria was to create an Oscar-worthy gown out of sustainable fabrics. I was planning on doing it for one year, and it opened up a whole other world of ways in which we can make a difference in the world, both environmentally and socially.”
Now in its sixth year, the winning dress design is worn by a surprise actor (previous winners have made gowns from peace silk and recycled plastic). “I think what it’s become at this point, is yes, we create a beautiful dress every year, and yes, it walks the red carpet, but ultimately it’s not just about a pretty dress, it’s really about the fact that we all wear clothes every single day,” says Amis Cameron.
“And, all of these things including education, and what we’re consuming, and what we’re wearing—they are all really basic things in life, but they all have a huge impact on how we’re moving forward on the planet, and they fall within my mission on making the world a better place for children to grow up in.”