She’s a documentary filmmaker, a leading conservationist, a jewelry designer and a mother, but Céline Cousteau knows that she will always be introduced first as the granddaughter of Jacques Cousteau. “I carry a family name, and that comes with a lot of assumptions and expectations,” Cousteau, 44, explained during a a panel Saturday as part of the Onassis Festival NY “Antigone Now.” The confab celebrated more than 50 “modern-day Antigones” who defy conventions, assumptions and, at times, governments.
Cousteau’s panel, titled “I Stand for the Environment: Our Fragile Ecosystem” included clean-water activist Christopher Swain and social entrepreneur Erin Schrode, the 25 year-old co-founder of the environmental advocacy group Turning Green.
Moderator David Schwab Abel, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, asked the panelists for their best response to climate change skeptics. “Something succinct and thoughtful, but like a bumper sticker,” he requested. “We are the only species that has the choice to not go extinct,” Cousteau replied. Later, she lit into a discussion about making climate change more prominent in political discourse. “Climate refugees will become very real. Just look at island-nations—they have to find a place to go, and the U.S. is a very attractive place to move to,” she said. “Frontiers are open. You can’t build a wall around an entire country to prevent environmental refugees from coming in.”
For the California-born Cousteau, who spent much of her life in France but now calls Stone Ridge, N.Y., home, the event offered her the chance to give back locally. “Although I exist in this region most of the year, I don’t contribute much back to this area—I work on a lot of stories outside the country,” she said, wearing dark jeans, a silk blouse and patterned scarf tied just so.
She just returned from a three-week trip that included stops in Paris, London, Montreal, Santa Barbara, Calif., and São Paulo. She gave a talk to an urban forest conference, keynoted a screening of the first inaugural Céline Cousteau Film Fellowship for aspiring student-directors focused on humanitarian and environmental stories and launched a new jewelry collection for Swarovski inspired by indigenous Amazon tribes.
“I go to a lot of environmental conferences, but I can’t just do that,” she said, explaining her forays into fashion and beauty. She spent several years as the international spokeswoman for luxury skincare line La Prairie and has designed two jewelry lines for Swarovski. “The people interested in this collection of crystals might go home and say they just heard about this tribe in the Amazon,” Cousteau said. “I just created a link with a new audience, not just for me, but for the tribes.”
While her father and grandfather focused on oceans and wildlife, Cousteau has turned her conservationist energies—and her powerful brand—to humans’ interaction with the environment.
Her current project, Tribes on the Edge, focuses on indigenous communities in an area of the Amazon basin called the Vale do Javari. Facing threats from gold mining, cocaine trafficking, oil exploration, illegal logging and preventable diseases, tribal leaders asked Cousteau to film them to raise awareness for their plight.
As for her participation in events like Antigone Now, “there are incredible female scientists, filmmakers, adventurers and explorers out there who you don’t get to see,” she said. “So if seeing me can empower young women to feel like they can do this, too, I’m happy to highlight it.”
She is also happy to highlight her handbag, made from the skin of the largest freshwater fish in the Amazon, the Pirarucu, sustainably raised for food. Brazilian designer Osklen took the fish’s skin, usually discarded as trash, and turned it into a sustainable luxury good.
“I was at a formal event recently, and all the women had these stylish little clutches,” she said. “There I was holding my giant tote saying, ‘Let me tell you about my fish bag!’ ”