Victoria’s Secret has been struggling to keep up with the current decade. After abruptly canceling its premier event, The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, questions have been circulating about what the clothing brand has to offer the millennial and Gen-Z woman, who are not only less promiscuous than their Bush-era forebearers but also less concerned with appealing to the male gaze. In 2015, one of its most prominent Angels, Karlie Kloss, quit the brand for its message not aligning with her views on womanhood and beauty. At the end of 2018, the company’s chief marketing officer, Ed Razek, came under fire for implying that transgender models would break with the idealized, fantastical nature of the VS Angel.
“The show is a fantasy,” Razek said, after denying a place for transgender models in the show. “It’s a 42-minute entertainment special. That’s what it is. It is the only one of its kind in the world, and any other fashion brand in the world would take it in a minute, including the competitors.”
Victoria’s Secret has long touted an unrealistic, Barbie-doll standard of beauty, but officials like Razek see that unattainable idealism as a selling point for the brand, not an incongruence between the company’s image and its consumer base. The already-skinny Angels' excruciating pre-show diet and exercise routines have long been a subject of girl-talk lore, placing plus-size models on the VS chopping block as well. The brand did recently welcome Barbara Palvin into its Angel ranks, and though she's certainly more curvaceous than the average VS model, at 5-foot-8 and 121 pounds and having walked for the show twice before, her newly winged status, though well deserved, is not quite revolutionary.
But it looks like the Secret is looking to change its story. Three days ago, model Valentina Sampaio posted on Instagram backstage at a shoot for VS PINK (their teen label) with the caption, “Never stop dreaming.” This is the first (and only) transgender hire for the brand, but some believe the shift came too little, too late. Actress and trans activist Laverne Cox summed it up with her comment, “Wow finally!”
This isn’t the first time Sampaio has broken barriers. In 2017, she became the first trans woman to cover Vogue in both the Paris and Brazil editions and has covered countless other publications (including L’Officiel Brasil). The Brazilian native is a spokeswoman for L’Oreal and has walked in São Paulo Fashion Week. Sampaio has stated that she was lucky to have grown up in a community that immediately accepted her when she began transitioning at age 10.
“People in my hometown always treated me normally,” Sampaio said in a profile for Buzzfeed News. “I have always been a girl and I’ve never felt any different. And that’s what I transmitted to people.”
While Sampaio’s addition to the PINK Campaign is a personal and professional win, Victoria’s Secret still has much more work to do when it comes to its “fantasy.” To prevent this move from becoming empty tokenization, the brand should consider asking real women what they dream about.