The fantasy of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show in the era of corporate wokeness

The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show sells a fantasy of empowerment. I sorta believed it.

Guests at the vibrant, sexy, and extremely pink Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show are asked to wear cocktail attire.

The irony of putting on a tuxedo — sans bowtie — to watch beautiful women stomp down a runway in underwear wasn’t lost on me. Not while I shivered as I waited in line around the perimeter of New York City’s Pier 94, a sliver of asphalt uptown and to the west of Manhattan civilization. The crisp weather clashed with the undergarment bonanza I was about to witness.

You can’t purchase a ticket to the show. I’m going as a guest. So are the hundreds people — dressed in gowns, tuxes, evening suits, and sparkly tops — who also obliged the dress code. It looked like we were headed to a night at the opera, at four in the afternoon on a Thursday, at Pier 94.

This will look a lot different on television, I think.

Inside the tent, the carpet is pink. Not ballet slipper pink but more like a pink that’s been soaked in pinot noir. I’m also sweating through my cocktail attire. Despite the chill outside, it’s very warm, a move I assume is for the models who will be wearing nearly nothing.

Ahead of the taping, Ed Razek, the chief marketing officer of L Brands (the American retailer formerly known as The Limited, which owns Victoria’s Secret and Bath and Body Works), gave an interview to Vogue in which he diminished the idea of having transgender or plus-sized models in the show, as some observers have called for while encouraging Victoria’s Secret to make the annual fashion show more diverse and inclusive.

“So it’s like, why don’t you do 50 [referring to bra-sizing]? Why don’t you do 60? Why don’t you do 24? It’s like, why doesn’t your show do this? Shouldn’t you have transsexuals in the show?” Razek said. “No. No, I don’t think we should. Well, why not? Because the show is a fantasy. 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 that are carping at us.”

Vogue, a women’s fashion magazine that itself has faced criticism for its own record on diversity and gender inclusivity, and that regularly shoots with Victoria’s Secret models like Gigi and Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner, scolding Victoria’s Secret in an interview for having set an unreal standard of beauty is like watching a skinny Godzilla fight a skinny King Kong.

“Does the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show need an overhaul?” the article opens. “Victoria’s Secret gets credit for being a conversation starter, but the brand is not part of the evolving discussion around size diversity now.”

Razek isn’t wrong about the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show presenting a fantasy. Even the broadcast isn’t “real” — the fashion show is actually performed twice, once at four-thirty in the afternoon and the other at eight in the evening, for two different audiences. What you’ll see on television if you tune in to watch the 2018 show (which airs Sunday, December 2 on ABC) is a composite of the two taped shows, splicing together the best parts of both to create a single event that never actually happened.

In regard to his blunt comments about transgender and plus-size models, the company and Razek apologized two days later, after receiving heavy criticism.

“My remark regarding the inclusion of transgender models in the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show came across as insensitive. I apologize,” he wrote in a statement. “To be clear, we absolutely would cast a transgender model for the show. We’ve had transgender models come to castings … And like many others, they didn’t make it … But it was never about gender. I admire and respect their journey to embrace who they really are.”

The apology didn’t impress many. Razek’s comments, in combination with the announcement, a few days after the fashion show was taped, that Victoria’s Secret CEO Jan Singer is leaving the company — a move that some have surmised is linked to a decline in sales caused by the brand’s reluctance to embrace a more inclusive image — put a spotlight on the divide between how Victoria’s Secret sees itself and how the public does.

It’s not as if anyone has ever believed that the taut abdomens of Victoria’s Secret Angels, whose bodies are comprised of roughly 73 percent legs, reflect most of America’s potato-eating citizens. But it’s widely seen as harmful when music videos, TV shows, movies, comic books, and other artforms don’t reflect the current American population. And today’s consumers are much more empowered to call out companies that flopped when it comes to diversity, inclusivity, and equality.

Reflexively, many companies and brands have heard this public call and responded. Chick-fil-A wants to shrug off its anti-gay label by changing its image despite previously donating money to anti-LGBTQ organizations. The Miss America pageant has eliminated its swimsuit competition in an effort to move away from judging contestants on their physical appearance.

Some brands have even gotten ahead of the curve, like Nike did earlier this year when it revealed that ex-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick would be the star of its Just Do It anniversary campaign. The company backed the star and his advocacy against racism and police brutality, making a political statement that resulted in both adulation and a boycott.

Victoria’s Secret not budging in response to calls for a more inclusive fashion show feels more like the corporate exception than the rule. And it places the brand in a conundrum.

Victoria’s Secret’s critics say that the fantasy it presents around beautiful women, fashion, and what constitutes sexiness is outdated. They also say that Victoria’s Secret is no longer a tastemaker in the worlds of fashion and beauty.

But those same critics’ push for the company to include transgender and/or plus-sized models in its fashion show — as well as the firestorm the company has weathered after not doing so — seem to belie this assertion.

So does the company’s status as the top lingerie brand in the United States, even with its recent decline in sales.

It raises the question of what Victoria’s Secret is really selling, who’s buying it, and what those customers believe they are buying. What does the fantasy Razek was talking about actually mean?

The 2018 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show is a reminder that, according to Victoria’s Secret, being in the show is empowering

To make clear what the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show is and what it isn’t, the 2018 show begins with a video interlude.

As I sit in the audience, several models talk about the history of the show and looking up to the “successful” and “powerful” women who walked in the show before them. They talk about how being selected for the show is a major accomplishment, and praise it as a celebration of strong women. Sexiness and power are not mutually exclusive, they say; sexiness is something they’re in control of.

The video is casual. It’s as if the models are out sipping iced coffee with their friends. But beneath the candid scrim, it also feels like a direct response to the criticism that Victoria’s Secret has faced for promoting a style and aesthetic of female sexuality, a style critics say turns women into objects.

After the video fades out, soul singer Leela James comes onto the stage and begins singing The Greatest Showman’s triumphant empowerment anthem, “This Is Me.”

Some context: In The Greatest Showman, “This Is Me” is the climax of the movie. P.T. Barnum has finally become successful by assembling a group of “freaks,” like The Three Legged Man and Dog Boy, to showcase at his circus. But Barnum has also started to dissociate himself from the people whose appearances he’s effectively selling, to hang out with upper crusters instead. So his circus cronies barge into a fancy party, with the Bearded Lady belting this song.

It’s a “we’re not going to take this” and “you’re going to accept us for who we are and stop oppressing us” moment in the movie. My brain is frying.

Victoria’s Secret’s interpretation of that moment has nothing to do with freaks of any kind. Instead, the 2018 Fashion Show opens with plainly gorgeous Kendall Jenner vamping down the runway to the song, in a plaid skirt and bra.

Swarovski Sparkles In The 2018 Victoria’s Secret Fashion ShowPhoto by Thomas Concordia/Getty Images for Swarovski
This is Me. No. Wait. This is Kendall Jenner walking to “This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman!

The cheering in the audience swells. The people sitting closest to the runway stand up first, and then everyone else follows suit, like a wave. The models’ names are shouted as if they were professional athletes. It turns into a four-minute standing ovation. I stand up and clap too. I can’t help it.

Everyone seems so happy.

The mishmash of Kendall Jenner, “This Is Me,” the empowerment sound bites, and the image of the bearded lady borders on ridiculous for anyone who’s seen The Greatest Showman. It’s difficult to imagine Jenner ever feeling like the oppressed Dog Boy in a circus. Add to that, the audience is dressed not unlike the aristocratic socialites who Barnum rubs elbows with in the movie. If this segment of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show was intentionally satirical, it’d be scathing — but I’m not terribly convinced that was the intent.

What it clearly wants to convey is that becoming a Victoria’s Secret model is an accomplishment that models take very seriously.

But if you look at the show’s history, it’s easy to see why that would be the case.

The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show has been an industry leader in racial diversity. That’s one reason why its critics are so vocal.

For many models, booking the Victoria’s Secret Fashion show is major boost for their careers. Unlike other fashion shows, Victoria’s Secret’s airs on network television and has the added allure of popular performers (crooner Shawn Mendes headlined this year). The show gives models a uniquely massive amount of visibility. Their social clout rises — primarily in the form of Instagram followers — and some become in-demand faces in the fashion industry.

Getting booked for the show can change a model’s life.

One example this year is Kelsey Merritt, the first Filipino model ever to walk in the show. Merritt being cast has become a point of national pride for Filipinos; being Filipino, my mother and her friends are giant fans and know where Merritt went to school, where she grew up, and general Kelsey Merritt trivia.

But putting my mother’s opinion aside, according to Social Blade, Merritt gained some 300,000 followers this month, pushing her over 1 million followers. In the days following the taping of the show, Vogue spotlighted her beauty regimen and secrets (hint: being 22 helps enormously) in a video that has over 1.7 million views:

Merritt’s inclusion in the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, as a non-white model, is an example of the racial diversity that Victoria’s Secret has actually been a leader in, if not ahead of the curve in, within the fashion industry.

According to a source in Victoria’s Secret’s casting department who I talked to on background, the percentage of non-white models — of the 60 or so women who are chosen to wear the show’s 90 looks — has been at least 40 percent for the last two years.

In 2017, according to Paper Magazine, the percentage of non-white models in the show was close to 50 percent — up from 30 percent in 2016. And while official numbers for 2018 are not yet available, the source said the percentage of non-white models again topped 40. For comparison’s sake, The Fashion Spot — which tracks demographics like age, size, and race in model castings for the fashion industry’s major annual shows in New York, London, Milan and Paris — has determined that just 36.1 percent of the total castings went to models of color this year.

The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show also made news in 2016 when black models wore their natural hair, instead of extensions, on the runway. And as Razek pointed out to Vogue in the same interview where he made the comments about transgender and plus-size models, there was a period in the late ‘90s and early 2000s when many Victoria’s Secret models wouldn’t have been hired to work as high fashion models because of their size.

“They were too ‘fat’ was the prevailing wisdom of fashion at the time.” Razek said. “You probably remember that. At the time the conversation was ‘they’re too big for us, we can’t possibly put them in our show.’ Progress gets made, and part of what’s happened in our show is that the girls have just continued to get more physically fit.”

Razek isn’t wrong.

There was a time in fashion when Victoria’s Secret models were largely considered too commercial or too sexy (Victoria’s Secret superstar Heidi Klum has talked about this) to model for serious fashion houses. But that terrain has completely changed. These days, Victoria’s Secret regularly uses high fashion models to walk in its show. Meanwhile, Victoria’s Secret has become a draw for models, thanks in large part to the brand’s popularity, visibility, and, of course, the annual fashion show.

Perhaps it’s because of how Victoria’s Secret has the ability to bend the industry, thanks to how inescapable it is as a brand, that its critics feel like it is flailing when it comes to size inclusivity and transgender representation. Victoria’s Secret has shown itself to have the power to change industry norms, and frustration often arises because its critics see the company not harnessing that power to effect change.

Swarovski Sparkles In The 2018 Victoria’s Secret Fashion ShowPhoto by Thomas Concordia/Getty Images for Swarovski
Models at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show

My casting source confirmed Razek’s comments about transgender models coming to castings this year, explaining that the company has had transgender models audition for at least three years now. Like many others who vie for the limited number of spots, those models simply did not make it through and it’s unclear why.

Victoria’s Secret’s fantasy and reality are at odds with one another

At one point in the 2018 Fashion Show, Victoria’s Secret as a company thanks Adriana Lima via video clip, whom they dub the “greatest Angel.” It’s a pretty surreal experience; being called the greatest Angel in the presence of so many beautiful women is something none of us will ever achieve. I feel like I’m watching someone get knighted as Lima walks the catwalk by herself, to Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You.”

She gets a standing ovation. She wipes away tears.

The show is punctuated by these interludes. Since live musical acts were only on stage for one song this year, there are video interludes give the crew time to help set and take down the stage.

It’s implied in the clips that being a Victoria’s Secret model is a dream job, and that it takes extremely hard work to achieve such a coveted status. Lima, I suppose, worked harder than everyone else.

Whether it’s pounding out hours at the gym or cultivating your online presence or knocking the executives dead at casting calls, being a Victoria’s Secret model is as a huge professional achievement that the models work toward, value and respect.

That’s hard to square with a show that sells what many believe is an outdated and dull version of sexuality and femininity. Which is to say: gorgeous, scantily clad, fembot-like women with long hair who were seemingly created in a lab and only exist for the arousal of men.

One segment in the 2018 show has the models walk the runway with big bows around their necks, presenting themselves in the same fashion as housewarming presents, perhaps a dutch oven, that you might procure at Williams Sonoma:

2018 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show in New York - RunwayPhoto by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Victoria’s Secret

Critics frequently point to that outdated image as the reason for the company’s steadily declining sales. According to a recent New York Times report, Victoria’s Secret’s “sales are sagging and the company’s stock is down 41 percent this year,” and the majority of respondents to a Wells Fargo survey about the brand said it felt “forced” or “fake.”

It raises the question of what exactly Victoria’s Secret is selling.

If you ask the models, being part of the brand’s fantasy is a job — and a coveted one, at that. If you ask the company’s critics, the fantasy is harmful and exclusive in the way it objectifies women and presents an extremely narrow idea of what it means to be sexy.

But perhaps the most cogent grasp of Victoria’s Secret’s fantasy comes second to what the brand actually does: Sell women’s underwear that feels special but doesn’t break the bank.

“Victoria’s Secret does provide something quite practical — undergarments — at an affordable price in a relatively accessible manner to a vast consumer base,” writes Tyler McCall at Fashionista, theorizing that making small tweaks, like changing its store design or leveraging its established infrastructure to expand its size range, could help the brand turn itself around.

In its decision to present its models as less of a fantasy and more aspirational, the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show might also be aiming to counter the idea that its models are somehow fake or lack agency.

If you look at Victoria’s Secret models’ Instagrams or their trainers’ Instagrams, it’s clear that they’re putting in a ton of work into landing the show. It’s something they want and are working very hard toward, and knowing that might make the show seem less artificial and more like discipline, and more like an athlete than someone who just exists — no matter how problematic or restrictive or unattainable their desired “look” might be in the eyes of the beholder.

To be clear, the idea of a Victoria’s Secret model as resembling any kind of regular person is a hilarious idea. (The 2018 show features models with more athletic body types, but none of them would be considered plus-sized.) Many Victoria’s Secret models represent an unrealistic body type that few of us would ever be able to achieve, and with that comes the unavoidable danger of suggesting that thinness is important, even if you have to harm yourself to attain it. I don’t condone that, but unless Victoria’s Secret and the entire fashion industry disintegrates overnight, the danger isn’t going away anytime soon.

Approaching the show more realistically, and revealing that becoming a Victoria’s Secret model requires hard work isn’t going to stop harmful messages about body image — but at least it’s more truthful.

No matter what, it’s important to remember, regarding calls for action or ideas about how to “fix” Victoria’s Secret, that Victoria’s Secret is and always will be a corporate entity. If somehow it does embrace transgender models and plus-sized models, it will do so because that’s in its best interest. Other brands have already figured that out.

More specifically, as Amanda Mull has written for Vox, corporations have figured out how to hack body-positivity for their own benefit without really changing anything for consumers. Instead of selling insecurity, like they did in the past, corporations now sell “surface-level wokeness”:

In this system, corporate interests have a clear opening to insert themselves into the fray and emerge as heroes simply by hiring an ad agency or casting director who can read the room, and without changing their business’s treatment of anyone. Body positivity in 2018 rushes right up to the line between aesthetics and politics but puts not one toe over it.

While I don’t condone Razek’s churlish, poorly spoken comments, there’s something blisteringly honest about his thinking. He said up front that Victoria’s Secret is selling a fantasy, and suggested that not everyone has to buy into it. Contrast that approach with brands like Dove and Everlane, which Mull argues have co-opted body positivity and diversity for exposure and opportunity, without really doing much to change Americans’ thinking. Their motivations, ultimately, are simply to sell more body wash and clothes.

Perhaps the most uncomfortable part of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show is acknowledging the number of people who enjoy the surreal experience of watching supernaturally beautiful women trotting around in underwear, wings, and sometimes floral-printed parachutes. Not everyone gets to be a Victoria’s Secret model. Not everyone gets to be at the show. Its exclusivity is baked into its allure.

2018 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show - RunwayPhoto by Noam Galai/Getty Images
Gigi Hadid

For that 42 minutes, everyone is having a fantastic time. The Chainsmokers can sing, and all the models are so beautiful that the audience is moved to cheer for them. The outside world and all the criticism do not exist for three quarters of an hour. I clap for these women in glamorous underwear because Bella Hadid is so gorgeous she leaves me speechless and, well, everyone else is. It’s absolutely silly, but that doesn’t matter for now.

Shortly after 5pm, the fantasy ends. Pier 94 clears out, and everyone — tuxes, sparkles, and all — is asked to leave. Follow the pink carpet. It’s dark out as the mass of shiny people begins exiting toward the West Side Highway, that dingy stem of Manhattan asphalt. It’s cold. And we have to get out of the way so the fantasy can start all over again.