More Dark Reporting on Victoria's Secret
An interview with the journalists who made a podcast on the brand's troubling past.
This post contains discussion of disordered eating and sexual assault.
At first I thought Victoria’s Secret’s new podcast VS Voices was just another attempt to impress the brand’s new “Voices”-forward, “Angels”-free direction on us. Even if it was destined for a meme like:
Victoria’s Secret: We have a podcast!
Now I wonder if it might in part be an attempt to distract from another Victoria’s Secret podcast, Fallen Angel, which reveals in new, disturbing detail just how toxic the bygone Angels era was.
Produced by C13Originals and Campside Media, Fallen Angel dropped one week after VS Voices, and features reporting by Vanessa Grigoriadis, an excellent journalist who’s investigated drug cartels and the NXIVM sex cult, among other things. She’s also the author of the book Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus, which makes her especially well-suited to telling Victoria’s Secret’s story. Her partner and co-host is the likewise terrific Justine Harman, a podcaster and former women’s magazine editor who long witnessed the power of Victoria’s Secret as both an object of media fascination and brand with major advertising dollars.
Fallen Angel is gripping and at times upsetting. Grigoriadis and Harman prove from the first episode that the book is anything but closed on Victoria’s Secret. Among their big gets are candid interviews with models, including Bridget Malcolm, who started doing catalog work for the brand’s Pink line when she was 18. She set her sights on becoming an Angel, which was an understandable goal. To say the work paid well would be an understatement: supermodel Gisele Bündchen told me that when she decided not to re-sign with them, Victoria’s Secret accounted for 80 percent of her income. And she is one of the best paid models in the world.
In Fallen Angel, Malcom says, “I wanted to be one of those girls, so I just worked out and slept.” She continues:
“I was so hungry and I was reliant on anti-anxiety medication to get through the night… I hadn’t had a period in a very long time, my body wasn’t working. I could barely even read a book. I didn’t have a personality. I didn’t feel present at all. Like, I was not there. After spending three months eating nothing but protein shakes and steamed vegetables and exercising, I don’t feel sexy. I don’t even know what that feels like at this point, you know? But I wanted to see myself walk down the runway in that show. It’s just that once I got it, I was like OK, actually, this is not sustainable, this is not healthy, this is not OK as a woman, as anybody, basically. This is wrong… I found the bra that I wore backstage at the 2016 show, and it’s a 30A. Like it’s so small.”
Though we didn’t know models felt this way at the time, Victoria’s Secret started taking hits in the press in the mid-2010s. In 2014, the brand received social media backlash to its “Perfect Body” campaign, which depicted a lineup of ten models in underwear behind the words “THE PERFECT ‘BODY.’” The ad was meant to promote items from the “Body” line, but the optics were perverse.
Brands like Victoria’s Secret can experience a disconnect between social media sentiment and earnings. But around 2016, Victoria’s Secret’s financial picture started changing when its reports revealed the bra business had started declining. Women were finally resisting Victoria’s Secret’s cleavage-or-the-highway aesthetic, and gravitating toward athleisure and softer bralettes.
In 2018, I reported a feature for Time magazine about Victoria’s Secret’s overall health as a brand. The company was still in bralette-induced decline, but I also wanted to uncover what was going on in the office, particularly with then-CMO Ed Razek, who is credited with ideating the Angels. Reporting the story was challenging. After sending out a dozen or so inquiries, I finally started hearing back from sources. I discovered a cohort of people who had worked on Victoria’s Secret marketing in one way or another — be it catalogs or ads or both — and who felt uncomfortable with both the imagery and Razek specifically.
Razek, I reported, was uninterested in precisely what the brand is now doing: highlighting diverse women for reasons other than their “perfect” looks. From my story:
The look of the Angels remained so consistent that even models with short hair were considered a departure. “When Karlie Kloss cut her hair, it was a big [moment]. Like, Oh my God,” said a former senior-level employee. And different body types were not embraced by upper management, according to this employee. “They’ve never felt a large body is sexy.”
During one meeting, according to the former art-department employee, Razek compared the models to “thoroughbreds” and said he follows them closely on Instagram to make sure that they’re not being pushed too far by their agents because, like racehorses, you can’t overwork them or they would get exhausted and not perform at their best.
Ed Razek, for decades one of the top executives at L Brands, the parent company of Victoria’s Secret, was the subject of repeated complaints about inappropriate conduct. He tried to kiss models. He asked them to sit on his lap. He touched one’s crotch ahead of the 2018 Victoria’s Secret fashion show.
Executives said they had alerted Leslie Wexner, the billionaire founder and chief executive of L Brands, about his deputy’s pattern of behavior. Some women who complained faced retaliation. One model, Andi Muise, said Victoria’s Secret had stopped hiring her for its fashion shows after she rebuffed Mr. Razek’s advances.
Part of the story at this point was Jeffrey Epstein’s ties to Wexner. (Epstein was charged with sex trafficking girls as young as 14 before hanging himself in his jail cell.) Fallen Angel explores the link between Epstein and Wexner and tells the story of Victoria’s Secret in depth. I spoke to Grigoriadis and Harman about making the show.
First, congrats on a great podcast. I know from experience reporting my story in 2018 how difficult it is to report on Victoria’s Secret. I found it particularly challenging to get models like Malcolm to speak candidly. What was your reporting experience like?
Harman: Really difficult. In general people are reluctant to talk, but I think there's a big difference between 2018 and now. I think people feel less beholden to a mega brand like Victoria's Secret. Perhaps jobs for models like the ones we spoke to have diversified a bit, but largely, it's been tough. We talked to, I think, four models in the Victoria Secret ecosystem.
Grigoriadis: We had made a list of pretty much all the models and reached out to them on Instagram, and we did not get that many responses. But I would say that people are talking more and more, and I think there's a sense that the floodgates have kind of opened, but it's not as easy as you’d think. And we have yet to have one modeling agent agree to have a client speak. So I'm going to assume the modeling agents are just not going to ever do that. Maybe they see it as bad business.
Bridget Malcolm’s interview was fascinating but also hard to listen to because what she said was truly disturbing. How did it feel for you, having this conversation with her?
Harman: We've been talking about the effects that these conversations [have], and the toll that comparisons we make to other women via social media or whatever take on our mental health. But I definitely, since starting working on this project, had an uptick of intrusive body thoughts. I can't quantify it, but I will be relieved not to talk about this stuff every day, all day when we're done, because I agree with you. Later in the series we hear from Erin Heatherton, who was an Angel, and I found it all, maybe not difficult, but definitely annoying in some sense. I identify very much with the experiences and I'm not even a model.
Grigoriadis: The story is very strange, right? Because when you look at it up close, you're kind of like, what is the story here? We have heard a lot about how models were treated at Victoria's Secret, but it's hard to get the cold, hard facts about exactly who told who what at what point. Like, were these grooming rituals dictated? Obviously the eating issues — were they dictated or were they things that the models took on on their own? And after a while, after looking at it, you realize it doesn't even really matter. It's more about the ethos of what was presented and what people felt they had to live up to.
Victoria’s Secret was a major advertiser in publications like Elle, Glamour, and Cosmopolitan, where I used to work. Justine, I’m wondering if you agree that that probably protected them from negative stories?
Harman: Oh, I think it was a very powerful thing. I think we didn't lend a critical eye to the stories we were putting forward when it had to do with Victoria's Secret. And I do think at the time there was a sense among staffers, or at least some of us, that that was a little questionable. So I definitely think their communications machine and the PR machine at Victoria Secret inoculated them from anything but preening press.
Vanessa, you mention your work reporting on cults early in the podcast. What was it about Victoria’s Secret that reminded you of that?
Grigoriadis: I think the thing that bothers me about Victoria's Secret is that the company supports this idea that these weren't high fashion models who stalk down runways and have flat chests and wear weird aubergine, gauzey skirts. They are all-American girls. These are your cheerleaders. These are just normal girls having the time of their lives, having so much fun, killing this show. That's always what they have us watch, over and over.
And we know that's not the way the girls felt. That's not who they are. I'm not going to say every high fashion model is a brain surgeon, but a lot of these women are extremely fucking smart. They're dating the most powerful men in the world. They have pretty sophisticated lives. And yet when they show up to Victoria's Secret, they have to be these giggling cheerleaders and pretend they're healthy and just love to exercise, and there's nothing to see behind the facade. Come on. It's just ridiculous. It was acting a role and nobody talks about that, right? And still, I think the average American doesn't really realize that they were playing a role.
Just look at, you know, the iconography of Adriana Lima. Ed Razek saying — he kind of scolded somebody at one point by saying, and I'd have to look it up exactly — but like, "You went out to a club and, last night, Adriana Lima was jumping rope for six hours." Stuff like, "Adriana Lima will get back on the runway when she's just had a baby." There was always this exaltation of women who pushed themselves really beyond their physical limits.
Speaking of Ed Razek, are he and Lex Wexner the most important figures, or perhaps power centers, in the story in Fallen Angel?
Grigoriadis: There were a lot of women who worked at Victoria's Secret. It wasn't just male, but certainly Ed was in charge of the imagery. And Les was a very involved, dominant CEO. Les was not present in New York. People did not know him. Models did not hang out with him. He was not interested in that. He was very involved in the company for 35 years.
What can you say about what is coming up in the podcast specifically concerning revelations about Razek and Wexner, and Jeffrey Epstein’s relationship to Wexner?
Grigoriadis: Jeffrey Epstein had a life in Columbus. And you probably know Victoria's Secret is [based] in Columbus. Wexner has a town there, New Albany, that he’s kind of designed. People have these mansions there. Epstein had a mansion there, and he was very present in that community. And we think that's been glossed over.
You also learn more about the internal processes at Victoria's Secret and gatekeepers like Ed, but also [former VP of PR] Monica Mitro, and the way they functioned. You really get to understand how this went on for so long and how models really didn't have an avenue out without either feeling retaliated against or saying that they were actually retaliated against.
We illuminate, maybe not [Ed Razek’s] inherent power, but the power that he was vested with by virtue of being the forward-facing guy in the company. And I wonder if, in some ways, he was a bit of a fall man. At the end of the day, he's not the guy at the top, but he was the most visible male in the ecosystem. And I think with that came a lot of power.
Victoria’s Secret has recently come out with a new marketing campaign with an “inclusive” direction that’s meant to, I guess, erase this troubling history that you guys have so expertly reported on. I'm curious what you both make of that new direction.
Grigoriadis: We're talking a lot about this because we're starting to write the later episodes — and they’re trying. Victoria’s Secret is trying.
Harman: I don't want my daughter to spend as much time as I did, growing up, thinking about what her body looked like. So if that's the change, I don't know how anyone could pinpoint how that happened, but I think we should be relieved that it occurred. So, I think by any means necessary — but not that we can't be critical about how it goes down. I just think at the end of the day, it's still good news that they are trying.
Vanessa, how did the reporting you did for your book Blurred Lines prepare you for this podcast?
Grigoriadis: I really chronicled the whole sweep of how #MeToo happened. And when I look at Victoria's Secret now, I do think in terms of what could a progressive feminist lawyer have done or what would they do about certain issues that happened at the company. Is there any progress that can be made? Because it's really laws that make change. And I think that with Victoria's Secret, the media has gone almost as far as it probably can go in bringing attention to different issues. But now the question is are there laws that can be passed to make models safer? What exactly do we feel about the disordered eating that the fashion industry requires? Are there openings there to change things?
What do you think the takeaways are from the Victoria’s Secret story more broadly for the fashion industry?
Grigoriadis: This is probably the last time that a company is going to be able to use the world's top models and all the other amazing models [that Victoria’s Secret hired] and have no one speak out for 15 years.
Harman: For a long time women's media, and all of its ancillary industries or brands, have underestimated women and what we're interested in hearing and seeing and how we really think about things. And I think the takeaway is that women are more outwardly critical of everything that big brands are doing, and they need to come correct. Women are sick of being underestimated.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
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