Just a few decades ago, a model had approximately the life span of a banana. It was a simple job — not necessarily easy, but straightforward. An attractive woman with a body that reflected the contemporary ideal showed up to a set or a runway, posed or walked, and then went home. The model repeated this process until the jobs shifted to younger versions of herself, which signaled that her modeling days were over. Only the tiniest sliver of the top slice of models experienced name recognition. It was not a career that produced many multimillionaires.
If models used to be ornamental vehicles for selling a product, now they are the product. Here’s a thought experiment to prove it:
Think of three specific items of Victoria’s Secret lingerie that appeared at the most recent show. (Um…) Now think of three models who walked the runway. Easy! (Bella, Adriana, Alessandra — you probably know them by their first names. Also Lily, Sara, and Stella.) By treating its models like A-list stars — the show is broadcast in more than 190 countries — Victoria’s Secret has created A-list stars. Six of the ten highest-paid models in the world boast “Victoria’s Secret Angel” on their résumés, and all ten have walked the runway. This is not an accident.
To understand the fame machine that is Victoria’s Secret, may I direct your attention to Taylor Hill? In 2011, Hill was a 15-year-old living in Colorado with her siblings. She did homework and snowboarded. Although Hill may not have been aware of it at the time, the man responsible for casting Victoria’s Secret models already knew about her and kept her in mind until she turned 18 (the company has a policy of not casting girls too young to vote), at which point Hill was promptly booked for the fashion show, which she walked in about two and a half years ago. Today Hill has starred in campaigns for Miu Miu and Michael Kors, been the face of Lancôme, and walked in shows for Chanel, Alexander Wang, Versace, and Balmain. She has more than 7 million followers on Instagram. There are tabloid mentions of her high-school boyfriend. There is simply no other brand on earth that could lift a model from obscurity to ubiquity in a matter of months. So how does it happen?
If models used to be ornamental vehicles for selling a product, now
they are the product.
The answer is: very, very deliberately, and mostly because of one person. That person is Ed Razek, the chief marketing officer of
L Brands and Victoria’s Secret, who has worked with Victoria’s Secret for more than 20 years and makes the final call on all of the company’s model contracts. Razek knew about Karlie Kloss before Kloss was old enough to drive, and he met Doutzen Kroes when she was a shy 17-year-old. As he says to me, “I don’t think we’ve made a lot of mistakes in casting over the years.”
By this point, the selection process is equal parts art and science. It seems there are three primary considerations when picking a model.
Consideration number one: Does she fit the brand? The Victoria’s Secret look is very, very specific. It’s sexy but not porny, lacy but not fussy. The models have to look as good being “fierce” as they do smiling. Everyone is having fun, but it’s a certain kind of fun — clean fun, wholesome fun, with no hint of debauchery. More Gisele, less Kate Moss.
Consideration number two: The Victoria’s Secret girl must appeal to women. “There’s a misconception that we pick models to appeal to men,” Razek explains. “That would be ridiculous. Ninety-nine percent of our customers are women. Virtually all of the senior leaders of the business are women.” Models are tested first on the brand’s website before ascending to Angel status (or not).
Consideration number three: Does she have the right personality for the job? We tend not to think of personality as a relevant metric when it comes to modeling, but the wrong one can be a deal breaker for a company as massive as Victoria’s Secret. “I’m not interested in divas,“ Razek says flatly. “There are a lot of women who have a strong modeling career, but you want a team who can interact with each other, who are supportive of each other.” There should be no cynicism, no misbehavior, and no negative competition. (Positive competition is fine: Jasmine Tookes and Josephine Skriver post their shared workouts on
a joint Instagram account, @joja, and on Facebook Live — and it’s intense.) “Those wild 1980s-era shoots where everyone is smoking cigarettes and doing drugs? Nobody does that. Nobody gets drunk. Nobody stays out late at night. Nobody comes to work with a hangover,” Razek says. “I can’t remember the last time I had to lecture somebody.”
Instead of swilling champagne, models nibble avocado toast and strategize about how to beat jet lag. (“I definitely plan
my sleeping schedule,” Hill tells us.) And they approach their health like Olympic athletes, both mentally and physically:
“I never used to train as hard as I do now,” says Stella Maxwell. “Rather than being skinny, you’re going to be toned and strong. I can do the splits now; I can do handstands; I can do so many things I couldn’t before.”
In addition to talking about their gym routines, they talk about their ambitions. “Victoria’s Secret gives us such a big platform,” says Tookes. “My goal is to have my own cosmetics line and maybe even a talk show.” (Oprah and Tyra are two of her role models.) A few decades ago, this would have been an insane statement to hear from a model. But as the concept of female celebrity has expanded, so has the concept of models. Multihyphenates like Gwyneth Paltrow and Jessica Alba — who manage to be entrepreneurs, mothers, and style icons all at once — have opened the doors for women like Kloss, who went from walking the Victoria’s Secret runway to founding a coding summer camp for girls, applying to NYU (she got in), and expanding a gluten-free cookie empire with Milk Bar’s Christina Tosi. Says Hill, “I always knew being an Angel was the best thing in modeling. All the greats were Angels: Adriana, Gisele, Tyra.”
Personality also becomes critical in an era of social media, when a model must broadcast her brand constantly, consistently, and without a filter — or oversight from agents and publicists. Over Instagram, the Victoria’s Secret Angels sort out into Spice Girls–esque categories: There’s Maxwell (Chill Spice), Sara Sampaio (Girl-Next-Door Spice), Elsa Hosk (Sporty Spice), and Alessandra Ambrosio (Hot-Mom Spice).
“These are young businesspeople,” Razek explains. “They’re crafting their brand in their own way across channels — Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook.” (And fun fact: the models who walked the 2016 Victoria’s Secret show have a combined total of 164 million Instagram followers.) Part of that crafting involves projecting a persona that’s specific enough to seem authentic but general enough to be broadly likable. “It’s important that women look to the models as people they would like to be friends with, have lunch with, hang out with,” Razek points out.
But to hear him tell it, the brand is fairly hands-off when it comes to shaping those personas. The models know social media better than the people casting them; some of them have been doing it since they were in training bras.
What Victoria’s Secret really provides — more than training or tutelage — is exposure. “If you ask anyone these days to name
a model, they will name a Victoria’s Secret model,” says Tookes. Opening a Prada show may be more prestigious, but it’s ultimately a niche job. To become a mogul — an Oprah, a Gwyneth — you must be recognizable enough to capture the world’s attention and interesting (or smart or likable or ambitious or all of the above) enough to sustain it. Victoria’s Secret provides more visibility than any upstart could dream of. The rest? That’s up to the models.
Additional reporting by Jessica Chia
A version of this article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of Allure. To get your copy, head to newsstands or subscribe now.
Read even more about your favorite Victoria’s Secret models, below:
- What It’s Really Like to Fly in a Private Plane to Paris With the Victoria’s Secret Angels
- Victoria’s Secret Angel Jasmine Tookes Uses This Product for Superglow-y Skin
- Get Victoria’s Secret Angel Lashes With Tips From Tom Pecheux
Go behind-the-scenes of the 2016 Victoria’s Secret fashion show: