Awoman stands on stage and cries. In the auditorium, another woman’s partner gives a standing ovation, his hand on his heart. One mother gushes that she is “so proud” of her daughter. Another goes further: “So much admiration for all your hard work and dedication to being the best version of yourself and making your dreams come true.”
We are told that these women are “athletes”, that they are in “peak condition”, that they are “aggressively fit”. But this is not the Olympics or the Paralympics. There are no medals to be won. This is a lingerie show.
Launched in 1995, the Victoria’s Secret runway show has been broadcast on US network television every December since 2001, an extraordinary feat for a high-street underwear brand. Almost from the beginning, it has been under fire. In 2002, the US’s National Organization of Women (NOW) protested at the event, calling it a “softcore porn infomercial”. One fashion editor told me that the year she covered the show was the “worst job I’d ever done. All the models look the same. The underwear is so skimpy, you can literally see everything. One of them bent over in a thong and I saw it all.”
The show’s uniformly tall and thin models seem an anachronism in a world that increasingly celebrates body diversity. Yet its star has continued to rise. Last year, it was watched by more than 1 billion people worldwide, claimed to be a 45% increase on the year before. And, despite a recent fall in sales and the resignation of its CEO, Victoria’s Secret still has a bigger global market share than any other lingerie brand. Its three highest-profile models – Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid and her sister Bella – have more than 163 million Instagram followers between them, and some of the biggest names in entertainment – from Taylor Swift, Harry Styles and Ariana Grande to Sting and Lady Gaga – have played the Victoria’s Secret catwalk. When the show airs on 2 December, if you are a young woman with access to the internet, Victoria’s Secret will be impossible to avoid.
That is why it is so pernicious. Earlier this month, Ed Razek, chief marketing officer of Victoria’s Secret’s parent company, L Brands, was forced to apologise after telling Vogue that he didn’t want transgender models in the show because it would spoil the “fantasy”. In the same interview, he said there was no interest in portraying a wider range of sizes and shapes.
“I’m always asking myself: if we do that, what is the reason we did it?” he said. “Did we include them because it was the right thing to do or because it was the politically correct thing to do? Do they take the place of somebody who worked for a year for the opportunity and cried when they found that they got it?”