**I wrote this piece about Gigi Hadid breaking into tears upon being told she'd been selected for the 2015 VS Fashion Show last fall for a major news outlet. Sadly, the article got bumped and was never published.... so here it is, a year later.
Every year around this time, the hysteria begins over the annual Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. We’re bombarded with the details on the models’ slimming secrets, and there’s a frantic frenzy surrounding who might wear the Fantasy Bra, the one-of-a-kind bejeweled design that’s been priced as high as $15 million. But the biggest hype of all is around which models are chosen to be in the show, elevating them to “Angel” status. Because being crowned a Victoria’s Secret Angel is like an official decree of a woman’s superior beauty, desirability and worth—just ask Gigi Hadid.
Last week, twenty-year-old model Hadid made the cut for the 2015 show, which airs on Tuesday December 8th. The instagram video she posted to announce her participation reveals her squealing nervously and sobbing tears of joy, once the Victoria’s Secret brass ask her to join the rest of the Angels on stage. She captioned it: “Couldn’t keep back the tears!!!! Anyone that grew up with me knows that getting this show has been a dream of mine forever! THANK YOU @VictoriasSecret & @EdRazek. One of the happiest moments of my life.”
And that got me thinking. Because while I love seeing people achieve their dreams, this sounds like the same old story of a girl finding fame, fortune and happiness just because of her appearance, which is pretty much the exact scenario that so many women are working to change. And there have been incremental changes, such as Seventeen magazine pledging to retouch only models’ blemishes—and not their bodies—within its pages, and LEGO debuting female scientist figures instead of manufacturing sets for girls primarily centered around traditionally gendered activities like going to the hair salon. But he hype over the VS fashion show sends a message to so many young girls that this is the ultimate in success. And when you step back and think of it, how far have we really come it the ultimate in success is strutting around in your underwear—even if it’s by choice and well-paid? Hadid isn’t excited because her childhood dream of presenting an array of brightly-colored, mid-priced panties to shoppers at the mall has finally come true. She’s weeping happy tears because she’s been handed the keys to the kingdom. Being named a Victoria’s Secret Angel cements position as one of the most beautiful women in the world.
Yolanda Foster (Hadid’s mother and a star of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,) and sister Bella Hadid both credited Gigi’s hard work for helping her land the upcoming gig—and Gigi’s boyfriend Joe Jonas tweeted out his congratulations, which is touching and supportive. But when the dream is about being deemed beautiful enough to represent a company so powerful that its advertisements and messaging shape the definition of beauty in our culture—and do so in a limiting, exclusionary way—well, “So happy for you!” (the content of Jonas’ tweet) doesn’t seem to acknowledge that there’s more to this whole thing than just a girl’s wish coming true. Or could it be that he’s also happy for himself because now his love is bona fide beauty? That might be cynical of me, but in our culture where a woman’s attractiveness and “hotness” are the ultimate currency, it’s actually not that outlandish at all.
The trickiest part is that VS Angels actually wield some pretty significant power. In addition to translating into contracts worth millions, the title can boost a model’s overall earning potential due to the increased visibility that results from being associated with the brand. In fact, Forbes magazine reports that six out of the 10 highest paid models in the world work for Victoria’s Secret. And what girl doesn’t want to earn $47 million annually like Gisele Bundchen? The Angels also do good by raising serious cash for cancer research, and often go on to greatness in other ways. Take, for example, Tyra Banks’ and Heidi Klum’s multifaceted mega media careers, or Karlie Kloss’s burgeoning cookie empire called Karlie’s Kookies. Making it big first with Victoria’s Secret helped catapult those women into real seats of power. And that’s definitely something worth celebrating.
Yet ultimately, the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show and the Angels campaign are all about openly ogling women in their underwear. It’s about glorifying a pretty narrow definition of beauty, two things that don’t jibe well with the increasingly vocal (and inspiring!) movement against photoshopping away imperfections. Because great progress has been made by companies like American Eagle refusing to alter the ads for its Aerie lingerie line. Plus, it’s been so galvanizing to watch Tina Fey and Amy Schumer pull back the curtain on the time, effort and money it takes for so many women to achieve the image they present in public that it’s hard to go back to celebrating achievements centered around a woman’s appearance. So while it’s always fantastic to see women’s determination pay off, I won’t be watching Hadid strut her stuff on the Victoria’s Secret runway. Not because I’m jealous, but rather because I’m actually still dreaming of a better prize than being considered beautiful enough to model underwear…both for Gigi, and the rest of us.