Victoria's Secret Scandals—From Transgender Backlash to Sexual Assault Allegations

Victoria's Secret announced a major shift in direction this week, when the lingerie brand parted ways with its supermodel "Angels" in favor of a line-up of women whose accomplishments lie far from the catwalk.

From Heidi Klum to Gisele Bündchen and Alessandra Ambrosio to Tyra Banks, Victoria's Secret was long celebrated as the brand that launched the careers of countless models and kept lingerie sales blissfully buoyant.

It also boasted a glittering jewel in its crown—the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show, an achingly glamorous affair that each year drew together lingerie-clad models, musical performers and a celebrity guest list worthy of a Hollywood awards ceremony.

Such was the extravagance that among the sea of models sporting elaborate wings, one was chosen each year to wear the coveted Fantasy Bra, a diamond-encrusted garment that was regularly valued in the millions at annual unveilings.

For select models who were anointed as "Angels," promotional duties for the brand would extend throughout the year, with photoshoots on the golden shores of far-flung locations also helping to boost sales.

However, things came to a crashing halt in November 2019, when the annual show—which debuted in 1995—was canceled, amid declining ratings and criticism of its failure to represent women of varied sizes and different backgrounds.

The criticism appeared to fall on listening ears, as it was this week announced that ambassadors for its new VS Collective will include "accomplished women" such as soccer star and LGBTQ activist Megan Rapinoe, actress Priyanka Chopra, and trans model Valentina Sampaio.

But what are the events that preceded Victoria's Secret's dramatic departure from the image that helped make it a household name?

Declining Sales

The company, which was founded in 1997 by married couple Roy and Gaye Raymond, suffered a steady decline in sales starting from 2016—the same year that longtime CEO Sharen Jester Turney stepped down from her role.

After being appointed president and CEO of Victoria's Secret in 2006, she was credited with overseeing an increase in total sales revenue from $4.5 billion to more than $7.7 billion.

Leslie H. Wexner, whose company L Brands has served as Victoria's Secret's parent company since the early 1980s, subsequently split the brand into three parts—Victoria's Secret Lingerie, Victoria's Secret Beauty, and Pink—appointing a CEO for each.

Among other bold moves by the company was the cancelation of its popular catalog, also in 2016.

Transgender Comments

With the rise in prominence of models with diverse looks and sizes, the company started to face accusations of being somewhat dated. Chief Marketing Officer Ed Razek did little to help this when he sat down for an interview with Vogue.

Addressing the brand's lack of transgender and curvy models at its annual show, he told the publication in November 2018: "Shouldn't you have transsexuals in the show? No. No, I don't think we should. Well, why not? Because the show is a fantasy. It's a 42-minute entertainment special.

"If you're asking if we've considered putting a transgender model in the show or looked at putting a plus-size model in the show, we have," he went on. "We invented the plus-size model show in what was our sister division, Lane Bryant.

"Lane Bryant still sells plus-size lingerie, but it sells a specific range, just like every specialty retailer in the world sells a range of clothing. As do we. We market to who we sell to, and we don't market to the whole world. We attempted to do a television special for plus-sizes [in 2000]. No one had any interest in it, still don't."

Amid a sea of backlash, Razek issued an apology via Victoria's Secret's official Twitter account, stating: "My remark regarding the inclusion of transgender models in the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show came across as insensitive. I apologize. To be clear, we would absolutely cast a transgender model for the show."

He added: "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."

However, the damage was done, with critics coming out in full force to condemn Razek's remarks, which were published days before the annual VS fashion show.

Dip in Ratings

The show would go on to suffer its worst ratings ever, with just 3.3 million viewers tuning in—a sharp drop from the previous year's audience of 5 million, which itself was a record low. Razek would resign from his post in August 2019.

Musician Halsey, who was the featured performer at the 2018 event, took to Instagram to condemn the show, writing: "After I filmed the special performance, some comments were made regarding the show that I simply cannot ignore.

"As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I have no tolerance for a lack of inclusivity. Especially not one motivated by stereotype... If you're a trans person reading this, and these comments have made you feel alienated or invalidated please know that you have allies. We stand in solidarity. And complete and total acceptance is the only 'fantasy' that I support."

In August 2019, Valentina Sampaio became Victoria's Secret's first ever openly transgender model, signaling the dawning of a new era.

Sexual Assault Allegations

But that same month, the organization was dragged back into the headlines for all the wrong reasons once again, when more than 100 models signed an open petition directed at CEO John Mehas.

The petition, which was submitted by The Model Alliance, called upon the company to protect its models against sexual misconduct, amid a "culture of misogyny and abuse." Mehas stepped down in November 2020 and was replaced by Martin Waters.

"We are writing today to express our concern for the safety and wellbeing of the models and young women who aspire to model for Victoria's Secret," the letter read, in part. "In the past few weeks, we have heard numerous allegations of sexual assault, alleged rape and sex trafficking of models and aspiring models.

"While those allegations may not have been aimed at Victoria's Secret directly, it is clear that your company has a crucial role to play in remedying the situation."

Jeffrey Epstein Connection

The petition also touched on alleged ties to disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein who, according to a July 2019 report in The New York Times, had falsely posed as a VS model scout on numerous occasions to lure a woman to his hotel room and assault her.

Convicted sex offender Epstein, who died in his jail cell in August 2019 following his arrest for the sex trafficking of minors, was also known to have had a professional relationship with Wexner.

A representative for L Brands told The New York Times at the time: "While Mr. Epstein served as Mr. Wexner's personal money manager for a period that ended nearly 12 years ago, we do not believe he was ever employed by nor served as an authorized representative of the company."

The spokesperson added that L Brands had hired lawyers "to conduct a thorough review" into the pair's relationship.

In alleged internal communications at the company, Wexner is said to have stated that he was unaware of any "illegal activity" on Epstein's part.

Bullying Allegations

A further New York Times report, published in February 2020, alleged that Razek had been accused of sexual harassment and bullying, as well as fostering a culture of misogyny at the company.

Answering the allegations in an email, Razek told the publication: "The accusations in this reporting are categorically untrue, misconstrued or taken out of context. I've been fortunate to work with countless, world-class models and gifted professionals and take great pride in the mutual respect we have for each other."

Razek stepped down from his role as an executive at Victoria's Secret and its parent company L Brand in August 2019.

In May 2021, CNN Business revealed Victoria's Secret's plan to permanently close a quarter (250) of its stores in the U.S. and Canada in the coming months.

Having now shifted away from its supermodel era, the company has moved into an era of inclusiveness, with brand ambassadors from a variety of backgrounds. It has yet to be seen how this will affect sales.

"With The VS Collective, we are creating a platform that will build new, deeper relationships with all women," said Martha Pease, the company's chief marketing officer. "Through a series of collaborations, business partnerships and cause-related initiatives, we're bringing new dimensions to our brand experience

"In marrying our new partners' energy, creativity and perspectives with our network and scale, we can transform how we connect with and show up for women."

The company has also launched the Victoria's Secret Global Fund for Women's Cancer, which will donate "at least $5 million annually to examine and address racial and gender inequities and unlock new innovations that improve cancer outcomes for all women."

Victoria's Secret Fashion Show
(L-R) Martha Hunt, Lais Ribiero, Josephine Skriver, Sarah Sampaio, Devon Windsor, and Romee Strijd at 2018 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show at Pier 94 on November 8, 2018 in New York City. The annual show was canceled in 2019, amid a storm of controversy and declining ratings. J. Lee/FilmMagic