When Valentina Sampaio updated her Instagram account last Thursday with a selfie on set with Victoria’s Secret, she set off a chain reaction. The Brazilian beauty’s otherwise standard behind the scenes image contained a historic reveal: That she would become the first openly transgender model to work with the lingerie giant in its 42-year history. News of her casting made immediate waves across the Internet, and the significance of it all was not lost on the 22-year-old rising star. “It made me super happy and stoked to receive such a massive and warm response from so many people,” says Sampaio, on the phone from Rio. “It filled my heart because [this] is a step toward more inclusivity.”
Raised in Aquiraz, Ceará during the height of the 2000s Brazilian model wave, Sampaio hoped to one day join the ranks of Victoria’s Secret’s supermodel roster. “Like so many, VS has always represented a dream to me,” she says, citing the prolific careers of former Brazilian Angels Gisele Bundchen and Adriana Lima as sources of inspiration. But Sampaio’s own career has been groundbreaking from the start. Two years ago, she landed on the front of Vogue Paris’s March 2017 issue, becoming the first transgender model to grace a Vogue cover. A beauty contract with L’Oréal soon followed, as did work for Dior, H&M, and Marc Jacobs. Now signed with New York agency The Lions, alongside current Victoria’s Secret stars Stella Maxwell and Sara Sampaio, she’s poised to become a fellow household name, but wants her individual impact to extend beyond campaigns and runways. “Being appointed the first transgender model for the brand is a hugely important moment not only for myself, but my community and beyond,” she says. “I hope [this can] be a huge step toward more inclusivity and representation for everybody.”
Sampaio is eager for her success to create a climate for true acceptance, diversity, and meaningful representation for all sizes, genders, ages, and cultural backgrounds in the fashion industry. “My dream [now] is to live in a world where representation is celebrated,” she says. “I believe brands are beginning to see the value of inclusiveness, but there is a lot more work to do in our industry, culture, and society. I truly hope to be able to work with more brands that understand the importance of this.”
Sampaio’s casting comes at a critical juncture for Victoria’s Secret, which has been under fire since its former chief creative officer Ed Razek spoke against the inclusion of transgender and plus-size talent in their campaign imagery and fashion shows in an interview with Vogue last year. This week, Razek announced his retirement, and a Model Alliance petition called for CEO John Mehas to adopt a code of conduct and take concrete action to protect models from sexual misconduct. With change in the air, Victoria’s Secret has the opportunity to change its principles and keep in step with the times.
Whether or not the company can evolve remains to be seen, and critics have already labeled Sampaio’s casting a case of tokenism, an attempt to win goodwill in the court of public opinion. Regardless, working with Sampaio is without a doubt a step in the right direction. For her part, she is honored to be welcomed in by a company she has long admired. “I’m really happy and proud to be working with Victoria’s Secret, especially during this time of change,” she says. “I feel very proud of my achievements, but this is just the beginning. It is important that I use my voice and my visibility to try to change the status quo.” After a week spent in the spotlight, however, she’s more excited about a future where her appearance in a lingerie campaign isn’t considered novel. “Imagine a world where it is not news that a transgender model has been appointed by a fashion brand. Wouldn’t that be amazing?! Because it would mean that it is normal and it is happening all the time,” she says. “I want to see this across all communities. Ultimately, I want to live in a world with more respect for every kind of human being.”