In July of 2019, cracks started to form in the façade of Victoria’s Secret, the country’s largest and most culturally prolific lingerie retailer.
The New York Times published a lengthy investigation detailing the intimate personal and professional partnership between the company’s billionaire then-owner, Les Wexner, and Jeffrey Epstein, a convicted child molester then awaiting trial on sex-trafficking charges.
The piece revealed that Epstein was granted power of attorney over Wexner’s fortune and was sold a number of properties by Wexner at a heavy discount, including his sprawling Upper East Side townhouse, his private jet that he is said to have used to traffic women and underage girls (dubbed “The Lolita Express”), and other assets.
Epstein, meanwhile, was accused by a number of women of posing as a Victoria’s Secret recruiter before sexually harassing and/or assaulting them, which had been reported to Wexner, who claims he had no knowledge of Epstein’s predatory behavior yet did not sever business ties with his decades-long pal until 2008, approximately 18 months after Epstein was arrested for soliciting child prostitutes. (Epstein was found dead in his prison cell just weeks after the Times report was published.)
Seven months later, the Times ran another exposé about the “widespread bullying and harassment of employees and models” within Victoria’s Secret, accusing chief marketing officer Ed Razek—the man behind the brand’s popular ad campaigns and image—of a range of inappropriate behavior, including trying to kiss models, asking them to sit on his lap, and touching one’s crotch ahead of a runway show. (Razek, who had already stepped down, denied the allegations.)
But that is not all Wexner and Razek were up to. The new docuseries Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons, premiering July 14 on Hulu, examines how the intimates behemoth gave generations of women body dysmorphia through its marketing campaigns flaunting unrealistic-looking body types—statuesque models who were both rail-thin and curvaceous (some of their TV commercials were even helmed by, you guessed it, Michael Bay).
“You can’t have a better example of a brand that objectifies women to make money than Victoria’s Secret,” says Matt Tyrnauer, director of Angels and Demons. “And it was extraordinarily successful because, in their diabolical marketing brilliance, they were zeitgeist-surfacing in a really effective way. This was the moment of forward female sexuality as a trope of empowerment—best exemplified by Sex and the City—along with this sort of retro T&A mixed with beauty-pageant iconography that is really strange and almost Trumpian.”
In 2002, a few years before the West Palm Beach police launched a child prostitution sting on Epstein, Victoria’s Secret launched PINK—a collection aimed at teenagers.
“One day, they cleared the whole hosiery room out and they were just putting all these crazy, bright-colored tiny panties and matching camisoles out—and then the music went pop,” recalls Sara Zofko, a former Victoria’s Secret employee, in the film.
“For me, that’s when I felt like something was going in the wrong direction. I mean, because PINK was literally designed to target teenagers and tweens, and so that did not feel good,” she added.
“For me, that’s when I felt like something was going in the wrong direction. I mean, because PINK was literally designed to target teenagers and tweens, and so that did not feel good.”
Dorothea Barth-Jorgensen, a model who walked in Victoria’s Secret’s PINK runway show—which famously featured an 18-year-old Justin Bieber on the mic—is interviewed in the film and remembers how surreal, and cringe-inducing, it was.
“I had this dress with toy things around [it], and the whole set was pretty much based on toys,” Barth-Jorgensen says. “I didn’t even know who Justin Bieber was before I did that show. My sister’s children were so excited that I’d been going on the runway with Justin Bieber. They were so obsessed with him, and they were 10 and 12 at the time, so I think they definitely hit the target.” (One outfit in the PINK runway show was a model in a hoodie riding a mock tricycle.)
Tyrnauer got ahold of Victoria’s Secret internal corporate and branding materials for Angels and Demons. One internal marketing video about PINK contains the following narration, played over imagery of distressingly young models: “PINK ensures the long-term growth of Victoria’s Secret by bringing in a steady stream of young customers who we can hold for decades.”
The filmmaker likens it to Meta’s internal study about how Instagram is a toxic environment for teen girls, with one research slide stating, “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” and another offering, “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression.”
“We had access to internal corporate videos and branding materials, and one of them in the series is the one about PINK,” says Tynauer. “It comes on screen and it’s this awkward marketing video extolling PINK, and it has this voiceover that says, ‘We can bring in a steady stream of young customers for decades to come.’ For me, that’s chilling, because people holler about Instagram and its deleterious effects on the psyches of young women, and this was a dress rehearsal for everything Meta has perpetrated and gets enormous amounts of heat for. Victoria’s Secret was right in there doing this in the malls, which were the FOMO factories where merchants were siphoning our dollars by seducing us with particular types of imagery.”
Another internal marketing video from 2008 shown in the film has Wexner boasting of his creative control over his companies.
“Creating a brand is making a movie,” he says. “It was very easy for me to make a movie in my mind. I had that ability. I do see myself as the studio head, so it means I get to review the scripts, make sure everybody stays on story.”
And that, of course, included PINK.
“I think Les was pretty excited about PINK, and so it got a lot of attention,” asserts Mindy Meads, former CEO of Victoria’s Secret Direct, in the film. “He saw an opportunity, and he likes to exploit an opportunity.”