‘Why do you always think the worst of people, mother Mangan?” I am sometimes asked by sweet summer children. “For the simplest, oldest, best reason of all, dear tender fools,” I reply. “It saves time.”
And so to the new documentary-exposé Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons, in which it turns out that the multibillion-dollar lingerie chain that marketed its models as the last word in hotness and glamour was a ruthless capitalist enterprise dogged by accusations of harassment, corruption and abuse.
During the course of its two-hour runtime we meet old friends from the modern sexual abuse and violence documentary circuit. Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell, of course, but also Jean-Luc Brunel, whose predations against the girls and women he met as the head of Karin Models Agency and MC2 Model Management (financed, would you believe, by Epstein) were recently outlined in Sky documentary Scouting for Girls – alongside those of fellow agents John Casablancas, Claude Haddad and Gérald Marie, the last of whom vehemently denies all sexual abuse allegations against him from several women.
The new guy in the mix is Leslie Wexner, owner of the eponymous lingerie firm that at its peak had sales of more than $7bn. He became acquainted with Epstein in the 1980s when Wexner needed an entré into New York society. It was Wexner who sold him the townhouse that would become infamous as the spycam site of his abusive operations, and who sold him the private jet that would become known as the “Lolita Express” as it ferried underage girls wherever Epstein and his fellow predators needed them to go. Wexner gave Epstein power of attorney over his entire estate – worth hundreds of millions of dollars – and didn’t revoke it until 2007, well after Epstein’s first arrest in 2006.
The documentary asks why this should be (“It’s such a puzzle,” says Cindy Fedus-Fields, former CEO of Victoria’s Secret Direct) but – crucially – fails to unearth an answer supported by actual evidence. “There was always talk that something else was going on with Les Wexner,” says Michael Gross, author of Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women, but that’s about as far as we get. Sure, his association with Epstein stinks to high heaven (and allegations about years of inappropriate conduct by Wexner’s second-in-command Ed Razek make everything pong more) but a purported investigation into industry abuses needs to produce the rotting carcass by the end.
In the absence of such, we are asked to make do with such insights as the damage Victoria’s Secret has (probably) done to women over the decades by promoting of tall, skinny-yet-busty white women as the only acceptable form of beauty. Much is made of the launch of Pink, the brand’s spin-off aimed at teenagers – and maybe those even younger – but the smoking gun here is apparently an internal memo noting that the move is designed “to ensure a steady stream of customers we can hold for decades”. Well, capitalism gonna capitalism and it’s amoral as hell, but it’s not in the same league as trafficking women in a private jet or assaulting and imprisoning them (as artist Maria Farmer reported to the police that Epstein and Maxwell had done to her on Wexner’s Ohio property).
The most truly revealing moment, perhaps, comes when Frederique van der Wal – one of the brand’s most well-known campaign models – remembers going home after the first ever runway show for lingerie and crying in the bath about how exposed she had felt, thanking God it was over. Since then, such shows and exposure has become entirely mainstream and normalised. I’d like to know if the tears afterwards have stopped entirely.
July 15, 2022 at 08:19PM Lucy Mangan