Of recent years there’s been a huge shift in the zeitgeist around inclusivity, and the Fashion world has experienced this earthquake like none other.
Gone are the days of industry-picked supermodels: the Helenas, Kates and Giseles of yesteryear are being replaced by a new more diverse and disruptive set. And their popularity comes from the ground up. With huge social media followings, global citizenry and points of view that inspire plurality, equity and social justice, this new vanguard of models in the Fashion industry are representing like never before.
Take Valentina Sampaio, the Brazillian transgender supermodel, actor and activist who has taken the fashion world by storm. Born to humble beginnings in a fishing village in Aquiraz, Valentina’s father was a Fisherman and mother was a schoolteacher. Moreover, Valentina was born male but fully shifted to her preferred female identity when she was 12 years old. Not a textbook beginning for a supermodel. In any other era, the barriers to making it in the Fashion industry would have been insurmountable and her schoolgirl aspirations of becoming a model would have remained in the realm of dreams.
In truth, transgender people have had a complex history within the modelling industry, largely centered around shame and secrecy. Take for example the popular ’60’s British Vogue underwear model, April Ashley. When a British newspaper revealed she was a transgender woman she never worked in the country again. Similarly, Tracey “Africa” Norman was a black trans model who hit the height of her career as the face of Clairol’s hair dyes in 1975. She went on to shoot for Vogue Italia, Ultra Sheen, Avon, and Essence before her career prematurely ended when she was outed as trans in 1981. Even as late as 2003 the likes of trans Senegalese model, Barbara Diop have found their gender status to be a negative when private became public.
But true to the adage, the times they are a-changing. Perhaps thanks to the 2009 appearance of trans model-wannabe Isis King on America’s Next Top Model, in the past decade gender plurality has come to the surface of public consciousness, creating a new awareness and acceptance. Certainly, for Sampaio, her status has become an asset, not a weakness, to her success in the industry, with a very different trajectory. Openly trans from the get-go, she has managed to clock many firsts for trans models including featuring on the cover of Vogue Paris and Sports Illustrated, and securing contracts with L’Oréal and Victoria’s Secret.
Sampaio’s story is one of confidence and pride, based largely on a supportive foundational network. At home and school, her transition was not as fraught as many others had experienced. According to Valentina her parents “were always supportive and very proud” and classmates were accepting as “they already saw me as a little girl.” Sampaio was studying fashion by the age of 16 and soon after a makeup artist discovered and signed her with a São Paulo modelling agency.
Hearts and Minds
Of course, no success story comes without its share of challenge. The hallmark of every cultural pioneer, they must battle attitudes, old-fashioned thinking and stereotypes to break glass ceilings and change outmoded systems from within. For Sampaio her first modelling job for a clothing company ended abruptly due to her gender identity. Pulled off the ad campaign, she was told the conservative brand’s clientele would not be receptive to her inclusion.
“Being trans usually means facing closed doors to peoples’ hearts and minds,” says Sampaio. “We face snickers, insults, fearful reactions and physical violations just for existing. Our options for growing up in a loving and accepting family, having a fruitful experience at school or finding dignified work are unimaginably limited and challenging.”
Despite the early setbacks Sampaio went on to feature in an independent film in Rio which debuted at São Paulo Fashion Week. Sampaio walked her first runway there in November, 2016. Then on International Women’s Day, L’Oréal released a short film about Sampaio and made her one of the company’s brand ambassadors.
This is even more significant because Sampaio used the attention to shine a light on the staggering violence against trans women in her home country where data shows a trans person is killed every 48 hours.
“Brazil is a beautiful country” she said, “but it also hosts the highest number of violent crimes and murders against the trans community in the world—three times that of the U.S.”
Perhaps because of her loud and proud advocacy amidst a changing cultural climate, in 2017 Valentina Sampaio hit the spotlight and made history, becoming the first openly transgender Vogue cover girl. Featured first on the Vogue Paris cover, she followed with appearances on the covers of Brazilian and German Vogue. Since then she has featured on covers for Vanity Fair Italia, Vogue Taiwan, Elle Mexico, Elle Brasil, Elle France, L’Officiel Brasil and L’Officiel Turkiye. Brands have cottoned on to her currency and she has represented Dior, Marc Jacobs, Moschino, H&M, and Philipp Plein.
By 2019, Sampaio broke further records. Less than a year after the CMO openly stated Victoria’s Secret would not hire a trans model, Sampaio revealed an association with Victoria’s Secret PINK and became the first openly transgender model for Victoria’s Secret. Striking at the very heart of female objectification and sexual politics, she went a step further breaking open the bastion of the male gaze by modelling for Sports Illustrated magazine in 2020. Throughout Sampaio has spoken out bravely about her status and what it means for the industry and the world at large.
Sports Illustrated’s long-time editor in chief, MJ Day, explains that the casting process is more about character than how someone looks in a bikini. “Our goal in selecting who we feature is centered around identifying some of the most inspiring, interesting, and multidimensional women that we can find,” she says. “We are deeply moved that Valentina was willing to put her trust in us. We didn’t think twice about wanting to amplify her voice and message and give her a platform to advocate from on behalf of her personal aspirations and the trans community.”
“The world has taken huge steps for transgender people in recent years…. The fashion industry is an instrument to raise flags promoting diversity, where things are more fluid and beauty evolves. Fashion is a world that’s freer.”
Tokenism and Erasure
That said, there are new areas to navigate as trans and diverse models become the flavour of the month. With increased representation in the industry comes the increased threat of tokenism and historical erasure. Brands may capitalise on identity politics now, using a generation of advocates as pawns to stay commercially relevance, only to drop them when the next big thing comes along.
For people like Valentina Sampaio it’s an ongoing battle, one with a 60-plus-year history but one they are willing to fight to the end. It requires a long view, and at 24 Sampaio has plenty of energy and time to make a lasting impact. As stated about her Vogue Paris cover: “Transgender beauty: How they’re shaking up the world”:
“My cover is another small step — an important step to show we have the force to be Vogue cover girls …Many times transgender women find the doors are already closed for them professionally, which only marginalizes us further — but everyone has something to show.”
More recently Valentina became an ambassador for GLAAD alongside Barack Obama, Talyor Swift and Ellen DeGeneres. She also took part in the Teen Vogue summit with an emotional and inspiring speech that drew attention to her community and the need for equality and acceptance.
“The first step is judging less; the next is giving opportunities for employment and support,” says Sampaio. “We want respect, and the more people are involved, the stronger we will be; unity is strength.”
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