Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons focuses on the peculiar relationship between sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and Leslie Wexner, the owner of the hugely successful lingerie brand. Matt Tyrnauer’s three-episode series for Hulu, which is being streamed in India on Lionsgate Play, serves as a companion piece to the Netflix documentary Jeffery Epstein: Filthy Rich.
Viewers who have been following the Epstein case and the indictment of his lover Ghislaine Maxwell will already be familiar with the timeline of events. Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons digs deeper into Wexner’s own possible role in enabling Epstein’s predations.
The film attempts to get to the heart of questions that remain unanswered. Why did Wexner, an astute businessman who overcame a hardscrabble childhood to build a Fortune 500 company, give Epstein unprecedented power of attorney over his financial operations? Why did Wexner stick by Epstein even after Epstein’s serial abuse of women come to light? What was the nature of Epstein’s hold over Wexner – was it old-fashioned blackmail or something far more sinister, involving espionage and governments?
There is speculation about the role played by America’s Central Intelligence Agency and Israel’s spy service Mossad. Did Epstein actually hang himself in prison in 2019 while awaiting trial for abusing and trafficking underage women, or….
Epstein’s circle of super-influential friends, ranging from Prince Andrew and Bill Gates to the former American presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, gives some credence to the conspiracy theories voiced by journalists in the film, if not actually proving them. While the documentary casts an even more unflattering light on Wexner’s reliance on Epstein, it works better as a bust-to-boom saga of a business that fell so hard for its own advertising spiel that it couldn’t keep up with changing times.
Using a raft of footage, especially of the glitzy fashion shows staged by the company until very recently, Tyrnauer provides fascinating insights into how women were invited to participate in their own objectification. Interviews with top-ranking former Victoria’s Secret executives – nearly all of them female – reveal Wexner’s brilliance in selling a simple and yet lucrative fantasy to women: if you wear Victoria’s Secret lingerie, you will be irresistible to men.
Wexner’s ability to constantly up the ante served him well when he drew the fashion world into the bra-panty-cami business. Inspired by filmmaker Sidney Lumet and fashion designer Ralph Lauren, Wexler built a story around his brand, which included creating a fake British character named Victoria.
In later years, fashion shows featuring models kitted out in lingerie and sporting huge wings were both a crowd-puller and a television sensation. Models earned millions from Victoria’s Secret, while Wexner was catapulted into the billionaire’s club.
It’s perhaps fitting that Epstein got a front-row perch in this meat market. Among Epstein’s recruiting tactics was to tell young women that he was sourcing models for Wexner’s company. The film suggests that while Epstein may have exploited his connection to Wexner, the businessman continued to financially prop up Epstein long after the allegations against Epstein became public.
The documentary skilfully reveals the instrumentalist ways of big business. Scores of people participated in the rank exploitation of women’s bodies, both because it benefitted them and the new feminist discourse necessitated by the MeToo movement was still some years away.
For the women interviewed in the film, things came to a head at different points. For some, it was the growing awareness that the body type preferred by Victoria’s Secret was as phantasmagorical as their fashion show themes. There is nothing novel in Wexner’s idea of “what is sexy”: it’s how women think men want to see them.
For others, it was the targeting of teens and preteens through highly sexualised imagery. Michael Gross, the author of Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women, says in the film that Victoria’s Secret was an analogue version of Instagram in terms of creating pressure on women to conform to a socially acceptable beauty standard.
Ironically, it was social media that contributed to the company’s fall. Hashtag activism, combined with street protests centring on MeToo, as well as increasingly untenable revelations of Wexner’s connections with Epstein, have seriously damaged the company’s reputation as well as its future.
Some of the most thoughtful discussions of Wexner’s business model come from Cindy Fedus-Fields, a former chief executive officer at the company. While providing examples of Wexner’s acumen, even Fedus-Fields is at a loss to explain his growing inability to read the room and his easy manipulation by Epstein.
Part of the company’s reinvention plan is catch up with rivals and feature a more diverse set of models with different body types. Among the new champions of Victoria’s Secret is the American soccer champion Megan Rapinoe and Indian actor Priyanka Chopra Jonas.
It’s merely a good marketing campaign and nothing else, a young woman sagely observes. While the true nature of the Wexner-Epstein relationship might never be known, Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons says a great deal about how companies exploit aspiration to line their bank accounts. Tucked into an investigative documentary about the still-unravelling universe of Epstein’s crimes is a cautionary tale of the dark side of marketing, in which women are sold unattainable dreams that damage their self-image.