“Imagine a world where it’s not news for a trans model to be the face of a brand or walk the runway. Wouldn’t it be incredible?” asked 22-year-old Valentina Sampaio. “It would mean that it’s normal and it happens all the time.” 

The Brazilian model has brought us a little bit closer to that future. Victoria’s Secret announced last month that Sampaio would be the brand’s first transgender model.

“I’m very proud of these achievements, but this is only the beginning,” Sampaio told HuffPost Brazil in an email. “I am very proud of representing positive change in the fashion industry. It’s important to use my voice and visibility to try and change the status quo, not just in the fashion industry, but in society as well.”

The model, a native of Fortaleza, a city in northeastern Brazil, has been making waves in the fashion world in recent years.

Her career took off in 2014 with her runway debut at Dragão Fashion Brasil, a traditional fashion event in her home state. She caught the eye of the international press two years later by becoming one of the first transgender women to model for L’Oréal Paris; she made her debut at São Paulo Fashion Week that same year. In 2017, she was once again a trailblazer, becoming the first transgender model to make the cover of Vogue Paris.

Sampaio told the magazine at the time that the ascent of her career was “very fast” and surprising. She was just 18 years old when she signed with L’Oréal. 

Joining Victoria’s Secret had long been one of Sampaio’s goals. But it wasn’t easy to reach. She recalls that she had to pass a series of tests before she could become a representative of the brand. She had to complete a challenging virtual casting call first, followed by a formal Skype interview, before she finally got the job.

She did a shoot with American fashion and portrait photographer Sebastian Kim in New York in June to appear in the Victoria’s Secret Pink catalog. 

Brazilian model Valentina Sampaio during the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week in Madrid on July 10, 2019.
Brazilian model Valentina Sampaio during the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week in Madrid on July 10, 2019.

The model recognizes these breakthroughs are not just her own, but that her presence in the industry shows that changes have been happening gradually.

“Obviously I’m very happy with the changes taking place in our industry. And not just for the trans community. It’s inspiring to see many minorities represented, whether by gender, body type, or ethnicity,” she told HuffPost Brazil. “Everyone needs to be represented in fashion and in society. I feel proud and inspired to be a part of that evolution, and I plan to continue using my voice to push boundaries.”

These boundaries seem particularly challenging in Brazil right now. The country has the highest rates of homicide of transgender people in the world, according to Transgender Europe, an organization that monitors global violence against trans people. About 163 trans people were murdered in the country in 2018, according to a study by two Brazilian transgender advocacy and education groups. While homicide rates in Brazil are high generally, LGBTQ advocacy groups point out that many incidents of violence are directly related to homophobia and transphobia

Although the trans community continues to be misrepresented and underrepresented in popular media, Sampaio says she hopes her successful career at such an early age will have a positive impact on future generations.

“We still have a long way to go,” Sampaio said, “but I believe we’re making some strides toward representation and inclusion, and this needs to continue happening in all areas.”

Shortly after Victoria’s Secret announced it had hired Sampaio, Chanel also signed its first contract with a transgender model, with Teddy Quinlivan joining the brand. 

The Victoria’s Secret announcement came on the heels of controversy for the company, which had long been criticized for lacking diversity among its models.

Victoria Secret’s chief marketing officer Ed Razek resigned early last month, almost a year after he was lambasted for saying he would not hire transgender or plus-sized models for the fashion show. His comments inspired trans model Nikita Dragun to protest by making her own “angel” event — a play on the iconic Victoria’s Secret Angels — and sharing it across social media.

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