Sara Sampaio is angry. Well, the 26-year-old Portuguese model uses a slightly stronger adjective than that herself, but let’s just say that she is very angry. “Models are expected to show up on set, just be pretty, do our job and not say a word,” she explains. “When we do open our mouths, we’re branded as difficult, opinionated, troublemakers; we are told that we don’t know what we are talking about.” Modeling is one of the few industries in which women outearn men, she points out, “but we are still not respected. We are still exploited. And it’s such a disposable industry that girls feel like they can’t say anything, because there will be some other girl out there who will just do it.”
Sampaio, a Victoria’s Secret Angel with more than 10million followers on social media, where she is more than prepared to use her voice and “hold people accountable”, is not one of those girls who will “just do it”. In the summer of 2017, she used Instagram to call out French magazine Lui after it published revealing pictures of her. “I’m fine with nudity. I have done nudity in the past, but I don’t do nudity for men’s magazines,” explains Sampaio. “I can suggest nudity, but I don’t want to show my boobs to a men’s magazine.” The model alleges that Lui agreed to her terms and signed a no-nudity agreement, but on set, a member of the team attempted to persuade her to relent; Sampaio stood firm. Shots were taken as a red furry shrug slipped off her shoulders, accidentally revealing her breasts; she says she was assured they wouldn’t be used. “And they wanted wet skin, here…” – she rubs her collarbone – “so the vest got wet. But they told me they’d only use the shot from my neck up.”
When the issue hit newsstands, Sampaio was featured on the cover, in white knickers and the furry shrug, her left nipple very much on show. Inside was the wet shot featuring her whole upper torso…and both nipples. “I felt violated,” she says. “So, what, now every time I’m on a set, do I have to delete the photos to make sure nobody uses them?”
It’s a brisk March afternoon in Queens, New York, and the slate-colored sky is threatening snow. Even without a scrap of makeup – perhaps especially without it – Sampaio is ridiculously, distractingly pretty, with her mane of dark hair, green eyes and bee-stung lips. When she laughs, which is often, her grin is wide, open, and slightly, endearingly, goofy. She’s wearing Dr. Martens boots and skinny jeans, frequently pulling the cuffs of her striped hoodie over her hands. For a model known for sexy lingerie shoots, her sexiness is far from overt.
There was a time, earlier in her career, when Sampaio would walk a mind-boggling 90 runway shows across the four consecutive fashion weeks, for houses including Dolce & Gabbana, Miu Miu and Marc Jacobs; this year, she skipped them all, spending February in LA instead. “I’m trying to get into acting,” she reveals. “It’s still all very new, but I am taking lots of classes and going on auditions. People have been like: oh, there will be so many nos, so many rejections.” She laughs. “I’m a model; I’m used to that.” But she’s clear about her own nos, too. “I don’t want to be in anything that will be…” She searches for the word. “How do you say it…gratuitous? I don’t want to be there just because I’m pretty.”
“Models are expected to be pretty and not say a word. When we do open our mouths, we’re branded as difficult, opinionated, troublemakers”
Sampaio grew up in Porto, on the north coast of Portugal, where her father is a professional scuba diver and her mother works for an import company. Fashion could not have been further from her thoughts. “My mother would tell you, my fashion [sense] was atrocious,” she laughs. “I had no sense of style at all.” She did, however, want to act.
At 16, she entered a hair modeling competition. “The past two winners had gone into acting, and I thought, I have great hair, maybe I can win.” She has, and she did, which led to being signed by a modeling agency. “And things just started happening.”
By the age of 19, Sampaio was living in Paris; at 20, she moved to New York, where she began modeling for lingerie behemoth Victoria’s Secret. After being turned down twice, on her third attempt she was booked for the much-hyped annual show, and became an Angel – meaning she works year-round for the brand – in 2015.
It’s both a lucrative contract and an enormously profile-raising role, but the company exacts its pound of tanned, toned flesh – VS Angels work notoriously hard and are expected to look flawless every single day. “It is a lot of pressure,” Sampaio admits. “But not from them – I put that pressure on myself. You are constantly in lingerie; your body is constantly on show. You just want to look your best.” She works out five times a week with a personal trainer. “If I could, I would live off pizza,” she laments. “But I can’t, because I’m getting older,” she sighs, putting her head in her hands. “I miss my 19-year-old metabolism.”
“I’m fine with nudity, I have done nudity in the past, but I don’t want to show my boobs to a men’s magazine”
Given her aversion to gratuitousness, I wonder if, at a moment in which women are collectively standing up to objectification, Victoria’s Secret, with its titillating, flesh-filled show, might need to reconsider its approach and message? “No, I don’t think so at all,” she answers firmly. “I think it’s kind of hypocritical that now people want everyone to be equal, they want everyone to be a feminist. But if a girl is being sexy because she wants to be sexy, people are saying, ‘Oh, no, you can’t be sexy.’ Isn’t that anti-feminism?” I suggest that some critics feel the ‘sexiness’ Victoria’s Secret sells is one constructed specifically by, and for, the male gaze. “Victoria’s Secret is not geared towards men – we are selling lingerie to women,” Sampaio insists.“We are selling a dream. Everyone wants to feel sexy.”
“It’s hypocritical that people want everyone to be equal, but if a girl wants to be sexy, people are saying, ‘Oh, no, you can’t.’ Isn’t that anti-feminism?”
I retreat to the safer conversation territory of her boyfriend, Oliver Ripley, a half-British, half-Russian, Oxford-educated entrepreneur, whom she has been seeing for two and a half years, and who apparently travels more than she does. “He came to LA for a week, and now I don’t know when I am going to see him next,” says the model. “I don’t even know where he is – maybe Tulum? It’s somewhere warm, anyway.”
Ripley recently co-founded and launched a hotel group called Habitas, the first of which has opened in the fashionable Mexican resort, with more to follow in the Bahamas and Miami. “But we always meet somewhere.” She grins merrily, and motions being on the phone. “He will call and say: ‘Where are you going to be next week? Paris? Oh, I am in London – do you want to pop in for a day?’ We make that effort to meet each other, especially when we have been apart for a while. It keeps the thing alive.”
“Victoria’s Secret is not geared towards men – we are selling lingerie to women. We are selling a dream. Everyone wants to feel sexy”
When not traveling, they are both based in New York; Sampaio has an apartment in Tribeca, but the city is “too mental” for her. “I need to be by the ocean, I need space, I need sunshine. I really do love LA,” she sighs, dreamily. And while her job means she cannot abandon social media entirely, there’s one digital detox she is committed to. “‘Burning Man is my phone-free time of year,” she says of the festival in Black Rock City, Nevada. “Nobody else is on their phone, either – they are talking to each other, not posting everything.
“I tell my mother that I am alive, and that I will be out again in five days,” she says. “Then I turn off my phone.” It sounds like the dream.
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