If there are institutions that consistently produce winners — say, Harvard among universities or Goldman Sachs for investment banking — Victoria's Secret would be that institution for the modeling industry.
The $5.6 billion brand has churned out dozens of supermodels. But a notable few, such as Gisele Bundchen, Heidi Klum and Tyra Banks, have gone on to media or entrepreneurial careers with astonishing success.
While other fashion and beauty brands have produced famous models, they tend to remain just that. Models. In recent years, those companies have also tended to hire prized Hollywood talent: Rihanna and Drew Barrymore (CoverGirl), Eva Longoria and Scarlett Johansson (L'Oreal), Keira Knightley and Audrey Tatou (Chanel) and Jessica Alba (Revlon), thus undoing an important training ground for any supermodels-in-the-making.
Victoria's Secret has refused to buy into this trend, mostly because its models stomp the runways in alpine high heels and barely there lingerie, which requires an impossibly tall and leggy silhouette that most Hollywood actresses lack. While Victoria's Secret Chief Marketing Officer Edward Razek, who helps choose the brand's models, points to the sheer volume of models the company needs as the reason why so many have managed to go on to successful post-VS careers, he also notes that strutting around in only a bra and V-string takes a certain personality type that translates perfectly to other, more professional endeavors. "They have a certain level of confidence that bodes well for whatever they want to do going forth," he says.
Victoria's Secret is a unique launching pad for a model looking for second act success for a few reasons. First, unlike most fashion houses, it signs young women to long-term contracts, allowing them a chance to develop not only as models but as brands. Secondly, it puts the full force of its public relations team behind the women, getting them booked on talk shows, sending them out for personal appearances and even producing lines of cosmetics and body products stamped with their likenesses.
"I try to encourage all of the women to get involved with the brand, to develop their communication skills and to watch the best examples, like Heidi, to see what they've done with their careers," says Razek. "I am constantly looking for the next Tyra, Gisele or Heidi."
Razek is also adamant that the girls be professionals. "The notion of girls partying at night and showing up late and throwing cellphones at chauffeurs, you won't see it, period," he says. While the world's most celebrated cellphone thrower, Naomi Campbell, has indeed fluttered her Victoria's Secret "angel wings" in various fashion shows, she apparently didn't learn her social skills at the company. "There are too many good girls (out there) and we won't deal with divas," says Razek.
Being in an atmosphere where the company and its models are driven can also enhance success. Josie Maran, who modeled for the brand 10 years ago, used to hang out with future media mogul Heidi Klum. "Her personality got her where she is today," says Maran, who launched an all-natural cosmetics company in 2007. "(Heidi) makes it so easy to work with her, and that's something I took away from knowing her."
Maran also says her time modeling lingerie gave her so much confidence that when she started her company, she had no problem walking straight into Sephora's San Francisco headquarters and showing the company her marketing plan. "I was ignorant about business, but I totally believed in myself," she says. Sephora now carries her line.
Victoria's Secret has bucked another trend: Using bony, size-zero models. "The women are curvy and beautiful and healthy, and there's a movement [in the fashion world] to exude that," says Ivan Bart, senior vice president with IMG World, which reps or has represented many of the brand's models. Indeed, the Victoria's Secret "Angels" made a surprise appearance at the Paris and Milan winter fashion shows, as designers like Miuccia Prada and Marc Jacobs paid tribute to their "curvier" bodies.
However, at the end of the day, a model's career depends in large part on the model herself, Razek says. He talks about the time he went to a personal appearance that Tyra Banks made at a mall in Beverly Hills. Banks was not yet a media mogul, but she already had a large following, and "an enormous sea of humanity" was waiting for her autograph. When Banks saw Razek, she jumped up, took a picture with him and later sent a personal note thanking him for coming. "I didn't train her to do that," says Razek. "That's a business professional."
The ForbesWoman list of Victoria's Secret alums who've gone on to post-modeling success includes names synonymous with the brand (Gisele, Tyra) as well as women who are better known for their campaigns with other brands. With the exception of Heidi Klum, none of them work regularly for the company anymore.
List members were also chosen because their entrepreneurial or acting careers are currently active. Some, like Elle MacPherson, have long-established brands, while others, like Maran and Alek Wek, are just starting their businesses.