More than an Angel: GLAMOUR’s November digital cover star, Stella Maxwell, on why walking the Victoria’s Secret runway in her underwear is an empowering feminist statement

Walk like an Angel.

07 Nov 2018

Stella Maxwell is about to enrapture 1.4 billion TV viewers – not to mention the almost limitless social media reach – as one of only 14 official Angels in the most-watched fashion show on earth: the Victoria’s Secret show. Twenty-three years since its inception in 1995 and, despite criticism, there is no stopping Victoria’s Secret – or Stella.

But where is the 28-year-old just days before the show? She’s not cramming in crunches at the gym. Instead, Stella has taken on the challenge of conceiving the concept for her GLAMOUR digital cover shot on a mobile – for the “your body, your rules” issue – and she’s slayed it.

Taking to the streets of New York – Victoria’s Secret spiritual home, where the show returns for the first time in three years following stints in Shanghai and Paris – Stella has accessorised the brand`s lace bralette and black PVC leggings in the only way a certified Angel can: with wings. Subtle.

Striding to her fitting, followed by hungry paparazzi lenses, Stella is a long way from her birthplace, Belgium, where she was born to Northern Irish parents. Her career rocketed after her VS debut in 2014 and the runways of Versace and Chanel soon called, before she topped Maxim’s Hot 100 List and designed a handbag range for The Kooples. But in the face of fame, she hasn’t shied away from publicity, identifying as queer (more on her relationship with Kristen Stewart later). This is an unapologetic Angel for the modern-day.

As Stella slips on the wings for her fifth time, she reveals they have been a therapeutic and powerful force for her. “Being a Victoria’s Secret Angel has really built up my confidence. It’s such an exciting thing to be able to do as a model. It’s the best thing you can possibly do. It’s such a special feeling, that it’s something so hard to actually describe.” If the wings could take her there, Stella would be sitting pretty on cloud nine, not Ninth Avenue.

"I try to get the balance right – of being myself, representing the brand, whilst feeling sexy, confident and empowering women."

Her excitement for the latest Victoria’s Secret show is infectious. “I get the same excitement now as the first time I did. It doesn’t wear off. Every year you get more and more confident,” she gestures enthusiastically. “I am getting more used to it. It is like playing a role, you have to get into character. I bring a lot of my personality to it as well, so I try to get the balance right – of being myself, representing the brand, whilst feeling sexy, confident and empowering women.”

Empowerment has become a charged term in 2018, in the face of what feels like a continuous run of negative headlines about some men’s treatment of women. In this heated minefield, some critics have questioned whether the show is, “out of touch with a ‘woke’ generation”. Is it simply playing into the lens of the patriarchally enforced male gaze at a time when both genders should be throwing traditional constructs to one side?

When questioned on what the message of the Victoria’s Secret show is, Stella doesn’t hesitate for a second before replying with fierce resolve, “For me, it feels empowering to walk down a runway in my underwear! The message I want to send out is that women are sexy. We have girls from all over the world in the show – it’s just a very sexy and confident role and situation you are lucky to be in. I personally really enjoy the moment of the runway show. I think it’s all about feeling good AND looking amazing.” It is clear this formidable female is walking in this show for herself and for women; after all, in the curious case of Victoria’s Secret, the female gaze has all the buying power.

For 2018, the Victoria’s Secret show has cast 50 of the world’s most successful models, and alongside well-known faces, such as Bella, Gigi and Kendall, there are serious steps towards displaying a representative runway. Out of the 18 women taking flight for the first time, there is Winnie Harlow – who has powerfully proven her skin condition vitiligo is no hurdle to confidence and success – Australian, Duckie Thot and Kelsey Merritt, the first ever Filipino model to walk the show.

But for some, this doesn’t go far enough. Critics have continued to hit out at the show’s lack of body diversity, ultimately questioning: if a 32DD bra size and dress size 16 is the average size of UK women, are we engendering a dangerous comparison game among women who may never be able to achieve the projected body image on the Victoria’s Secret runway?

Women are divided in their view of the show. Some see it as the ultimate illustration of the much bandied around term, ‘gym goals’. Others believe it’s playing into patriarchy by showing a restricted version of the female form adorned in underwear. Ultimately, they all believe, especially in light of our contemporary culture, if one woman says they feel empowered and are using the weapons they have to make a change, we shouldn’t and can’t criticise.

That’s exactly what Stella believes is the greatest pressure on women today: criticism. “We are all scrutinised,” Stella shares. “Everyone. Man, woman, everyone, especially if you are in the public eye in any way on social media. It’s about doing you and not worrying too much about other things. Only worry about the things that are really worth worrying about.” In the spirit of Stella, don’t we have more pressing issues to worry about than attacking women who are ultimately achieving their dreams by walking in the Victoria’s Secret show?

When I ask how she would respond to those who criticise the show over the increasingly charged topic of body image, Stella deploys her trademark resolve. “I think every girl has worked really hard and I think you can see that even just through our Instagrams. We show all the exercise we are doing – and the mental health, too. Exercise is great for your mental health!”

Stella continues with serious passion. “The show is about being really comfortable in your body and it’s about embracing your body. All the hard work we have been doing over months comes to a point where you go, ‘Yes, this is it, this is what I have been working so hard for!’ I think that’s mainly what it is about: it’s about hard work!” After all, you wouldn’t be able to compete as an Olympic sprinter without some serious sweat and training. These women are athletes in their own right and most importantly as the Mother Superior of Victoria’s Secret, Adriana Lima, shared with me, they show the reality of what having a Victoria’s Secret body entails. “What I always stand for, through my work, is that I like to show reality; what is real.”

Alas, you can’t be a Victoria’s Secret Angel by hitting the snooze button in the morning, skipping the gym and not taking care of your health, both mental and physical. But I do wonder if Stella ever gets bored of discussing her workout routine or ever just wants to skip it altogether. “It’s not always easy,” she reassuringly tells me as I contemplate if I can even remember what a gym looks like. “Honestly, it’s become part of my daily lifestyle and I really enjoy it, too. I do a lot of yoga and a lot of training with my personal trainer, and the more you do, the more you get used to working out. It’s become my life because of work, especially over the last few years. I really have got into it: I want to do more and more, perfect it and push my body and see how I can be healthier – that’s what it is about.”

Just how Stella’s wings boost her inner confidence, so does the power of exercise. “Having a healthy body and healthy mind is always something I think about,” she tells me. “That is what I think about when I am doing my yoga and some mornings when I wake up and I don’t want to go do it. But when you do, you feel so much better after. That’s definitely a scientific thing, that exercise gives you endorphins.”

Whatever the critics want to throw at Victoria’s Secret, having personally gone backstage, it truly feels like a show created by women for women. At the core of this is the sisterhood of Angels. When they aren’t patting each other on the back IRL, they are sharing proverbial high fives on social media. There are more flames accompanying their Instagram posts from fellow models than Fireman Sam dealt with in his whole career and that’s something Stella is rightly very proud of. “I have been working with this brand for, like, five years now, so I have become really close to a lot of the girls and we have really grown up together. We train together. We go for dinner together, so we are all really close.”

"it’s nice to see everyone come together. It’s a powerful moment for women.”

Back in the VS fitting room, lined with enough underwear to clothe a small nation, Stella continues to describe perhaps the greatest gang anyone can imagine. “It’s an amazing camaraderie, so we just want the best for each other. We really promote that when we see each other, and we are always really excited for each other. We are the ones who know how hard it is to even get to walk in the show. Every girl is just so excited. It’s a milestone in every girl’s career. We are a family.” There aren’t many people who could describe their working environment as such an empowering, safe place.

This is exactly what feminism means for this fearless female. “I believe in women encouraging each other and being there for each other and us all being united. I think the show really represents that. It’s really nice to see that, especially these days where there is quite a lot of talk about everything; it’s nice to see everyone come together. It’s a powerful moment for women.”

For someone whose business is living part of her life online, to an audience of 4.1 million Instagram followers, Stella Maxwell is famously private. Her rumoured relationship with Miley Cyrus created many column inches before the invasive paparazzi started following her budding relationship with Kristen Stewart in 2016 and continue to do so. How does someone with such a vivacious personality guard her personal life against a public profile, I wonder. “I have always tried to really integrate them together, organically,” Stella discloses. “I don’t overthink it and I don’t think about anything that is said on the internet. You can’t take anything to heart, good or bad. You don’t let it penetrate your real life, or make you change in any way. You have got to keep it consistent and be yourself. Be happy with yourself and that is all we can do.”

In a world where many seek validation from a social media persona, it is refreshingly clear that for Stella Maxwell validation starts from within, as does her confidence. “I think looking after your mental and physical health is key to confidence, because they go hand in hand,” she declares. “Mediation, doing some yoga, working out always makes me feel more confident in my own skin. Taking moments in your day to yourself is so important, like switching off your phone and not looking at your Instagram for a few hours. I think we are all in the habit of getting into Instagram holes. I think it’s good for all of us to take a little break and have a breather. Live your life in reality, not just on social media.”

Stella should really consider a career as a professor of PMA, as she remarks, “I’ve just always tried to be myself. I don’t believe in thinking about the negative, I just believe in bringing it on. That’s the only thing you got!” When I mention that she is the modern-day equivalent of a cheerleading Kirsten Dunst, she laughs, “That’s the vibe, Bring. It. On!”

World, whatever you think about the Victoria’s Secret show, Stella Maxwell is a symbol of doing things her own way and don’t doubt for a second that she will be doing it for herself, and women everywhere, when she hits that pink runway.