TikTok Beauty Queen Emira D’Spain On Changing the Victoria’s Secret Narrative

"There’s so much history to be made still, and I think it’s cool that I’m part of that.”

This year will mark the return of Victoria’s Secret’s iconic runway shows after a four-year hiatus, but the show—which has attracted bad publicity, bad reviews and increasingly small audiences—will likely look a bit different. First, in May, the lingerie giant announced it would transform the controversial catwalk show into a feature film event with a follow-up live show in the fall. Second, the lineup of models will almost certainly be more diverse than in previous years. Viewers might spy Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka, Brazilian model Sofia Jirau—the brand’s first model with Down Syndrome, British plus size model Paloma Elsesser or Emira D’Spain.

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D’Spain is part of a new cast of more diverse Victoria’s Secret models. Courtesy Emira D’Spain

Last year, Dubai-born, Dallas-raised and New York City-based D’Spain became the first Black and transgender model to work with the brand. The door she strutted through to get there was left ajar in 2019 by Valentina Sampaio, the first-ever transgender model for Victoria’s Secret.

Victoria’s Secret’s long road to embracing inclusivity

When Victoria’s Secret spectacularly collapsed into its own pink tulle and feathers a few years ago, it was hard to see a way back. The brand reeked of 1990s excess and exclusivity: big boobs, skinny legs, flawless skin, glossy hair and barely-there lingerie.

Sales plummeted from $8.1 billion in 2018 to $7.5 billion in 2019 and $5.4 billion in 2020, but the brand was lamentably slow to see the future and reorient their bras and thongs toward it. Ed Razek, chief marketing officer for L Brands (the parent company of Victoria’s Secret), infamously told the BBC in 2019 that while the brand did consider diversity and offer larger sizes, he drew the line at “transsexuals” in the show and saw no place in it for plus-size models.

Then the New York Times conducted an investigation in 2020 that uncovered bullying and harassment at the company. Amongst the complaints from more than thirty former and current staffers, contractors and models were multiple accusations that Razek had tried to kiss models, sit them on his lap or touch them inappropriately. Several models admitted they’d posed nude, without pay, for a well-known Victoria’s Secret photographer who later published the images in a coffee-table book.

It should come as no surprise that the idea of working with Victoria’s Secret gave D’Spain pause. But she knew in her heart that the brand reaching out to her was a step in the right direction.

“I felt like, if I was given an opportunity to help change the narrative, then why wouldn’t I,” D’Spain tells me in a dulcet, velvety voice that deserves its own Victoria’s Secret contract. “That would be doing justice for LGBTQ people, trans girls and trans boys. There’s so much history to be made still, and I think it’s cool that I’m part of that.”

D’Spain is not ignorant of the problematic pre-evolution Victoria’s Secret, but she sees a brand and a team that is determined to provide a platform for a plurality of beauty that celebrates diversity in body, race, sexuality, gender and culture. Partnering with people like her, she says, is proof of the brand’s genuine openness to change.

“I think it’s really cool that they’re partnering with people who didn’t fit with their typical standard of what they used to be,” she adds. “I think it’s amazing that they’re branching out into this more inclusive world.”

D’Spain has also walked for Kourtney Kardashian’s Boohoo collaboration. Courtesy Emira D’Spain

The new Victoria’s Secret

With its return to runway shows, and the recruitment of the ambassadors above as well as photographer and advocate Amanda de Cadenet, actress and producer Priyanka Chopra, Tik Tok creator Remi Bader and others, the brand is certainly making the right moves to attract a socially conscientious, body-inclusive, gender-inclusive and internationally aware audience.

In June 2022, the brand launched a campaign acknowledging a new vision. The accompanying announcement stated, “We’ve changed. We now know beauty was always yours to define. We see you. You’re multi-dimensional, ever-evolving, real. We promise to advocate for you. Now and forever. Stay close, we’re growing. To us, you’re everything.”

That same sentiment—specifically ‘you’re everything’—very much applies to D’Spain’s relationship with her followers, currently over a million and counting. She became a TikTok sensation for her viral makeup video series, Get Ready With Me, which attracted followers drawn to her frankness about the emotional and physical experience of transition, dating, friendships and life in New York City.

Her TikTok celebrity status didn’t exactly happen overnight but close enough to it in our fast-paced world.

“I was not surprised by it because I have a very big personality and I knew that would attract people,” she explains. “Over the course of a year, it was a steady growth before it really, really took off, and still to this day it’s popping off.”

D’Spain’s “favorite thing in the world” is when fans stop her on the street. Over time, she has built what she feels is a community of really sweet people.

“I live in New York City and I feel like a lot of my fans live here too,” she tells me. “A lot of my cunty Barbies live in New York and they’ll stop me. They’ll stop me and they’re baddies! Like, they’ll always have their hair and makeup done, looking like baddies.”

Lest anyone mistake it for the pejorative, cunty Barbie is the ultimate compliment from D’Spain, and she counts Lady Gaga amongst this elite population: “Lady Gaga and I are mutuals; she follows me on Tik Tok and that’s my biggest, favorite cunty Barbie, I’ll say.”

Gaga was one of many celebrities to co-sign a letter to Texas lawmakers urging them to reject Senate Bill 6 and other pieces of anti-LGBT legislation filed at the state level in 2017. In 2021, she spoke out on Italian television after a law designed to protect LGBTQI+ individuals from hate crimes was struck down, telling the audience, “You must be protected at all costs, like all human beings here on Earth, and I will continue to write music for you and fight for you.”

D’Spain’s “favorite thing in the world” is meeting her fans. Courtesy Emira D’Spain

This is only a beginning

So far, 2023 has been a record year in the U.S. for anti-trans legislation. Even though D’Spain is a force of positivity in her Get Ready With Me videos, effervescent with glamour and wit, she is not immune to the reality of daily microaggressions faced by her followers and the broader trans community.

“I do feel very safe—I’m very privileged to have the resources to keep me safe,” she concedes. “I live in a city that welcomes me with open arms, but it’s hard living in America and being trans. There are so many pieces of legislation that are very detrimental to trans youth specifically, and there’s a lot of work to be done there.”

But she’s optimistic about the state of the nation and when it comes to her blossoming career. Repping for Victoria’s Secret is a feather in D’Spain’s boa, following her New York Fashion Week runway appearance for Kourtney Kardashian’s Boohoo collaboration in September 2022. From here, her goal is more fashion, more runways, more dancing around her apartment to SZA and more joyful encounters with all her baddies around the city.

TikTok Beauty Queen Emira D’Spain On Changing the Victoria’s Secret Narrative