How 'Victoria's Secret Fashion Show' Turns $12 Million Into $5 Billion in One Hour

 Mark Leibowitz

This story appeared in the Dec. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Do we have the gun?" Todd Thomas, the collection designer for the 2011 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show, set to air Nov. 29 on CBS, inspects a lavender tulle tutu worn by supermodel Lily Aldridge, wife of Kings of Leon lead singer Caleb Followill.

"The gun," is a glue gun. And Thomas, who has seen his share of runway mishaps during nearly a decade with Victoria's Secret, needs it to tack up under-layers of tulle that have come loose in the back, slightly obscuring Aldridge's g-stringed derriere.

PHOTOS: Victoria's Secret Fashion Show 2011

It is five days before the Nov. 9 runway show, and about 30 people are jammed into a small room on the 12th floor of the midtown Manhattan headquarters of Victoria's Secret. Thomas, Sophia Neophitou, the British fashion editor who came aboard as head stylist last year, and Monica Mitro, executive vp brand communications and events and a 17-year veteran of Victoria's Secret, are furiously working to put the final touches on 69 looks to be worn by 36 models, more than ever have walked the runway at the annual underwear spectacle. Today's fitting is its own media event; fitters, dressers and assistants jockey for space in the stuffy room with photographers, reporters and video crews.

PHOTOS: Behind the Scenes of the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show

"There are a lot of people here today, darling," says Neophitou, lifting her mane of grey-flecked black curls from her neck. The windows are thrown open in a futile attempt to lower the temperature in the room.

Aldridge's lavender tutu is paired with a black velvet corset, diaphanous lavender push-up bra and red satin heels with ballet straps.

"Can you walk for me pretty girl?" asks Neophitou.

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Aldridge flounces toward Thomas, Neophitou and Mitro. Neophitou rises from her Eames swivel chair and gently pats Aldridge's breasts.

"They look good," she purrs, "amazing."

♦♦♦♦♦

Despite appearances, the Victoria's Secret fashion show is not really about fashion. Yes, the foundations of the runway getups are bras and panties that are available at your local Victoria's Secret store. But you can't buy Brazilian supermodel Alessandra Ambrosio's gold-plated wings festooned with 105,000 Swarovski crystals.

Broadcast in more than 180 countries, the $12 million made-for-TV-event attracts the world's top models and features A-list musical guests. And it's all designed to burnish a brand that peddles fantasies to everyone from teenagers to suburban housewives of America.

"It's become a performance-slash-lifestyle-slash-variety show and, of course, with models wearing intimate apparel," says Francois Lee of ad buying firm MediaVest. The special has shifted from "just an extension of a catalog to really showcasing the lifestyle aspect of the brand."

“It’s a marketing marvel,” adds Bob Horowitz, president of reality production house JUMA Entertainment, who as the former head of IMG's U.S. television division has packaged his share of TV specials.

The runway show started in 1995 as a modest proceeding at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan and has been televised regularly since 2001, when ABC first put it on. CBS has had the show since 2002 but did not air it in 2004 -- a response to the national outrage over Janet Jackson's Super Bowl nipple flash on the network. The TV special is designed to send consumers to the web or the company's 1,000-plus retail outlets -- just in time for the holiday season.

And it works: Victoria's Secret, founded in 1977, last year raked in net sales of $5.5 billion.

"It's the only one-hour network show dedicated to a single brand," says Mitro. "It puts our brand in front of millions of people around the world during the crucial holiday period."

CBS licenses the show from Victoria's Secret for slightly more than $1 million, well below the $20 million it pays for the Grammys. The show is not exactly a ratings blockbuster -- 9 million viewers tuned in last year, compared with nearly 27 million who watched the Grammys this year -- but it does bring younger viewers to CBS; more than half of the 2010 audience was in the 18-49 demo.

"We are a big-tent broadcaster. We want everybody," says Jack Sussman, executive vp specials, music and live events at CBS, who oversees production of the show. "This diversifies our portfolio of specials."

Although it has never drawn an FCC indecency fine, the show has intermittently raised the ire of watchdog groups including the Parents Television Council. But despite the copious amount of taut flesh on display, the TV special features no pixilated nudity. "There are the occasional issues that come up unexpectedly," says Sussman. "But that's the beauty of postproduction."

And Sussman, who says the show's viewership is 60 percent women, the same as for most of broadcast TV, has his own decency filter: "Do my two teenage daughters want to see it? Will my wife watch it? And will my mother not turn it off? And this show gets through that filter."

The special is a mashup of runway spectacle, musical acts, behind-the-scenes fodder and vignettes about some of the models. And it has increasingly lured top-tier musical guests, critical for creating buzz. The Black Eyed Peas, Justin Timberlake, Usher and Katy Perry have all been paid to appear.

This year's show, held at the Lexington Armory in New York, featured performances from Nicki Minaj and Maroon 5 -- whose frontman, Adam Levine, dates Victoria's Secret model Anne Vyalitsina -- and headliner Kanye West. He was joined onstage by surprise guest Jay-Z; they performed "Niggas in Paris," an F-bomb-laced paean to fame and materialism, as Jay-Z's pregnant wife Beyonce sat in the front row. (It had yet to be determined if the song will make it into the broadcast.)

Leslie Wexner, the septuagenarian billionaire CEO of Victoria's Secret parent Limited Brands, is a staple at the show, which is also known, and judged by, the hodgepodge of celebrities it attracts. Russell Simmons, Michael Bay (who has directed Victoria's Secret commercials), Debbie Harry, Donna Karan, Alexander Wang and former French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld attended this year.

Orlando Bloom, husband of Australian supermodel Miranda Kerr, could be seen cheering demonstrably when his wife, who gave birth to their son in January, sauntered down the runway wearing the collection's now iconic $2.5 million Fantasy Treasure Bra -- designed by London Jewelers and embellished with nearly 3,400 precious stones including 142 carats of diamonds.

Haute couture it is not. Maryna Linchuk wore a bubble skirt that looked like a frosted pink donut and Shannan Click sported a bra festooned with a blinking heart on each breast. None of these outré items is available at Victoria's Secret stores. Still, the show gets more national media attention than anything on the runways at New York Fashion Week.

"It's one giant PR stunt," says Linda Ong, president of branding firm Truth Consulting. "It's about getting people to keep this very mass-market brand top-of-mind. The celebrities, the million-dollar bra. They always have some model who just had a baby, and so it's all about how much weight she lost. It's a pseudo-event. But because of the PR machine, people cover it likes it's news."

That exposure can be a career maker for models. Former Victoria's Secret spokesmodels Heidi Klum and Tyra Banks have parlayed that fame into media mogul status.

"It puts millions of dollars of advertising behind you," says Ivan Bart, senior vp of IMG Models.

Victoria's Secret spokesmodels can earn $5 million a year, while those who don't have contracts with the company pocket $10,000 or more for the runway show alone, say sources. IMG Models has nine women in the runway show including Kerr, Lily Aldridge and Candace Swanepoel, all of whom have lucrative contracts as Victoria's Secret spokesmodels.

"By promoting the brand you're getting more experience doing publicity, events, speaking on camera, talk shows -- everything that it takes to be a brand ambassador," says Bart. "That gives you tremendous visibility and opportunities."

♦♦♦♦♦

The acrid smell of hairspray and burnt hair permeates a long, cavernous room on the fifth floor of the Armory. It is Nov. 9, the day of the runway show, and the bomb-sniffing dogs from Spartan Security Services have cleared reporters and photographers who have made their way into the hair and makeup rotation, a five-hour media op with a buffet. The models -- wearing matching short magenta satin robes -- mingle with the media mob while they are alternately assaulted by an army tugging at their tresses and dabbing lip gloss on pillow lips. (There are 21 makeup artists, 19 hair stylists and 50 dressers.)

A paper sign clipped to a heavy blue curtain indicates the "bronzing" corner. And a peek through a crack in the drapes reveals dressers slathering spray tan on a topless model. "Make sure that the girls have no shimmer at all on the body," admonishes head makeup artist Tom Pecheux.

In another corner, the $2.5 million Fantasy Treasure Bra is displayed on a form while security specialist Darren Pittman stands sentinel. ("I have to stay with the bra," he says.) It will appear in the Victoria's Secret holiday catalog, though it isn't likely to find a buyer. In fact, none of the multimillion-dollar Fantasy Bras has been purchased. They end up getting dismantled, say sources.

But all of that bling is simply stitched onto the Victoria's Secret Gorgeous Push-up Bra. And that particular fantasy can be yours for about $50.

BY THE NUMBERS

  • 142: Diamond carats in Fantasy Bra
  • 100: CBS production staffers
  • 50: Dressers
  • 36: Models
  • 9 million: Viewers in 2010
  • 3: Bomb-sniffing dogs
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