One day at work, Michelle (not her real name), a former Victoria’s Secret employee from a California store, was helping “this little old man. He had a free coupon and his wife was like, ‘Oh, I want these panties,’” she recalled to The Daily Beast. “And he was like, describing them to me. I was like, ‘Okay,’ and I brought them over to where the panties were.”
“He said, ‘I like your nipples. They’re so small.’ I was like, ‘What did you just fucking say to me?’” Michelle said. “He was like, ‘Oh, I didn’t [say anything].’ I’m like, ‘You can go fuck yourself.’ And he’s literally laughing to himself and talking to himself as he’s walking out through the door.”
“I had only one person stand up for me and go after the customer which was the assistant store manager,” Michelle said. “When other members of management heard about the situation, I was referred to the employee dress code guide and told to always feel comfortable to go to a manager about ‘problematic’ customers, and that was it. They didn’t do enough, and when they tried, it was too little too late.”
This is just one account of the reality behind the fantasy that Victoria’s Secret is “a lady’s paradise,” as former L Brands CEO Leslie Wexner puts it in Hulu’s new documentary about the brand. Sales associates pounding the lacquered floors at one of Victoria’s Secret’s many retail locations—in 2016, there were 1,177 in the United States alone—work diligently to hit sales goals and satisfy customers.
However, The Daily Beast has conducted interviews with several Victoria’s Secret sales associates, both former and current, who assert that the fantasy is a day-to-day sham. The associates, whether they worked in North Carolina or California, New York City or suburban Michigan, described work conditions where a toxic atmosphere, defined by sexual harassment from customers and insufficient intervention by managers, was the norm.
In a public-facing job, customers behaving badly is always a possibility–any hostess at a regularly packed restaurant could tell you that. But at a lingerie business like Victoria’s Secret, the implication of a titillating, sexually-charged vibe means that sales associates are frequently harassed by men in the store who clearly have things in mind other than shopping.
“I remember one guy was coming in and, and the torso mannequins usually have bras and underwear on them,” Laura Skiles, a former Victoria’s Secret employee from California, told The Daily Beast. “He was coming in and putting his finger underneath the underwear, where the private parts of the mannequin would be.”
“I don’t think I ever felt like I was in true danger, but I definitely felt uncomfortable on a regular basis with interactions with male customers,” Skiles said. “A lot of them were significantly older than us and I think they thought it was cute. But we were just out of high school, most of us, or in our early twenties, and we’re trained to just be smiley and not told to stick up for ourselves.”
Skiles said she didn’t think she or her coworkers ever spoke to management about the harassment. “We never really felt protected by management, but we all looked out for each other.”
“The first time I had an encounter with a man trying to come onto me when I was working on the floor, I’d gone to my manager to say something and it was kind of like, ‘You’re just going to have to put up with it and ignore it,’” one woman, who worked as a Victoria’s Secret sales associate at a Massachusetts mall as a teenager, told The Daily Beast.
“The guy must have come over on his lunch break or something, because he was in a suit,” the former associate said of the incident. “He was like, ‘Oh, I’m here shopping for my wife,’ so we were just walking around and picking things out. He said, ‘I’d love to see this on you. You should try it on for me.’ I replied, ‘Well, you’re shopping for your wife.’ And he said, ‘Oh, I know, but it would be great to see it on a model.’ I said, ‘That’s against store policy. I could never do something like that. And he was like, ‘Oh, come on. It wouldn’t hurt anybody. It’s not busy in here.’ I said, ‘I still can’t do that. It’s against the rules. And he said, ‘OK, that’s fine then,’ and was kind of annoyed.”
“I never went to a manager again after that. When it happened, you just kind of had to fend for yourself.”
— Lena Clark
“That was the first and only time I had gone to management when a guy had made a creepy statement like that,” the associate said. “I was told to just let the customer say what they want and be like, ‘OK, well, I can’t do that.’ I never went to a manager again after that. When it happened, you just kind of had to fend for yourself.”
Alex, a New York City 5th Avenue Victoria’s Secret employee, recounted an experience her coworker had. “New York gets crazy. There’s a lot of mentally ill guys that do come in. There was one guy who was screaming and sniffing the bras and underwear, yelling at people. My coworker told me that when she tried to tell the manager that she didn’t feel safe, they said, ‘Oh, just worry about ‘filling the bag,’ which means just pushing the products on more people. And she’s like, ‘But what about our safety? They didn’t offer anything for that.”
“I think sexual harassment is such a huge issue for the girls that work there,” a former 5th Avenue employee who wished to remain anonymous said. “Guys will come in, hit on us and be like, ‘I think this looks super hot, what’s your breast size?’ Or they’ll say, ‘This turns me on.’ Some guy came into the store and told my coworker at the front door, ‘You’re giving me such a boner right now.’ We have security at the door, but security didn’t kick the guy out. She had to wait for the guy to leave and then make a report.”
The anonymous 5th Avenue employee said she didn’t know how many of these reports were filed, “or how many [people] just don’t report because they figure it’s just par for the course of working here.”
“There is no VS union,” the employee added, “and I’m not sure if anyone ever reached out to a union. I know I’ve talked with my coworkers about it, but I don’t think any of us spoke to a union leader or anything.”
The Daily Beast reached out to the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union for comment.
The Victoria’s Secret employee Code of Conduct, reviewed by The Daily Beast, states that “we do not tolerate discrimination, harassment or bullying.” Examples of harassment or discrimination include “giving unwanted sexual attention to others—colleagues, customers, vendors, and other business partners or third parties,” “sexually explicit or suggestive comments or behavior” and “verbal, non-verbal, visual or physical behavior that makes another person feel intimidated, offended or uncomfortable.”
“This policy also applies to all customers, vendors, contractors, business partners or potential business partners and other third parties when they are doing business with us or are on our premises, and we expect and require that they will be treated with respect and that they will behave in ways that align with our culture of respect,” the Code continues. “Any customers, vendors, contractors or other business partners who believe they have been subjected to harassment, discrimination or bullying should raise the incident to Global Ethics & Compliance or the Ethics Hotline.”
The anonymous 5th Avenue employee described “a pretty strict dress code where girls have had to get a doctor’s note in order to wear sneakers.”
Several employees said that their stores employed security guards, but that the guards were generally more concerned with loss prevention than employee safety. This combination of factors created an environment that many sales associates found chaotic and alarming.
“I had just turned 19 when I started working at Victoria’s Secret, so there would be guys following me and they would literally have to hide me in the back of the store, because you can’t really kick someone out like that without causing a scene,” Bunny, a former sales associate from Temecula, California, told The Daily Beast.
“To ensure our safety, we all left in groups at the end of the day.”
— Bunny, former sales associate
“Men would be like, ‘I’m looking for something for my girlfriend or my wife,’ and while they were doing that they would actively be flirting with me,” Bunny added. “There was one time where a guy wrote his phone number on a perfume tester card. He said, ‘Yeah, my baby mama kicked me out’ and then handed me his number.”
“I declined and he proceeded to attempt to persuade me so I went to the back of the store for a few minutes,” Bunny said. “Apparently, he made a purchase and insisted to see me. My manager asked him to leave and I stayed at the cash register for the rest of my shift for my safety. Thankfully that’s as bad as it would get for me, but the other problem were the shoe cleaner salespeople in the kiosk outside of the store. They’d harass us constantly, even after being told to stop by managers and security. That was a daily thing for the most part. To ensure our safety, we all left in groups at the end of the day.”
“There was this one guy who would always go in and smell all the underwear. It was very creepy.”
— Bee, former sales associate
“There was this one guy who would always go in and smell all the underwear,” Bee, a former sales associate at a North Carolina Victoria’s Secret, told The Daily Beast. “It was very creepy.”
“We had people have sex in the dressing room every now and then,” Michelle told The Daily Beast. “One of my coworkers, who was like a sister to me, once had a guy who had been staring at her from across the way in the mall. He ran inside the store and palmed her ass and was just like, ‘You’re so beautiful.’ She went to backhand him, and it’s like he had known it was coming. He just bolted out the door. She said, ‘I hate this, this is not something you prepare for when you go to work.’”
“I didn’t ever really feel unsafe, but I definitely was desensitized to sexual things,” a former Victoria’s Secret worker from Buffalo told The Daily Beast.
“The safety and wellbeing of our associates and customers is our top priority, and Victoria’s Secret has a zero-tolerance policy regarding any type of harassment or discrimination in our workplace,” Victoria’s Secret told The Daily Beast in a statement, in response to the experiences laid out in this article. “While we cannot control the actions or intentions of customers who enter our stores, we are committed to protecting the health and safety of our associates.”
“We strive to create an environment where associates are safe and we encourage and expect them to speak up so every issue can be dealt with appropriately. As the world’s largest intimates retailer, with women making up the majority of our more than 30,000 associates, we are proud to have industry leading best practices in place to protect our associates and to give them a voice to raise concerns.
“These include, but are not limited to, anti-harassment and de-escalation training, a 24/7 ethics hotline and 24/7 emergency support center which provides in the moment support to associates, an extensive process for dealing with reports of incidents of harassment or discrimination, creating a personalized protection plan for associates whose safety is threatened, engaging mall security personnel or local law enforcement, and deploying mental health professionals to stores where needed.”
“I couldn’t believe the betrayal, honestly”
For the Buffalo worker and others, the unwelcome attention on the part of customers was only one negative facet of their employment. “You would have to ask to go to the bathroom on the headset to leave your zone, and then over the headset, they’d say, ‘Didn’t you already go recently?’ and everyone can hear,” she recalled.
“I was constantly dehydrated and hungry,” the Buffalo worker claimed. “If I had snuck water on the floor, [management] made me go put it in the back.”
“I would hear the things that I was saying to customers all day long in my head while I was sleeping and when I woke up, it wouldn’t leave my head,” the Buffalo worker added. “I even started to have to wear fake glasses that I would put on when I would go to work, so that I could try to separate my personality, because it became so encompassing.” She also started having panic attacks at work.
The Buffalo worker found work elsewhere as a banker, but the indignities of her old retail job still haunt her.
Current and former employees also describe being driven to sell relentlessly by unsympathetic managers, who also frequently required that staffers work late hours with no overtime and for low or minimum wages that rarely, if ever, increased.
“I got into a car accident on my way home from work at Victoria’s Secret,” the Massachusetts former store worker told The Daily Beast. “We were there until like 2:00 AM, because you had to make sure the store’s clean before the next day. It was winter and I was driving home, and I ended up hitting a patch of black ice and my car spun out of control and I hit somebody’s rock wall.”
“Their property was up on a hill a little bit,” the worker said. “There was this rock wall and then a wooden fence above the rock wall. So I hit that rock wall and their fence basically exploded.”
She was terrified, but unhurt. Her car’s bumper, though, was ripped off in the accident. The next morning, she contacted her manager to call out from her scheduled shift. “The manager was really giving me a hard time,” the associate said. “She said, ‘Well, you have to come in here. I was like, ‘I cannot come in, my car’s not safe to drive in this weather. If I get into an accident with no bumper on my car, I could hurt somebody and not just myself.”
Her manager was unmoved. “I think I was scheduled for maybe one more shift,” the associate said, “and then it was one of those, you know, you’re iced out by your employer and not put on the schedule and then eventually you’re just gone.”
“It was the most awful thing that has ever happened to me in a job. I couldn’t believe the betrayal, honestly.”
— Bee, former sales associate
Bee described being promised by management that she was being groomed for a management role herself. Bee says she was even encouraged to drop college courses and quit her other job at Pacsun to dedicate more time to Victoria’s Secret, only for her store to be closed with no warning.
“Once we found out that the location was closing down, the district manager just stopped communicating with all of us completely, even the store manager,” Bee told The Daily Beast. “They told us two days after Christmas. So they were like, ‘Hey, you have two weeks to find another job,’ pretty much. It was the most awful thing that has ever happened to me in a job. I couldn’t believe the betrayal, honestly.”
“The managers were fine when I first started interviewing, but on the day to day I found them pretty dismissive,” Lauren, a former Victoria’s Secret employee from Michigan, told The Daily Beast.
Lauren is a Black woman, and while she worked with “three or four” other Black sales associates, “All the managers were white,” she told The Daily Beast. “In the back of your head you’re wondering if that’s the reason why you’re not on the main floor, or if that’s the reason why they’re dismissive of you.”
“They would schedule me first thing in the morning in the workout or the beauty section where no one would ever go,” Lauren said in a follow-up interview. Did this feel like a microaggression? “The trouble with racism is that you never really know,” Lauren said. “You’re never a hundred percent sure. But they seem to almost always put me in that section.”
“It didn’t seem like [the managers] liked me very much compared to other coworkers,” Lauren added. “They never offered any type of encouragement or even any conversation. I can’t even remember having a conversation with managers.”
Nine of the 10 sales associates interviewed by The Daily Beast for this story also described feeling deeply uncomfortable with the company’s credit card program, which they were tasked with aggressively pitching to customers. Getting as many people to sign up for the card as possible became “the most important job we had,” a former Victoria’s Secret employee named Laura from California said.
Young teenagers, many of whom had never had their own credit card before, were encouraged to sign up for a Victoria’s Secret credit card, which came with interest rates of 20 to 30 percent and lines of credit that fluctuated unexpectedly, several sales associates said. Employees said that it was a frequent occurrence that customers would return to Victoria’s Secret soon after signing up for the card, dismayed by the damage the program was doing to their credit.
“It actually happened to my mother,” the anonymous former 5th Avenue flagship employee told The Daily Beast. “She forgot to pay whatever $30 bill one day. And this was with 20 percent or 30 percent APR, or something crazy. It just totally destroyed her credit.”
“Victoria’s Secret is a toxic ex”
The brand’s origin story is, by now, the stuff of retail legend. In 1977, marketing professional Roy Raymond noticed how uncomfortable he felt shopping for lingerie for his wife in department stores, and set out to launch “a high-end place that doesn’t make you feel like a pervert,” as Justin Timberlake’s character, Sean Parker, in The Social Network memorably put it.
In fact, that description of the Victoria’s Secret myth is so concise, let’s just stick with Timberlake’s Aaron Sorkin-crafted summary: Raymond “makes a half-million dollars his first year, starts a catalogue, opens three more stores and after five years, he sells the company to Leslie Wexner and The Limited for $4 million. [Correction: it was actually $1 million.] Happy ending, right? Except two years later, the company’s worth $500 million and Roy Raymond jumps off the Golden Gate Bridge.”
There was no way Raymond could have anticipated that in selling to Wexner, he’d handed his life’s work over to one of the most brilliant and ruthless marketing minds of the 20th century. It would be many years later, only after Wexner’s ties to convicted sex offender and billionaire wrangler Jeffrey Epstein came to light, that the executive was finally forced to offload a majority stake of Victoria’s Secret to a private equity firm in 2020, and the brand’s Golden Age came to a sour end.
Before the allegations that Victoria’s Secret fostered a deeply misogynistic corporate environment, before the reports of harassment and intimidation of the brand’s exalted models, before Victoria’s Secret was lumped in with other popular brands blamed for promoting unattainable beauty standards in the early aughts, for a time, the underwear-peddler could do no wrong.
By the 1990s, Victoria’s Secret was the biggest lingerie retailer in the United States with sales of $1 billion. More wins followed: the introduction of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, a spectacle that dominated the public’s imagination for many years before its 2019 cancellation, and the establishment of the “Angels,” an elite roster of Victoria’s Secret models whose presence as brand ambassadors became almost godlike. The Angels captured our imaginations, directly anticipating the rise of the flawless social media influencer.
“I thought it was gonna be so much fun working there, and it’s not fun at all. It’s a hot mess.”
— Amanda, former employee
But in recent years, Epstein-induced damage to the brand’s image, COVID-19 store closures and an increase in cultural interest in body positivity, rather than perfect bodies, have knocked Victoria’s Secret off its pedestal. Swerving away from its super-sexy origins and towards the zeitgeist, the brand announced a comfort line of intimates called Love Cloud earlier this year, but the damage VS has sustained may be irreparable: the brand’s stock fell more than 20 percent over the previous six months, CNBC reported in February, and between 2019 and 2020, Victoria’s Secret’s revenue fell from $7.5 billion to $5.4 billion.
For some of the employees who spoke to The Daily Beast, despite their negative in-store experiences, the air of fantasy that Victoria’s Secret worked to cultivate can be difficult to shake off completely.
“I had always wanted to work at Victoria’s Secret ever since I was a teenager, because I was obsessed with the brand and obsessed with the image of it,” Amanda (not her real name), a former 5th Avenue employee, said. “I thought it was gonna be so much fun working there, and it’s not fun at all. It’s a hot mess.”
Years later, for reasons she can’t quite explain, the Buffalo worker still finds herself being pulled back. “I’ll go into Victoria’s Secret and observe the people selling things there, and I want to offer advice to their management because I’m that crazy about Victoria’s Secret,” she said.
“Victoria’s Secret is a toxic ex, is what I tell everybody,” Michelle told The Daily Beast. “You don’t wanna go back to him, but sometimes you do because he’s right there.”