• Industry

Docs: “Victoria’s Secret: Angels & Demons” Digs Into Money, Power, Sex and Cover-Up

Decades of twisty crime dramas and political thrillers have collectively hard-sold audiences on the notion that the truth is never what it seems. And so the overlapping stories, salacious and sordid, which Victorias Secret: Angels & Demons put under the microscope create the framework of a jaw-dropping expose. They definitely spotlight behavior ranging from distasteful to abusive and even criminal, and if one squints just a bit they seem to point to something truly scandalous — even if the darkest specifics of this intersectional story of money, power, sex, and elite-society cover-up never come completely into focus.

Directed by Matt Tyrnauer, the new three-part Hulu documentary series explores the incredible rise and stunning fall of the titular iconic women’s lingerie brand, in addition to toxic workplace allegations, and, most headline-grabbing, enigmatic ex-CEO Les Wexner’s warped, curious relationship with a convicted sex offender and credibly accused trafficker Jeffrey Epstein.

Still, there’s an overarching grimness which this project can’t quite fully chase down and wrestle to the ground. The result, while still wholly engaging throughout, ultimately occupies a somewhat unusual middle ground for a modern nonfiction effort, feeling like it would benefit from either a tighter cut (in the form of, say a two-hour movie) or slightly more breathing room, in order to fully explore some of its most consequential allegations.

Angels & Demons is undergirded by a healthy roster of interviewees across all manner of intersection with the company. This includes models Frederique van der Wal and Lyndsey Scott, former Victoria’s Secret executives Cindy Fedus-Fields and Sharleen Ernster, plus figures who reported on the company and/or Wexner, like journalists Sarah Ellison, Nicole Phelps, and Tim Feran, and authors Teri Agins and Barry Levine. Amongst the most informative and interesting of these guides are Focus author Michael Gross, who conveys a near-peerless knowledge of both the retail fashion industry as well as the culture at large, and erstwhile Victoria’s Secret casting director James Scully, whose relationship with the company spanned decades.

Episode one of the series, entitled “Inventing Victoria,” in large part chronicles the rise of billionaire Wexner, who used his experience growing up working in his parents’ Columbus, Ohio, clothing store to start The Limited in 1963. Veritably inventing “fast fashion” (in which he would leverage private jets to shop European cities up to six times per year for emerging trends, in order to then craft quick-turnaround, cost-conscious, mainstream knockoffs), Wexner would eventually grow The Limited into more than a dozen different companies (including Lane Bryant and Abercrombie & Fitch) that dominated the American retail clothing space, particularly in malls.

In 1982, he purchased Victoria’s Secret, then just a modestly successful mail-order business, from co-founders Roy and Gaye Raymond. Taking a page of stated inspiration from Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies, Wexner would oversee the crafting of a new brand story involving a mythical founder, positioning Victoria’s Secret as both refined and aspirational.

The results were amazing. A $6 million business boomed to $242 million in 1987, then $3.1 billion by 2000, and over $6 billion in 2008 — much of it on the strength of the company’s glossily produced catalog (with its in-store coupons for free underwear), which became a premium marketing vessel that just happened to make a lot of money. When Wexner would eventually pivot and make his entrance to New York City high society, buying chic department store Henri Bendel, he found himself in need of a cultural translator. Here, enter Epstein.

Episode two, entitled “The Secret Friend,” wades further into this opaque relationship. In 1991, even though himself a titan of industry, Wexner would strangely grant Epstein — a college dropout who had relationship-traded his way into several jobs and actually risen to the level of limited partner at Bear Stearns before being fired from that securities trading and brokerage firm — full power of attorney across 20 different companies, 19 trusts and charitable foundations, and a variety of real estate holdings. Was it a (major) lapse in judgment? The sign of a clandestine homosexual affair? The result of some blackmail, sexual or otherwise? No one knows for certain except Wexner, whose public explanations have been lacking.


Other topics explored in this segment include the Victoria’s Secret brand forays into even more overtly sexualized presentation (hello, Michael Bay commercials!); growing clouds of suspicion over some of the behavior of Chief Marketing Officer Ed Razek, Wexner’s trusted second-in-command; the development and growth of Wexner’s carefully crafted township wonderland of New Albany, Ohio; Wexner’s marriage at 52 years old to Abigail Koppel, two decades his junior; and Epstein’s 2006 arrest for procuring a minor for prostitution, followed by a one-year delay in Wexner removing the former’s POA designation.

The third episode of the series, “Tarnished Angels,” focuses in part on Victoria’s Secret’s implosion, from the self-immolation of its 2014 “The Perfect Body” ad and Razek’s subsequent tone-deaf media blitz to missing the cultural inflection point of the #MeToo movement. These missteps, among other misfortunes, would open the door for other lingerie brands like Aerie, Third Love, and Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty. In 2019, the once iconic Victoria’s Secret fashion show would be shuttered for good.

There’s also more information about Epstein, including bigger connections to his Virgin Islands property, and alleged penchant for collecting blackmail material. In its last half-hour, in particular, the docu-series becomes a figurative snow machine of impropriety, outrage, and… oddness. Angels & Demons touches on the August 2019 death of Epstein and the February 2022 death of his former associate Jean-Luc Brunel (both occurring in prison, and ruled suicides by hanging), and there are additional tangents about Wexner investing in a machine to manifest his consciousness into an AI program, plus tossed-out theories about potential connections to the Mossad by both Wexner and Epstein.

A gifted writer and one-time editor-at-large for Vanity Fair, Tyrnauer has a filmography studded with credits assaying the worlds of fashion, secret domains, political fixing and powerbroker intrigue. He made his directorial debut in 2009 with Valentino: The Last Emperor and other credits include Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood (currently in development as a feature film with director Luca Guadagnino) Where’s My Roy Cohn?, and Showtime’s four-part The Reagans. This canon makes him highly qualified for the subject matter at the heart of Angels & Demons.

But Tyrnauer and editor Jason Hardwick struggle a bit to give form to their project. It holds one’s attention throughout, no doubt. Yet its editorial hinges and pivot points often feel strained. Thematically, one can easily grasp the link between the stories of Epstein assault accusers Maria Farmer and Alicia Arden, and, say, a cultural examination of Victoria’s Secret’s teenage Pink label spin-off as a kind of analog version of Instagram, preying on the insecurity of especially young girls.

The reality, though, is that these narrative strands are integrated somewhat clumsily. And this makes the series seem like it’s telling two stories when it truly is all interrelated: a tale of the male gaze — couched in proper business on one end, curdled and criminal on the other — wrapped up in billionaire privilege. If Angels & Demons doesn’t quite succeed in presenting a workable theory of even speculative truth, it at least makes a convincing case that the same man who once dictated the specific circumference of trees in New Albany cannot reasonably claim ignorance of Epstein’s malfeasance and myriad abuses. Of course, that spoken truth bears no other consequences.