Picture this: You’re 19 years old, an up-and-coming model, and bursting with all the hopeful uncertainty that comes with youth, when suddenly a miracle occurs—you’ve been cast in the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. Within a matter of weeks, you’re on a supersonic jet to France, sitting next to Adriana Lima, and catapulting toward the rest of your life.
Sixteen years ago, this was Alessandra Ambrosio. “I was really young, so naïve,” she tells me, as we sit across from one another at a Victoria’s Secret boutique in West Hollywood. “It was amazing.” At the time, Ambrosio had no idea that she would grow to become one of the most recognized supermodels in the world, known everywhere for her seductive gaze, her toned physique, and her enigmatic allure, the signature qualities of so many of the most famous Brazilian models.
This year, Ambrosio walks in the Victoria’s Secret Fashion show for the sixteenth year in a row (it airs tonight, December 5 at 10 p.m. EST on CBS). She promises it never gets old. Her eyes sparkle as she recalls her adventures with the iconic yearly event. We wanted a deeper understanding of the magic Ambrosio and her fellow angels feel every year. So, we asked Ambrosio to take us back to her very first show 16 years ago. In her own words, she told us the tale of her start as a VS angel and the wild evolution she’s gone through since. Keep scrolling to read her story.
Alessandra Ambrosio: “Here’s what I remember: I went to a casting for the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, and they asked me to stay. They wanted me to be the fit model for that year. So I got to try every single outfit for the show; I would see all of the models coming in and out: Stephanie Seymour, Helena Christensen, Tyra, all the girls. Karen Mulder, Laetitia Casta, all the supermodels from the ’90s. Once I was done with the fittings they were like, ‘We’re going to take you with us to Cannes.’ That was the first time I did the show.
“It was such an amazing experience, because we got to fly on Concorde, and it was my first time in Cannes, and it was at the film festival. It was ultra-glamorous, you know? I had really wanted to work with [Victoria’s Secret]. But I think when you’re young, you don’t even realize what a big deal it is. I was so young, so innocent. I just went with the flow; I just had fun. Me and Adriana [Lima] really bonded on that trip, because we’re both from Brazil, and we were doing everything together. She did the show the year before, so she had a little bit more experience than me. She was telling me everything I had to do, which was really great.
“The night of that first show, I remember being backstage and hanging out with all the Brazilian girls: Me, Gisele, Adriana. I remember seeing all of the big supermodels—they had their own room where they got ready. After the show, we all had to get ready for the after-party. I wore this beautiful Oscar De La Renta sheer dress because I was doing the campaign for him at the time, so he gave me the dress to wear for that show; that was really sweet of him. I remember I went backstage and asked for a picture with Karen Mulder and one with Stephanie Seymour because they were my absolute favorite models at the time. So I got to take a picture with them. And the rest was just enjoying. That’s it. I was so young. You think you know everything, but I didn’t know anything back then.
“The good thing about when I first started was I didn’t have so much pressure, like, I didn’t put pressure on myself. So it was more easygoing. You got to relax and enjoy more. Now, there’s a lot of pressure, everybody has to be crazy fit. You want to be on top of your game. The night before the show I do a spray tan, which I only do once a year, the night before the show, to get the fresh glow. The day of the show we put on moisturizer and a gold shimmer to get extra glowy skin. But back then, they didn’t put the show on TV; it was only the people who were there and some pictures. There wasn’t any social media, so barely anything went out. Now the whole world gets to see it, and with all the social media you see every angle, every second. So you have to be on it. It’s a lot more work, more pressure, but it’s way bigger and way better.
“I didn’t start working out until I was 23 or 24. I never worked out at that point in my life. I was 19 so really young. All I liked to do was go out with my friends and dance. That was it. That was my workout. It never crossed my mind to go to the gym at that point.
“Now, I try to work out through the year. I go for hikes; I’m playing volleyball on the beach constantly. And then in September after my vacations, I come back and start training. A friend told me to try Tracy Anderson, so I went to her studio here in the city. I started working out once a day at her studio. It’s amazing; she does this dance cardio thing that’s incredible. I hate doing cardio, so for me, that’s the only way. It puts me back to when I was 19, dancing again, sweating. It’s fun and at the same time you’re getting in shape.”
“With Victoria’s Secret, the thing that never gets old is when you get to see your outfits, when you get to try your wings. I really liked when they gave me the candy wings and the candy outfit. I was really young back then. And also, there was this pair of gold wings I wore in Miami that had amazing crystals everywhere; it was gorgeous.
“Then, of course, there’s the show. The artists are always new, so it’s always different. There’s always the surprise factor—you’re in the show, people are watching, anything could happen, so it feels very alive. You have all this energy, all this adrenaline. The minute the lights are on and the music starts, the adrenaline is pumping in your body and it’s crazy; that never gets old. It doesn’t matter how many times you do it; it feels like the first time.”
Feeling inspired? Snag a bottle of Victoria’s Secret’s sultry new Paris perfume ($65). Then, drag the arrow below to see a throwback photo of Alessandra at the VS Fashion Show!
Photos: KMazur/Getty and Francois G. Durand/Getty
This interview has been edited for tone and clarity.