Editor's Note: Given the unprecedented we are living under due to the ongoing global pandemic, this covershoot was similarly unprecented for Out. “Valentina and I created this photo series remotely via [video chat,]" photographer Alex La Cruz says. "Throughout the call I could hear the waves on the coast of Brazil and the birds around her house set against my soundscape, L.A. quarantine: the sound of street protests and police sirens. I turned my living room into a remote studio where I experimented with analog effects on the projected live feed of Valentina. At the time it was impossible to fly clothes for shoots. I created the illusion of fashion by utilizing things available around the house at the time, like dried rose petals and red wine, and arranged them on Valentina’s projected naked body.”
Valentina Sampaio is one of the most in-demand models out there. In the last five years alone she’s booked multiple Vogue covers and appeared in projects for Victoria’s Secret and Sports Illustrated, making history every step of the way.
Over the span of her short career, Sampaio has bounced around the fashion world — shooting in London, working in New York, and walking fashion shows in Milan. She was just getting started when the pandemic caused the world (and the fashion industry) to stop. Now back in her native Brazil, the trailblazing model is mostly twiddling her thumbs with family in the fishing village she was raised in.
“It’s always amazing to come back home and stay close with [my family] and spend time with them,” Sampaio says on a Zoom call from São Paulo. She’s visiting there from her hometown of Aquiraz — a village in the state of Ceará in northeastern Brazil that she says feels like a “big family” — in order to do a professional photo shoot for a few days. “It’s always the best moment of the year when I can come back. Now I have more time.”
Sampaio was the second of seven children growing up in Aquiraz, surrounded by ocean, mud, nature, and a large family. One of her grandmothers had eight siblings and the other had seven, so the idea of home (she lived with her grandparents before moving into her parents’ home as a preteen) has always been lively. And that large family has been supportive of her career, for the most part.
Though the model was assigned male at birth, she maintains that she has always “known who I am and I showed that to everybody.” While those in her village might have cautioned her away from playing with dolls or called out her mannerisms that were thought to be feminine in a bid to eradicate them, Sampaio was unmoved.
“I knew I wasn’t a boy, I knew I was Valentina,” she says simply of her childhood. “I stayed strong in this and eventually they accepted.” She kept much of the same mind-set when confronting dissent at school, unwavering in who she knew herself to be. The fact that the town was small, she argues, may be why she didn’t experience the aggression some of her trans peers did: “Everybody knew me.”
Instead, Sampaio was allowed to dream, pulling inspiration from people like Grace Jones who presented a genderless version of beauty and glamour. And then there was Roberta Close.
“When I was growing up I only had Roberta Close,” she says of the model, actress, and sex symbol who had once been deemed the most beautiful woman in Brazil. “I just remember she was very famous in Brazil, and when I was a kid it was just her that I had to look up to. Everyone was going crazy about her and her beauty.”
Close’s career was vast, as she appeared on the cover of publications such as Playboy Brazil and worked with designers like Jean Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler. In the process, she etched her name in history as an intersex person of trans experience, paving the way for Brazilian models like Sampaio and Lea T, another groundbreaking trans model. But originally, Sampaio wasn’t planning on becoming a model.
As a teen, Sampaio had planned on being a designer. She went to school for it, in fact. At age 15 she traveled to Estacio University in her state’s capital city of Fortaleza, 45 minutes from her village by bus, to study fashion design, but while on campus she was routinely asked whether she was a model.
After much pressure, Sampaio decided to try it out. But on her first job, at 18, she witnessed institutional transphobia firsthand.
“I was getting ready to shoot when they realized I was trans,” says Sampaio, who was fired on the spot. She’s yet to reveal the name of the label. “I remember they told me that I could be a model like Lea T. She told me that I wasn’t the right match for that brand because they knew that they were a conservative brand. I remember I felt so bad and I felt that I was wrong and I didn’t deserve to work.”
Sampaio left the industry in 2014 after the experience. The year would be remembered as a major one for trans models in fashion: Barneys released a landmark ad campaign featuring 17 trans models, and Lea T booked a Redken hair gig, the first major beauty campaign for an out trans model. This built on progress that had started four years earlier when Lea T had made her debut as a face of the high-fashion label Givenchy and Carol Marra became the first out trans woman to walk in Brazil’s Fashion Rio.
By 2016, Sampaio was back, newly invigorated with a self-grown inner strength. She had returned after doing a few cameos in television, ready to push her career forward as a sign of hope and a fight against discrimination that anyone might face.
“I decided that I had to tell people [about my gender] and raise my voice,” she says of her recommitment to her fashion career. “Not just for me, but for everybody that experiences discrimination.”
For her first job back, Sampaio recorded a short documentary with L’Oréal Paris to commemorate her first International Women’s Day. As revealed in the video, the observance would be the first one she could celebrate with official identification papers that affirmed and recognized her gender.
“I thought the market needed a woman that represented transgender beauty and she fits perfectly into that,” says Liliana Gomes, director of Joy Model Management Brazil, the first agency to sign Sampaio. “I think she came in a time where diversity in fashion was, and still is, very important and brands were searching for someone like her.” While she no longer works with Joy, she has since gone on to be repped by powerhouse agencies around the world like The Lions Talent Management, who represents her in New York City. At The Lions she is represented alongside A-list talent like Stella Maxwell, Candice Swanepoel, Irina Shayk, Jon Kortajarena, and Lara Stone among others.
But back in 2016 it did seem like brands were looking for someone like Sampaio. The rising star went on to walk São Paulo Fashion Week before appearing on the covers of both Elle Brazil and L’Officiel Brasil. With the March 2017 issue of Vogue Paris, she became the first model of trans experience to ever cover an issue of Vogue. Then it was Vogue Brazil later that year and Elle France in 2019 — the same year she also became the first trans model to work with Victoria’s Secret.
“I always dreamed to be [in Victoria’s Secret] because I’m a woman and I deserve to be there,” she says of booking the job. Now she shoots more for the brand than she has any other label in her career. “I think I represent a change. I think the brand is showing the importance of diversity.”
Her Victoria’s Secret gig came after years of criticism about resistance from the company’s owners over casting models that didn’t fit a very specific slim, cisgender view of beauty. Gomes says that other trans models now look to Sampaio as a role model.
“She is not the first Brazilian transgender model, but so far she is the most successful,” the director says. But as Sampaio’s star rises, she realizes she is an anomaly, and she works to make space and opportunities for other trans women, especially those in Brazil.
Shortly after she made her Victoria’s Secret debut, Sampaio appeared at a brunch for Teen Vogue’s annual summit in affiliation with the brand. There she gave a speech in which she dedicated a moment to Dandara dos Santos, a Brazilian trans woman who had been tortured and killed in a viral video in 2017. Five men were convicted of beating her with fists, shoes, stones, and wooden planks and were given prison sentences, though seven others were also accused of involvement in the hate crime.
“That moment was important because we are being shamed, beaten, and killed every day,” Sampaio says of the inclusion. “I come from a country that has the highest LGBTQ+ murder rate, and it is rising. Forbes reported that in 2019, 331 trans people were killed worldwide and 130 of those were here in Brazil. Those who killed have faced little or no consequence for their crimes.” Sampaio adds, “We are treated as if we are disposable.”
The model aims to change that by bringing attention to the killings and other atrocities. But it doesn’t end there. She’s also providing a way for her community to live and make a living and hopes to work with the organizations Casa Florecer and Projeto Existimos to fortify their efforts to provide housing and other necessities. She also hopes to start her own organization to push the movement forward. Some of these moves come as she’s seen potential examples on her trips abroad.
“I remember we were at a supermarket and this woman came to me,” she says of one of her first visits to New York. “We started talking and she told me she was trans. I was just so happy to see that she was just there working like everyone else. You don’t see that where I come from: In Brazil the doors are closed for you just because you’re trans. We don’t have any types of work, only [sex work] or maybe working in a hair salon. In Brazil my simple existence is called a sin, so we don’t see people working at the supermarket or pharmacy. That needs to change.”
This cover is a part of Out's 2020 Fashion Issue. Valentina Sampaio is one of two covers. She was shot by Alex la Cruz. The other cover features Shea Coulee and Scott Studenberg — Studenberg guest-edited that feature.