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Tonight’s 16th annual Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show will be such a blinding blur of light, sound and skin it will be over before your brain has time to click into gear and make sense of it all. Which is partly the point of it all: just sit back, let the blizzard engulf you, then reach for your credit card.

But there’s a lot going on under the lights at the Lexington Armory besides just those gleaming, glittering, gorgeous costumed amazons. To help put the whole VS extravaganza into context, we’ve put together this little viewers’ guide.

This Year, It’s All About The Kids
Who can forget the highlight of last year’s VSFS, when junior Angel Chanel Iman got her wings and the offstage announcer could be heard gushing, “Go, baby Chanel!”? Well, this year at least eight of the 37 models will be younger than baby Chanel (who turns 21 on Thursday). Victoria’s Secret has been anxiously counting down the months on the calendar till they could enlist some of the current youth brigade of supermodels, including Karlie Kloss (19), Bregje Heinen (18) and Caroline Brasch Nielsen (18).

It’s a deliberate, and smart, move to fill in some of the conspicuous recent gaps in the Angel lineup after popular luminaries such as Heidi Klum and Marisa Miller — and now Rosie H-W — moved on. This year’s lineup skews younger (average age is 23.5), which fits nicely with the VS target market of youngsters with disposable cash.

Of course, the VSFS can also make you feel really old. Miranda is already 28 and Adriana and Ale, the grannies of the group, are the big 3-0.

This Year, It’s All About The Body
Hard to imagine, but there have been a few bumps in Victoria’s Secret’s gold-paved road to global domination this year. The company came under fire repeatedly (including here) for promoting unhealthy body types after several models (notably Candice Swanepoel and Lily Aldridge) appeared to lose weight dramatically. That perception wasn’t helped by occasional interviews in which Angels discussed their meager pre-show diets, and two (Miranda and Doutzen) bounced back from recent pregnancies to reveal to-die-for figures in record time.

A weak PR pushback tried to argue that these were simply healthy girls who spend a lot of time in the gym — not poster girls for eating disorders and compulsive weight loss. The launch this summer of a new sportswear collection gave VS the chance to show off its girls in a gym setting, but that didn’t silence the skeptics.

But this year’s Fashion Show gave Victoria’s Secret the final word after the company released a series of pre-show promotional videos showing Candice, Doutzen, Ale and Lily in workout sessions with personal trainers. Bottom line? These girls are astonishingly fit, flexible, toned and obviously very hard-working. Now that‘s good PR.

As a result, tonight’s show will be a kind of vindication for the Angels after a year of whispers and finger-pointing. Their version of body and weight management is still beyond the reach of most people, and the company still prefers models who are much, much slimmer than its average customer, but the Angels deserve credit for weathering the storm and projecting a kind of healthy, positive energy that radiates throughout the brand.

This Year, It’s All About The Boys
We tend to forget that Victoria’s Secret’s target demographic isn’t just sexy young women. It’s also horny guys.

Tonight’s Fashion Show acknowledges that reality by enlisting support from some of pop culture’s most notorious horndogs, Adam Levine and Kanye West, plus the superbly well-married Jay-Z. The VSFS is all about creating fantasies, and employing these stand-in stud doubles will give male viewers something to relate to … or at least aspire toward. And afterward, you know where they’ll do their shopping.

Yes, You Can Buy Those Outfits … Sort Of
The VS Fashion Show isn’t a typical runway show in that the brand isn’t strictly promoting a new collection (its holiday collection has been in stores and online for several weeks already). But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be making a shopping list while viewing tonight.

The extravagant costumes are all one-offs, so you won’t be buying them. Nevertheless, each costume has as its foundation (pardon the pun) key pieces from the VS catalogue — usually one of the newer push-up bras and lacey briefs.

And you can buy the zillion-dollar Fantasy Bra that Miranda will be wearing in tonight’s Aquatic segment. But no one will.

They’re Not Just Bodies, They’re People Too
One of our annual gripes about what is otherwise the best show on TV is Victoria’s Secret’s refusal to credit the models who walk its runway. Of course, most viewers will recognize the core group of Angels, who have almost ubiquitous media exposure in North America, but many of the remaining 30 models will be unknown to everyone except diehard fashionistas.

If prior years are an indication, tonight’s show will pass without the models being identified individually. There’s a logic to this — fashion catwalks are meant to focus on the wardrobe, not the models — but we still don’t like it. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself racing for your laptop after the show to try to put a name to some of those gorgeous bodies faces.

Here’s a tip: the fan site VSholic.com has a gallery showing every one of tonight’s models — and their names.

The Diversity Scorecard
The VS Fashion Show is fast becoming the Olympics of the fashion world: this year, models from 19 countries will be walk the runway. And here’s the big news: we have a new gold medal nation. The U.S. has reclaimed top spot, with 8 models appearing, beating Brazil (6), the hotbed of hotties that topped the field last year with 9 models.

There’s a strong turnout from Eastern European models, a pair from China and newcomers from Puerto Rico and New Zealand. What’s missing in this mix? India, Mexico, Japan and — wouldn’t this have been timely? — no one from the Middle East (although Shanina Shaik from Australia has some Saudi Arabian lineage). And get ready for a border skirmish when Canadian viewers realize that Jessica Stam and Coco Rocha didn’t make the cut this year. Whatever happened to free trade!?

A more serious issue relates to Victoria’s Secret sparing use of women of color in their shows and overall marketing. This issue has nagged the retailer for years, but this year’s show suggests the company is paying attention. You’ll see at least five women of color from four countries: Chanel Iman (U.S.), Anais Mali (France), Joan Smalls (Puerto Rico), Lais Ribeiro and Emanuela de Paula (Brazil).

Perhaps the best indication of the changing face of modeling can be seen in the young latte-skinned beauty Shanina: she counts Australia, Lithuania, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in her heritage.

Like Junk Food for Fashion Snobs
Some of the most unlikely, but amusing, parts of the VS Fashion Show are the fleeting glimpses of celebrity audience members. Not the Angels’ rock star boyfriends and wannabe boyfriends, but the fashion industry heavyweights who always seem slightly out of place.

Keep an eye out for Anna Wintour, Carine Roitfeld, Alexander Wang, Donna Karan and others in the background and ask yourself: when was the last time they were in a Victoria’s Secret?

And tonight’s best stargazing moment? Beyonce!

Does It All Add Up?
Because it’s a paid-for package, the VS Fashion Show provides a revealing glimpse into the economics of broadcast television. With a budget this year of nearly $13-million, the show costs about six times as much to produce as a typical night on American Idol, or an entire season of Walking Dead.

And what returns does that investment create? Last year’s TV audience was about 9 million, putting the per-viewer cost above $1 — way too high to support most forms of ad-dependent programming.

Only VS knows, however, how much oomph the show delivers to its bottom line — and parent company Limited Brands has enjoyed consistently stellar results even throughout the recession. Of course, the company doesn’t need to be the biggest show on television, just so long as those who do watch spend afterwards.

Does This Show Have a Future?
Hard thought it may be to contemplate, the VS Fashion Show won’t be around forever … and possibly not for much longer. At least not in its current format, wedged into the late-night, post-family-viewing-hour slot by the FCC and network censors.

It’s not that the show isn’t a huge success — it is — but that technology might push it in new, more cost-effective directions. In short, you don’t need to pay CBS for an hour of prime-time real estate to win a big audience these days.

We saw a glimpse of the future of big-audience fashion shows last spring when French lingerie label Etam streamed its catwalk show live on the internet — and turned it into a slick, star-studded production. Fashion labels everywhere are looking at various live broadcast options that bypass television altogether and expand their reach.

And VS is already way ahead of the curve when it comes to cross-platform marketing. Tonight, they’ll stream a live “pre-show” at 9 p.m. on their Facebook page and website, the main event will be available through the VS iPad app, and there’ll be a constant blow-by-blow on Twitter.

Will all of this bring an end to the annual holiday tradition of watching the VS Fashion Show at home in the dark while your parents are out Christmas shopping? Possibly not for a while, but one thing’s certain: changing formats and a much bigger, broadly dispersed audience will turn the VSFS into an enduring “event”, not just a single hour of television.

This Year, It’s All About Timing
Sometimes, you just get lucky. When singer Cee Lo Green dropped out of the cast days before its taping, it left producers with a big hole in the schedule. They asked rapidly rising superstar Nicki Minaj to take the thankless job of stepping into Cee Lo’s oversized clown shoes.

Good move. A few days later, Nicki rocketed to the top of the hip-hop world by capturing the top prizes at the American Music Awards. It doesn’t hurt that the pink-haired rapper’s breakthrough album, Pink Friday, shares a name with Victoria’s Secret’s junior Pink line. Think that’ll make for a good music-fashion fit?

Oh, and Cee Lo’s late exit also solved another production problem: trying to get the Angels to agree to a lip-synch version of “F*** You“.

Finally, A Reality Show for Nerds
Let’s face it, the concept of “reality” is a bit elastic in the dungeon world of technology geeks (of whom we are one). But the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show is nothing if not a reality show for the reality-challenged.

The only problem is that, well, with all this damned media coverage those Angels can be just a little too real, and depressingly so. If only they were game avatars, we’d could relate to them as equals.

Mercifully, other geeks out there have addressed this problem. In addition to a handful of massive (and fanatical) VS fan sites, there’s a tiny community of gameboys and girls who have turned the VS Fashion Show into a fake version of itself in Sims land. Do a YouTube search on “victoria+secret+sims” and prepare to be both horrified and amazed. (If you don’t know what Sims is, stop reading and go back to your book.)

Here’s part 1 of the entire 2010 VS Fashion Show, converted into a Sims version by the heroic (female) Euro-blogger TechnoMicky. Believe me, it takes MONTHS to do this.

And you thought spending an hour watching underwear models on TV was a waste of your time!

Posted in Victoria's Secret

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