When Victoria’s Secret model Doutzen Kroes posted a decree on ‘freedom’ to her 6.9 million Instagram followers earlier this month, it likely surprised no one but troubled many.
“The past few months have been very peaceful without social media,” she wrote. “A part of me wanted to escape into my family bubble and leave everything up to faith. That part of me believes in the power of consciousness, that whatever you give energy to will grow. So I tried to ignore the negative and focus on the positive. But at this point I can no longer turn a blind eye to the injustice that is happening right in front of us.
“Other people have given me hope and strength with their courage to stand up for our rights. They touched my heart and inspired me to do the same. So although my hands are shaking while writing this, I feel it is time to choose courage over comfort and speak my truth:
“I will not be forced to take the shot. I will not be forced to prove my health to participate in society. I will not accept exclusion of people based on their medical status.
“Freedom of speech is a right worth fighting for but we can only solve this united in peace and love!
Pass on the torch of hope and love and speak your truth. ❤️”
The comments were mixed, but a few high-profile friends were supportive and complimentary.
“Freedom of speech, body sovereignty, freedom of choice. Thank you for speaking up, may our support shield you from the angry mob,” commented Garance Doré, a French American travel blogger whose visits in and out of Aotearoa through the pandemic, and subsequent thoughts on ‘libertie’, were reported by Ensemble in July.
Known anti-vaxxer and conservative pundit Candace Owens wrote, “You are the right side of history. These people who are trying to force people to inject things into their body against their will, will love (sic) to regret their stances”.
One of the world’s top supermodels, Giselle Bündchen, also defended her friend and fellow model in the comments.
“I know Doutzen and she is a kind and loving person. I can’t believe the hate being directed at her because she expressed her feelings. It saddens me to see all the judgment and the lack of empathy in so many peoples [sic] hearts. Hate is not the answer. The only way we can create a better world is trough [sic] compassion and acceptance. I invite you to silence your mind and go deep within to find love in your heart so we can all unite in peace and create harmony in our lives and in our world. We need it more than ever🙏❤️🌍”
Doutzen, who has appeared in pretty much every high-profile fashion magazine and worked with brands including Isabel Marant, Jacquemus and L’Oreal, had started ‘asking questions’ and sharing her ‘research’ back in July 2020, with an Instagram post littered with the typical conspirituality buzzwords of healthy immune systems, waking up, and questioning of the media, pharmaceutical industry, and governments.
Why do these ‘beautiful people’ feel the need to publicly air their views? And what gives them the entitlement to believe they know more than leading scientists and doctors, and the arrogance to share those views to their millions of followers when it can have a dire and adverse effect on many communities?
Is it simply because beautiful people are rarely told they’re wrong?
The short answer is privilege (think of the ‘you’re not ugly you’re just poor’ meme that reminds of the privileges money often affords). The longer answer is a little more complex.
It’s easy to chalk it up to ignorance and self-absorption. One is reminded of the simplistic and downright damaging view of people suggesting those who are bigger just need to ‘eat less and move more’ to lose weight, without considering a complex series of socioeconomic, physiological, genetic and wider considerations at play.
Are the wealthy and beautiful sitting in their gated communities, eating a Goop-ified organic diet, and assuming they’re untouchable?
“There is so much of this going on - especially on Instagram where beautiful images are paired with vacuous, utterly inane rambling text underneath,” says journalist David Farrier, who has researched and covered QAnon and anti-Covid rhetoric extensively with his newsletter Webworm. He also co-reported the descent into QAnon of the founders of local fashion brand Lonely, and how their politics are at odds with the brand's marketing, with Ensemble last year.
“Part of it has to do with involvement in the health and wellness space. There is a tendency within that group to rush towards ‘natural’ and remedies for any ailment - and that push to ‘natural’ often goes hand in hand with being anti-science. Because science is seen as alien, unnatural. And so anti-vax messages are couched in phrases like ‘my body, my way’. For some in health and wellness it's simply not that sexy to think about labs and science,” he explains.
“This messaging has this rebellious tone to it that is very tempting, and easy, to write about: ‘It's my body, I won't be injecting anything into it thank you very much!’ That's seen as punk and cool with this crowd on Instagram - and people are very quick to like it. And boom, suddenly 50 thousand likes on a sexy picture paired 10 paragraphs of utterly vacuous ramblings.”
The reactions to supermodel Doutzen’s post also reflects a wider divide happening within the global fashion industry - one that is only set to grow.
At New York Fashion Week in August, behind-the-scenes organisers including IMG and the Council of Fashion Designers of America issued statements requiring proof of vaccination for all show guests, staff and on-site personnel.
And at the Met Gala earlier this month, host and Vogue editor Anna Wintour mandated that all guests had to be vaccinated, have a negative Covid test and wear masks inside.
After Nicki Minaj brought public attention to the vaccine mandate by tweeting about her cousin's friend’s swollen testicles, speculation was rife on the absence of many beautiful regular Met Gala attendees - to the point where Bella Hadid (who did not attend the gala, at which sister Gigi was a guest, whose mother Yolanda Hadid commented ❤️ on Doutzen’s post, and whose younger brother Anwar backtracked on anti-vax comments he made in December) posted a picture of herself getting vaccinated to her Instagram Story, presumably by way of responding to speculation over her absence.
As the US approaches a Covid-19 death toll to match that of the 1918 influenza pandemic, pandemic politics are increasingly encroaching into the everyday, and consumers are looking to the politics of brands to decide where they spend their money - whether it be public support (or lack thereof) of Black Lives Matter or vaccinations (or again, lack thereof).
With wealthy white women anecdotally among one of the most vocal groups of anti-vaxxers (something that will come as a surprise to no one who lives in Herne Bay, the wealthy Auckland enclave that has been heavily targeted by letterbox propaganda this year), brands could be seen as playing it safe by staying silent on the matter.
Goop founder Gwyneth Paltrow spoke out about her struggle with long Covid earlier this year, but rather than using it by way of encouraging vaccinations amongst her 7.6 million followers, she used it to promote a new book outlining a restrictive diet she says helped her recover, along with expensive alternative therapies like infrared saunas. To be clear, neither Gwyneth or Goop have come out with explicit anti-vaccine rhetoric in the manner of Doutzen. But neither have they risked alienating the audience over which they hold influence by advising they get it. Goop in fact had a factual and measured discussion with an infectious disease epidemiologist before the vaccine was released. They have stayed silent since.
Perhaps they’ve witnessed the backlash of other brands with a large following based on wellness who have shown support for vaccinations.
US brands Dr Bronner’s and Yoga Journal have both posted about vaccinations - with Dr Bronner’s offering $1000 to staff wishing to receive the vaccine (not mandated), and a writer for Yoga Journal stating that “getting vaxxed was my act of Ahimsa [the ethical practice of not causing harm to other living things]. Protecting myself against COVID-19 was my way of showing love for the people in my community”.
Both had their comments sections flooded with arguments in both directions, but were largely dominated by anti-vaxxers stating they were unfollowing, and either unsubscribing or no longer buying. Dr Bronner’s eventually issued a statement in response.
“Dr. Bronner’s trusts the science that tells us vaccination is an important tool to help prevent the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, and to mitigate harm to those who become infected.
“We believe strongly in the right of all people to make the healthcare decisions that they deem best for themselves. However, the context of a pandemic means that we have to consider not only what’s right for us, but what we can do to best ensure the safety and health of our peers and our communities. [...]
“We are an activist company and always have been, and our vaccination incentive is in the All-One spirit of promoting what we believe to be in the best interest of collective public health and safety in the world.”
Within the high-fashion space, one of the most high-profile designers to take a public stance is the prolific and widely adored Pierpaolo Piccioli of Valentino, who last week announced plans to produce and sell what started as a bootleg Valentino logo ‘vaccinated’ hoodie. All profits will go to the World Health Organisation's Covax program.
“I can talk about ruffles and bows, but sometimes you have to use your voice to say what you really believe, and I believe it is our social responsibility to get vaccinated," he told the New York Times. “It’s not a symbol of freedom to not be vaccinated. It’s a symbol of lack of respect for others.”
The response on Pierpaolo and Valentino’s Instagram posts announcing the release showcased the growing divide in the vaccination conversation: both wildly appreciative (the hoodie was worn and promoted by Lady Gaga, with fashion insiders like Eva Chen, Marc Jacobs, Karla Welch, Zoey Deutch and Janet Mock all commenting they wanted one), and horrified.
“Poison propaganda to gain brownie points (money),” was one comment. “So untested human trials for global government experiments fashionable now? 🙃 No grazi,” said another.
Among the emojis of clapping and prayer hands were a strong number of sheep and vomit faces: a modern day equivalent of considered, intelligent debate.
In Aotearoa, few major fashion or lifestyle brands have yet come forward to use their platform in support of driving Aotearoa’s vaccine numbers (though Ruby has on social media, and certain local style influencers like Chloe Hill, Jess Molina, Sammy Salsa, Zeenat Wilkinson, Meagan Kerr, Danni Duncan - and Ensemble - have been vocal in their support). Keeping mum is of course a brand’s prerogative, but following a trend started by Valentino isn’t unusual in fashion circles so hopefully it’s just a matter of time.
And with our ‘beautiful anti-vax’ ‘figureheads’ so far limited to ex-reality TV contestants, hopefully Aotearoa can continue to be ahead of the curve.
And as Aotearoa rushes to get to 90 percent vaccinated in order to protect our most vulnerable and return to some semblance of normality, we ask - will our most ‘beautiful’ stand up and protect their community?
This story has been updated