The Rocky Buttes Movie Ranch is a panoramic desertscape east of Lancaster, California. Here, the majestic arid land stretches as far as the eye can see, dotted with Joshua trees that stand resilient among dusty boulders. Together with the crush of sand and gravel under the feet, the howl of the wind washes over the mind and body like waves from a discordant tune. The effect is both invigorating and humbling all at once.
Staring pensively into the distance, top model Sara Sampaio is soaking up the energy of the place. Her head is wrapped in vintage, gauzy scarves and she is dressed in threads that resemble finds from a nomad’s cherished stash. From afar, Sampaio’s regal and proud stature is akin to a desert princess surveying the grandeur of her kingdom.
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This otherworldly landscape cannot be further removed from Matosinhos, a coastal municipality in Portugal. This is where the 26-year-old head-turner spent her formative years in the warm embrace of her family, friends and the salty sea air.
“It was such a great place to grow up in. We spent all summer on the beach and surfing. Taking walks by the beach is my favourite thing to do. There’s something about the ocean that is so special and calming,” Sampaio recalls. “Porto (Matosinhos’s more famous neighbour) has this laidback feeling to it. Their people are strong-minded, but we’re more go-getters.”
That streak is definitely evident in Sampaio, who launched her modelling career after winning a Pantene competition at age 16. For clinching top honours, Sampaio appeared in a TV commercial for the brand. Despite the enormity of the career-making gig, Sampaio’s parents were insistent their daughter did not neglect her studies.
“The only thing they expected from me was that I kept my grades up. And that was a fair demand,” she remembers. “They were my biggest supporters from the moment I had the chance to go international after finishing school. They understood that this was a one-time opportunity. They also knew the worst-case scenario was me going back to the books.”
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There wasn’t any worse-case scenario to worry about. Aided by good work ethics (plus a little sprinkling of luck), Sampaio’s career has been on a steady ascent. In the years since her fresh-faced beauty was broadcasted to millions of households across her home country, the five-time winner of “Best Female Model” at the Portuguese Golden Globes has modelled for the likes of Balmain, Dolce & Gabbana, Marc Jacobs and Miu Miu.
In 2013, the pouty-lipped clotheshorse landed the coveted spot on the Victoria’s Secret roster. Sampaio knew the significance of the Victoria’s Secret job—she faced rejection for two years before hitting the glitter-covered runway. Eventually, her hard work and presence proved formidable, and she earned her Angel wings in just two seasons: “Being put in the same list with Angels past and present, such as Gisele Bündchen and Adriana Lima, still feels quite surreal.”
Sampaio has brought the same determination into her romantic life. “When I love, I’m there for the long haul. I don’t fall in love easily, nor have I had many boyfriends. I don’t get into a relationship just for the sake of it,” she observes. “Love makes you a better version of yourself. And I’m in it for the long run.”
She is currently dating British investor Oliver Ripley, and the lovebirds have been spotted hand-in-hand on red carpets in Cannes, frolicking on board a yacht in Ibiza and most recently, ushering the New Year in Sydney. Privacy is a valuable commodity in this social media-driven era, where smartphones are on-hand to document everything. With more than six million followers on Instagram, Sampaio has managed to walk the delicate tightrope of engaging her fans with snapshots from her jet-set life, while maintaining privacy at the same time.
“I share a lot of my life, but I also like to keep certain things to myself. A relationship is just between two people anyway. It feels nice to have something that is just yours. That way, it doesn’t give much room for people to give opinions on your relationship.”
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More importantly, Sampaio understands the influence she wields in the online sphere. If there’s a silver lining to be found in this digital age, it’s how hashtags have become vessels for change, with #lovewins, #metoo and #myjobshouldnotincludeabuse leading the charge in 2017. Sampaio has spoken out against harassment and abuse in the modelling industry, bravely detailing her experience with a French men’s magazine in an Instagram post that has since garnered her an overwhelming amount of support.
“It has always been important to speak out. Now we have a direct platform to do so. You have a direct line to millions of people who care, support and listen,” she says. “And that’s powerful.”
On what more can be done, especially when it comes to issues such as equality and women’s rights, Sampaio offers: “Accountability is the most important. Seeing people being held accountable for their actions has been amazing and it’s going to start the change the industry really needs. I hope it will come to the fashion industry because we are desperately in need of it.”
Love comes in all forms, too, and Sampaio hopes to contribute to the discussion on embracing diversity and celebrating differences by advocating kindness. “The next time you think about calling someone fat, skinny or whatever, just stop. Compliment them instead,” Sampaio says. “No one is perfect. And that’s what makes us special and beautiful.”
Photographed by Yu Tsai
Styled by Deborah Afshani
Model: Sara Sampaio/The Lions New York
Makeup: Kathy Jeung/Forward Artists
Hair: Maranda/The Wall Group
Manicure: Lisa Peña-Wong
Producer: Trever Swearingen/88 Phases
Digital imaging: Luis Jaime/88 Phases
Photo assistants: Robiee Ziegler, Kit Sinclair
Styling assistant: Kirsten Layne