For a woman who makes her living gracing billboards and striding down runways for adoring crowds, Sara Sampaio seems practically allergic to attention. The 24-year-old model is back in New York City after a trip that swept her to Los Angeles for the Academy Awards, Paris for Fashion Week and to a $36 million mansion in Miami for our cover shoot. But in the hushed bar of a Manhattan hotel, she shrugs off the glamour of her globetrotting and rolls her eyes at the frivolousness of air-kissing small talk. “If one more person asks me how I’m doing,” Sampaio says, pausing to take a gulp of the strawberry milkshake she’s smuggled in with her, “I’m going to scream.”
To be fair, the entreaties of intrusive strangers aren’t entirely unwarranted. In the past year, the Portuguese model, who’s a household name in her home country, snagged a coveted gig as one of the Victoria’s Secret Angels—that’s her in the ads for the brand’s Very Sexy Now fragrance— she’s walked in shows for high-end fashion lines including Miu Miu and Balmain, and she’s even signed with a powerhouse Hollywood management agency.
So, how is she doing? Sara Sampaio is on fire—and that’s just the way she planned it. “I’ve always had very high aims for my life and for my career, for anything that I do,” says Sampaio, clad in leather leggings and a belly-baring black crop top. “If I do something, I want to be the best. And one of the best things you can be is a Victoria’s Secret Angel; for me, that’s always been a goal.”
Sampaio started modeling when she was just 16 and won a nationwide contest in Portugal to appear in ads for shampoo. She could have launched her career then, but her strict parents forbade her from dropping out of school to try. Instead, the Porto native, whose dark hair and pouty lips give her an impossible-to-ignore magnetism, went off to university in Lisbon to study—what else—advanced mathematics. Then, during a stint in London, Sampaio decided to try her luck with British modeling agencies. The first company she met with offered her a contract, and before long she was approached by a major agency in Paris, too. “I made the decision to quit university and go for it,” she says. What was initially meant to be a two-week jaunt across the pond turned into a whirlwind year of modeling gigs throughout Europe.
Success came relatively quickly for Sampaio. Not long after moving to a U.S. agency, she landed a kitschy but memorable role as a fallen angel in a TV commercial for Axe, and soon found herself ubiquitous in Europe as the face of the Italian brand Calzedonia. “In Paris, I got mobbed by fans and photographers,” she says. “And going out in Portugal is just impossible.” She is now so well-known in her homeland that family members can cause a scene in public just by saying her name. “Everything I do lands in the newspapers. When we go somewhere, my dad will start shouting my name very loudly,” she says. “He’ll yell, ‘Oh, my God, it’s Sara Sampaio!’ My brother does the same. They like to break my balls.”
Read the full interview with Sara Sampaio in Maxim's May issue, on newsstands now, and be sure to subscribe so you never miss an issue.