Alejandra "Ali" Campoverdi is a compelling study in contrasts. The Latina beauty, who modeled for Maxim in 2004, is running for Congress in California's 34th district, with a positive “take me as I am" approach as refreshing as it is empowering. Should she win the seat, Campoverdi would join a vastly male-dominated Congress, which is only 2 percent Latina.
Campoverdi, who grew up in Los Angeles, tells SWAAY she was moved to run for office not long after Donald Trump won the election. With a plan to counteract his administration's attack on women's rights, the former White House staffer is running a campaign on a platform of inclusivity, social support and access to healthcare, inspired by her own personal experience with cancer. These days, Campoverdi is focused on changing the political conversation by embracing every part of herself, including her past as a model.
“I see first-hand the lack of opportunities women see for themselves, many times because of circumstances out of their control," she says. "It has showed me how important it is, more than ever, to have role models that are owning their full selves publicly, especially in politics."
Beauty, intelligence and bravery. Is there anything more powerful?
1. Tell us a little about your background.
I was born to a single mother who emigrated to the US from Mexico. There were eight of us in a three bedroom. We struggled. We were on welfare at times, and took WIC and Medical (California's Medicade program). For me, like a lot of kids of immigrants who were the first in our families to navigate the education system, I've been working since I was young. I've had all sorts of jobs: I've waited tables, I've worked in clothing stores, I've been a model. You do [whatever you have to] to make ends meet. When you juxtapose an experience like modeling with a career in politics, or something more serious, it's interesting how that causes cognitive dissonance for folks; that you could embody these different types of experiences.
2. Can you speak a little about your decision to speak publicly about posing for Maxim?
For me it's very important to own all parts of myself and all parts of my experiences. That's why in my campaign for Congress I've been so honest and vulnerable about things other people might feel embarrassed to share. It's a strength. It's not something to hide from. The fact that you may have had sets of experiences that are different makes you real. I think people are at a point especially when it comes to politics, where they are looking for real candidates. When I was at school at Harvard I had classmates who had been expecting to run for a long time, and who didn't want to be photographed with a solo cup. For someone to be so consumed with the future of power that every decision they make has been to further that ambition, that's scarier to me than a real person, especially a real woman, who has navigated her life in real time and understands the perspective of folks in her district.
3. What's it like running for office?
I've worked as a staffer in politics when I worked at the Obama campaign in '08 and then as an aide in the White House. It's very different being the candidate but I learned that running for office really pulls into focus what matters most to you. You're living in a high frequency and in order to express to others what you care about you have to know what you care about and why you're doing it. There is an interesting introspective process that you go through as a candidate. I feel that it should be something that is empowering for more women; to not feel afraid that going through process will bring shame or scrutiny. All sets of experience are a benefit. I was someone who went to Planned Parenthood in my life so I have a particular perspective about why it's so important for women to have access to these services.
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
Female sexuality and intelligence aren't inversely related. As a 37-year-old woman I feel fully confident wearing a nice dress and knowing my femininity doesn't have to take away from accomplishments. Every woman's femininity is something very personal, and can be all things at the same time.
4. What sparked your desire to run?
The catalyst for me was Donald Trump's election and the Affordable Care Act being at risk of being repealed. After President Trump's election, I, like a lot of young people, felt really nauseous for a few days and was thinking about what I could do to push back against his disastrous proposed policies. I worked on Obamacare at the White House and for me it was a personal crusade. In my family, generations of women have battled breast cancer and I myself carried the BRCA2 gene mutation, so I know first hand how much is at stake. My aunt had just been diagnosed with breast cancer around the time I decided to run. I wanted to put skin in the game. I wanted to know I did everything I could to make sure the election was about people and how these issues affect people
5. What was working with President Obama like?
It was the greatest privilege to work for President Obama. I never dreamed that I would have that opportunity. When I joined the Obama campaign I had just graduated from Harvard and I had a lot of student loan debt; I still do. But I moved to Chicago and worked unpaid because I really believe in a vision for the country. I lived off my credit card and had no health insurance. When I got the job at the White House I worked from the Oval Office for those first couple of years, and it was the full circle moment of a lot of dreams in my family. My Mom was in her late teens when she emigrated from Mexico and the day I got to walk her into the Oval Office and introduce her to President Obama was a day I will never forget. [Another moment that stands out is] when the President did an interview with Latina Magazine, and I found myself sitting next to him, just the two of us in the Oval, while he's talking to Latina Magazine. As a woman, and as a Latina, that was a moment everything pulled into focus about what's possible in this country. Even though social mobility can be traumatizing and isolating for a lot of us, with hard work and with support and by protecting pipeline programs and educational opportunities that we have right now, what's possible for young people is pretty incredible.
Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton
6. Can you talk a bit about the reaction to your Maxim photos?
When I was at the White House and the Maxim photos first surfaced in Gawker [in 2009], some media outlets took snarky shots at me. I took it very personally initially because I didn't fully understand the depth of sexism in politics. I was afraid it might hinder my career. A wonderful woman I worked with at the White House told me to put my head down and do the work, and that's what I've always done. I always work harder than I have to. I'm a lot older now and I have a better perspective about how sexism in politics actually works. I understand that it isn't something personal to each of us, but we have to each take our own stand to stand against it. When this happened for several months I didn't want to wear makeup. I wanted to wear loose fitting clothes and almost disappear. What I learned is our accomplishments stand for themselves. Just because you wear makeup and a nice dress doesn't take away from your intelligence. Female sexuality and intelligence aren't inversely related. As a 37-year-old woman I feel fully confident wearing a nice dress and knowing my femininity doesn't have to take away from accomplishments. Every woman's femininity is something very personal, and can be all things at the same time.
7. What do you say to women who don't know how to get involved?
I think now more than ever it's a time for women to step up because women's rights and bodies are under siege in Washington. I understand that folks may be disillusioned with the political process, but it's more important than ever to roll up our sleeves. I've been really inspired by women who are are looking for ways to become more politically engaged or are considering running for office for the first time. At the end of the day when only 19 percent of Congress is women, and only 2 percent is Latina; how can we sit there and say we aren't being represented right, when we aren't being represented enough? I would encourage all women to get involved in whatever groups are forming around them. Whatever skills you have, put them towards the defense of women's rights because it's never been more in the balance than it is today.
8. Can you tell us where you see the health care industry going?
It's a huge complicated issue to make sure everyone has access to affordable health care. I personally think health care is a human right. We need to make sure everyone is able to go to a doctor or have access to lifesaving treatments. We need to make sure that kids have access to preventative services that will save their lives. The Affordable Care Act, while not perfect, was an important step in that direction. And it's important we protect the progress we made through the Affordable Care Act. This fight isn't over. The important thing is to keep holding folks accountable for the human cost of the decisions that they're making. This is why I decided in my ad to be very personal about my experiences and those of my family. This is a life or death issue.
9. What do you do in your free time?
Right now I don't have a lot of free time. But I love music, I love traveling, I love eating. I am a big foodie.
10. Do you have a life motto?
Someone gave me advice at the beginning of the process. She said if you run as if you aren't afraid to lose, you will run your best campaign. I would give that advice across the board. If you live life like you aren't afraid to lose you will live your best life. Keep pushing, keep being bold and keep taking those risks. Women of color, young women, women with nontraditional backgrounds, we don't normally have safety nets in our fights, our causes and our careers. But that's no reason to not put it all out on the line. Sometimes that means we will be criticized, sometimes we will be judged but authenticity will always shine through at the end. The more of us join together and push that multidimensionality forward, the more we can blaze a path for each other and the easier it will be every day.
I walk into a room full of men and I know exactly what they're thinking: "What does she know about whisky?"
I know this because many men have asked me that same question from the moment I started my career in spirits a decade ago.
In a male-dominated industry, I realized early on that I would always have to work harder than my male counterparts to prove my credibility, ability and knowledge in order to earn the trust of leadership stakeholders, coworkers, vendors and even consumers of our products. I am no stranger to hard work and appreciate that everyone needs to prove their worth when starting any career or role. What struck me however, was how the recognition and opportunities seemed to differ between genders. Women usually had to prove themselves before they were accepted and promoted ("do the work first and earn it"), whereas men often were more easily accepted and promoted on future potential. It seemed like their credibility was automatically and immediately assumed. Regardless of the challenges and adversity I faced, my focus was on proving my worth within the industry, and I know many other women were doing the same.
Thankfully, the industry has advanced in the last few years since those first uncomfortable meetings. The rooms I walk into are no longer filled with just men, and perceptions are starting to change significantly. There are more women than ever before making, educating, selling, marketing and conceptualizing whiskies and spirits of all kinds. Times are changing for the better and it's benefitting the industry overall, which is exciting to see.
For me, starting a career in the spirits business was a happy accident. Before spirits, I had worked in the hospitality industry and on the creative agency side. That background just happened to be what a spirits company was looking for at the time and thus began my journey in the industry. I was lucky that my gender did not play a deciding role in the hiring process, as I know that might not have been the case for everyone at that time.
Now, ten plus years later, I am fortunate to work for and lead one of the most renowned and prestigious Whisky brands in the world.. What was once an accident now feels like my destiny. The talent and skill that goes into the whisky-making process is what inspired me to come back and live and breathe those brands as if they were my own. It gave me a deep understanding and appreciation of an industry that although quite large, still has an incredible amount of handmade qualities and a specific and meticulous craft I have not seen in any other industry before. Of course, my journey has not been without challenges, but those obstacles have only continued to light my passion for the industry.
The good news is, we're on the right track. When you look at how many females hold roles in the spirits industry today compared to what it looked like 15 years ago, there has been a significant increase in both the number of women working and the types of roles women are hired for. From whisky makers and distillers to brand ambassadors and brand marketers, we're seeing more women in positions of influence and more spirits companies willing to stand up and provide a platform for women to make an impact. Many would likely be surprised to learn that one of our team's Whisky Makers is a woman. They might even be more surprised to learn that women, with a heightened sense of smell compared to our male counterparts, might actually be a better fit for the role! We're nowhere near equality, but the numbers are certainly improving.
It was recently reported by the Distilled Spirits Council that women today represent a large percentage of whisky drinkers and that has helped drive U.S. sales of distilled spirits to a record high in 2017. Today, women represent about 37% of the whisky drinkers in the United States, which is a large increase compared to the 1990s when a mere 15% of whisky drinkers were women. As for what's causing this change? I believe it's a mix of the acceptance of women to hold roles within the spirits industry partnered with thoughtful programs and initiatives to engage with female consumers.
While whisky was previously known for being a man's drink, reserved for after-dinner cigars behind closed doors, it is now out in the open and accessible for women to learn about and enjoy too.
What was once subculture is now becoming the norm and women are really breaking through and grabbing coveted roles in the spirits business. That said, it's up to the industry as a whole to continue to push it forward. When you work for a company that values diversity, you're afforded the opportunity to be who you are and let that benefit your business. Working under the model that the best brand initiatives come from passionate groups of people with diverse backgrounds, we are able to offer different points of view and challenge our full team to bring their best work forward, which in turn creates better experiences for our audience. We must continue to diversify the industry and break against the status quo if we really want to continue evolving.
While we've made great strides as an industry, there is still a lot of work to be done. To make a change and finally achieve gender equality in the workplace, both men and women need to stand behind the cause as we are better collectively as a balanced industry. We have proved that we have the ability to not only meet the bar, but to also raise it - now we just need everyone else to catch up.