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.
Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."