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.
In many ways I am a shining example of the American Dream. I was born in Hungary during the Communist era, and my family fled to Israel before coming to the U.S. in pursuit of freedom and safety. When we arrived, I was just a young, shy girl who couldn't speak English. After my childhood in Hungary, New York City was a marvel; I couldn't believe that such a lively, rich place existed. Even a simple thing like going to the market and seeing all the bright, colorful produce and having so many choices was new to me. I'll never take that for granted. I think it's where my love affair with color truly began.
One thing I had was a strong work ethic. I worked hard in school, to learn English, and at jobs including my first job at Dairy Queen -- which I loved! Ice cream is easily my favorite food. From there, I moved into the garment district where my brother-in-law's family had a business. During this time, I was able to see how a business was run and began to hone in on my eye for aesthetics and willingness to work hard at any task I was given.
Eventually, my brother-in-law bought a dental supply company in Los Angeles and asked me to join him. LA, a place with 365-days of sunshine. How could I say no? The company started as Odontorium Products Inc. During the acrylic movement of the 1980s, we realized that nail technicians were buying our product, and that the same components used for dentures were used for artificial nails. We saw a potential opening in the market, and we seized it. OPI began dropping off the "rubber band special" at every salon on Ventura Blvd. in Los Angeles. A jar of powder, liquid and primer – rubber-banded together – became the OPI Traditional Acrylic System and was a huge hit, giving OPI its start in the professional nail industry. It was 1981 when OPI first opened its doors. I couldn't have predicted our success, but I knew that hard work and faith in myself would be key in transforming a new business into a company with global reach.
When we started OPI, what we were doing was something new. Before OPI came on the scene, the generic, utilitarian nail polish names already on the market – like Red No. 4, Pink No. 2 – were completely forgettable. We rebranded the category with catchy names that we knew women could relate to and would remember. The industry was stale and boring, so we made it more fun and sexy. We started creating color collections. I carefully developed 30 groundbreaking colors for the debut collection -- many of which are still beloved bestsellers today, including Malaga Wine, Alpine Snow and Kyoto Pearl.
There is no other nail color brand in the world that touches the totality of industries the way OPI does.
With deep roots in Tinseltown, we eventually started collaborating with Hollywood. Our decision to collaborate with the entertainment industry also propelled OPI forward in another way, ultimately leading us to finding a way to connect with women beyond the world of beauty, relating our products to the beverages they drink, the cars they drive, the movies they watch, the clothes they wear – even the shade they use to paint their living room walls! There is no other nail color brand in the world that touches the totality of industries the way OPI does. It also propelled my growth as a businessperson forward. I found myself sitting in meetings with executives from some of the top companies in the world. I didn't have a fancy presentation. I didn't have a Harvard business degree. I realized that what I had was passion. I had a passion for what we were doing, and I had my own unique story that no one else could replicate.
Discipline, hard work, and passion gave me the confidence to grow from that shy immigrant girl to become the person that I am today
Bit by bit, I grew up with the business. Discipline, hard work, and passion gave me the confidence to grow from that shy immigrant girl to become the person that I am today -- an author, public speaker, and co-founder of OPI, the world's #1 professional nail brand.
I learned quickly that one can be an expert at many things, but not everything. Running a business is very hard work. Luckily, I had someone I could collaborate with who brought something new to the table and complemented my talents, my brother-in-law George Schaeffer. My business "superpower," or the ability to make decisions quickly and confidently, kept me ahead of trends and competition.
Another key to my success in building this brand and in growing in business was being authentic. Authenticity is so important to brands and maybe even more so now in the time of social media when you can speak directly to your consumers. I realized even then that I could only be me. I was a woman who knew what I wanted. I looked at my mother and daughter and wanted to create products that would excite and empower them.
There's often an expectation placed on women in charge that they need to be cutthroat to be competitive, but that's not true. Rather than focusing on my gender or any implied limitations I might bring to the job as a female and a mother, I always focused instead on my vision. I deliberately fostered an environment at OPI filled with warmth. After all, at the end of the day, your organization is only as good as its people. I've always found that being nice, being humble, and listening to others has served me well. Instead of pushing others down to get to the top, inspire them and bring them along on the journey.
You can read more about my personal and professional journey in my new memoir out now, I'm Not Really a Waitress: How One Woman Took Over the Beauty Industry One Color at a Time.