Virgin Atlantic to diversify icons after 35 years of Varga Girl | Business

Virgin Atlantic is to replace the traditional flying woman painted on its planes with new figureheads including a black man, an Asian woman and a gay man in rainbow lycra.

The airline will ditch the Varga Girl that has adorned its fleet for the last 35 years in favour of a more diverse set of icons.

The flying woman, wearing a red dress that unpeels into a Union flag, was inspired by the second world war pin-ups of Alberto Vargas, later a Playboy illustrator. She will start to give way to a total of five new characters, including two more securely dressed women, when new planes arrive.

A model poses in front of the icon of a flying woman on a Virgin Atlantic plane on the tenth anniversary of the company.

The company’s traditional flying woman was a strong part of its brand in earlier years. Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

Virgin said the new icons represented its ambition for gender and diversity balance in the workplace, and support for people of all sexualities.

The icons will be unveiled as the airline adds new long-haul A350 planes to its fleet from this summer.

The aircraft themselves will also be given more 21st century monikers. While Boeing 747s still operating in Virgin’s fleet include Hot Lips and Barbarella, among the incoming A350s will be Rain Bow and Mamma Mia.

The new Meera icon for Virgin Atlantic.

Meera is one of the two new female icons to be introduced. Photograph: Virgin

Nikki Humphrey, senior vice president of people at Virgin Atlantic, said: “The saying goes ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’ and that has never been truer than the aviation industry’s glamorous image in the past.”

The airline has pledged to achieve an equal gender balance in its leadership roles, and 12% black, Asian and minority ethnic group representation across the company, by 2022.

Humphrey added: “By introducing our new flying icons, I hope it encourages people from all backgrounds to feel at home flying with us, but also working with us.”

Daley is another of the five new characters introduced by Virgin Atlantic.

Daley is another of the five new characters introduced by Virgin Atlantic. Photograph: Virgin

The new icons may not entirely achieve their purpose. Afua Hirsch, author of Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging, said she welcomed the commitment to gender balance and ethnic representation at the airline, and replacing the flying lady, which “fed into a number of problematic stereotypes about what Britishness looks like”.

But Hirsch said she wondered who came up with the new icons and names, adding: “Putting the black icon on a plane called Cool Runner sounds like a tired trope that predictably links black people to ‘urban’ culture and entertainment, and betrays exactly the kind of stereotypical thinking Virgin claims it’s trying to change.”

Virgin said the use of the icon on that plane was a coincidence.

The airline recently announced that it would no longer require cabin crew to wear make-up, and would be providing trousers for female stewards as a standard part of the uniform. Senior figures at the airline have denied the moves represent the waning influence of the founder Sir Richard Branson, who is in the process of relinquishing his controlling stake to Delta and Air France-KLM.

Claire Cronin, SVP of marketing, said: “He’s very supportive of us trying to improve the relevance of the Virgin brand and be reflective of the customer base we’re serving.”

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