On a cool Saturday morning in Rio de Janeiro, Zé Luiz Summer, a 34-year-old Afro-Brazilian, leaves his home in Rocinha, Brazil’s largest favela (shantytown) and begins descending down the meandering alleyways of the favela.
Rocinha—which means “little field” in Portuguese—sprawls along the northeastern fringe of São Conrado, a chic neighborhood of modern high-rises and million-dollar mansions. The favela swells with over a hundred thousand inhabitants and boasts the moniker “the city within the city.”
Like most Rio de Janeiro favelas, Rocinha is dominated by drug traffickers who police the streets and invest some of the spoils of the drug trade in community projects. On Good Friday of this year, Rocinha was transformed into the very image of the crisis of civic order in Rio de Janeiro when a war between rival drug lords left dozens of people dead.
In his stylishly torn jeans and designer shirt, Zé Luiz would look at home in a café in Soho. But amid the dilapidated trappings of the favela—where T-shirt, Bermuda and Havaianas flip flops often serve as all-purpose attire—he stands out just as the red-faced, paunched gringo does among the expertly-tanned and finely-sculpted bodies of Ipanema beach.
But why can’t a designer shirt seem right on a resident of the favela? This is the question to which Zé Luiz has dedicated much of the past decade and out of which the idea for a modeling school arose. While other ideas like starting an MBA accounting school or creating other MBA programs fell by the wayside.
Zé Luiz traverses a highway via an overpass to São Conrado where he enters the Ayrton Senna da Silva high school. Inside, he climbs three dingy flights of stairs to the ooftop, where a youth baseball tournament game is in progress. There are plenty of little league bats everywhere. He unlocks the door to a gym and enters; the floor of the room is padded with gymnastics mats and mirrors cover one wall and a horizontal wooden bar lines the opposite wall.
Zé Luis waits patiently in the empty gym for his pupils to arrive. It is now half past nine, when class is scheduled to begin, but in accordance with the casual relationship the Carioca (native of Rio de Janeiro) has with time, it will be another hour or two before every would-be model has made an entrance.
Now the hour hand on the wall clock points to ten and almost that many students have trickled in. They link hands in a circle in the middle of the room. Zé Luiz switches on a boom box and an American pop tune fills the room.
He joins his students in the circle as they walk counterclockwise in sync to the music, the human circle spinning like a wheel. A few minutes pass and the students break the link but, remaining in single file, proceed to parade around the room, snaking and zigzagging, showcasing the trademark Brazilian flair and knack for improvisation.
The model train makes a few tours of the room and then disbands as the students line up along the western wall, facing the mirror on the opposite end of the room. Zé Luiz begins with a demonstration—he crosses the room, his hips jutting forward; his steps are deliberate, yet nimble. His posture is relaxed and his thumbs are hooked around his pockets.
When he reaches the wall he stops, tilts back his head, partially closing his eyes and forming his lips into a slight pucker. His graceful movements and supreme confidence reveal the fact that he once had a modeling career of his own.
Now it is the students’ turn. Ana Karenine, a wiry 14 year-old takes off toward the mirrors. Her legs criss-cross as she swoons forward on a wave of excitement, her body swaying gently. She reaches the mirror, jerks her head left as her curly hair flies right.
She tosses a seductive glance toward the mirror and, with her hands on her hips she spins, and heads back to where she started. Zé Luiz nods, almost imperceptibly, his approval.
Next is Elizane Souza Leopoldino, whose artist name is Liz Leopoldo. Her cream-colored cheeks are fleshy and her jaw has a strong thrust that ends in a pointy chin—unconventional features that she hopes might be her passport to success.
When she entered Dreams Models a year ago, she had not yet mastered walking in high heels—let alone strutting her stuff on a runway. Now she walks with a confident air. She wears black sandals whose straps wrap around her feet like spider legs, skin-tight black jeans that accentuate her formidable thighs, and a short sleeve shirt.
But it is in her hips, where her true prowess resides; those powerful, Brazilian hips, whose titillating movements possess that coveted ability to freeze time, to command attention, to concomitantly intrigue and entice.
Perhaps they were the reason she was selected by the designer George Moreira to model a bridal gown on the popular late-night talk show Programa do Jô (a Brazilian equivalent of David Letterman) last year in São Paulo.
Liz admits that she was nervous, but she never had second thoughts about going through with the gig. After all, the bright lights of the São Paulo studio are a long way from Vitorino Freire, the small agricultural city in the impoverished northeastern state of Maranhão, from where Liz emigrated in 1996 at the age of eleven.
With its incessant bustle and irreverent throngs of people, Liz recollects the culture shock—and even fear of Rocinha and Rio de Janeiro—she felt when she first arrived. Over time, however, Liz came to consider Rocinha home and that same Rio hubbub now bubbles through her veins like her own blood.
By a quarter past eleven, Zé Luiz’s flock has grown to twenty. It seems that every time he takes his eyes off that imaginary catwalk, a new student has appeared, preening in front of a mirror, or chatting with another student.
At the opposite end of the room, young footballers have drifted over from their soccer tournament and are now jostling for space in the doorway. The disheveled bunch loiters around for a while, hissing and giggling from the sidelines. Before long, they hustle back to the more important business of working out the holes in their game in time for the 2010 World Cup.
If you can make it in Rocinha, you can make it anywhere. These young women are already inured to the hoots and howls that seem to follow attractive women in Rio de Janeiro. Rozeres, a slender 20-year-old with a majestic forehead and oblong eyes, complains that “ninety-nine percent of men are up to no good.”
For Rozeres, who migrated to Rio from the northeastern state of Paraíba when she was a baby, one of the principal problems with dating men in Rocinha is that a woman who is not cautious can find herself manchada, or stained.
Indeed, young women growing up in Rocinha navigate through a contradictory social space in which traditional values impose constraints on acceptable behavior, yet where promiscuity is prevalent and incidences of teenage pregnancy high.
Joana, a precociously zaftig fourteen-year-old laments the fact that many girls from Rocinha—including one former Dream Models student—become pregnant before they are eighteen, and sometimes even at her age. “This is not because of lack of awareness, it’s just carelessness,” Liz tells me.
“Sometimes girls get pregnant because they want the man to stay with them,” Michelle, a beautiful 16 year-old with large, hazel eyes, tells me. “I had a friend—a guy—who was twenty-one and he got his girlfriend, who was fifteen, pregnant. When she told him that she was pregnant, he broke up with her. Her father decided to go over there, to talk to some people about it. The drug traffickers heard out the girl’s father and made the guy marry her.”
While incidences of teenage pregnancy are generally higher in favelas than on the asfalto (literally, the “asphalt” or the formal city) the majority of females in Rocinha—which has strong roots in the traditional Northeast from where most of its families emigrated—would be considered socially conservative by mainstream American standards.
Evangelical Protestants are the fastest growing religious group in the community. Not a single female student that I spoke to admitted to drinking alcohol or casually using drugs—though I was later informed that many of them sometimes take a surreptitious swig.
Indeed, there is a sharp double standard that exists between the sexes in Rocinha. The majority of Dreams Models female students contend that women are now winning a greater space in Brazilian society, especially in the workplace.
Yet they more often than not attest to coming from highly patriarchal households, where women of the family need to fight to maintain equal-footing with the men. Some female students also complain that male relatives who are the same age are permitted to stay out late on weekends, while they must adhere to strict curfews.
Even more vexing, however, is the encouragement adolescent males often receive from relatives to acquire sexual experience. Those who are shy—or perhaps “late-bloomers”—might even generate concern regarding their sexual orientation. Females, on the other hand, are almost invariably pressured to scrupulously preserve their chastity throughout their teenage years.
After relocating to a large space downstairs, the catwalk exercise resumes as two females students begin walking in tandem across the room. One is Jessica, a diminutive 12 year-old girl, who is attending class the first time today. She has sharp features and beautiful clear eyes.
There is a natural bounce in her gait and she carries herself with remarkable grace, though every so often she quizzically peeks to her right to the more experienced Rozeres, just to make sure that she is doing everything correctly. Rozeres, with perfect technique, glides forward with spry steps and seductive hip sways.
“At first we all thought that we could become top models,” she tells me. “Then we realized that it’s not so easy. It’s really hard to break into this profession; most of the work we get is at benefits and things like that.”
But she goes on to acknowledge that even if economic benefits never do accrue to her, she has profited from the course in other ways.
“We came into Dreams Models with many flaws,” she confesses “that we have since worked out. Now I can say that I can walk into any place and any kind of atmosphere, and hold my own. I was very timid when I came in.”
This is no insignificant assertion when considering the economic and social exclusion that shrouds the favela. Zé Luiz recollects the words of a television producer several years back to appear on a show—words that underscore the stigma that clings to the favelado—resident of a favela—in Brazil. When he brought his students to this producer’s television studio he recalls that the producer could not believe they were from Rocinha.
“But they are so beautiful!” the producer exclaimed in disbelief.
“People think that people from Rocinha have no manners, no culture,” according to Thaynara, a 16 year-old. “But it’s not the place that makes the person, it’s the person that makes the person.”
In Rocinha, a prevalent belief is that prejudice against even extends to the job market. For instance, in Rio de Janeiro it is commonplace for favelados to conceal where they live in job applications by providing false addresses to prospective employers.
According to Ana Maria, a lanky 18-year-old, her cousin recently applied for similar positions at two different companies. In one application she disclosed her real address whereas in the other she put down a false address in an affluent neighborhood. She was offered the position only at the latter company.
It is almost one o’clock and the class has all but disintegrated into pockets of conversations, as fashion magazines, or pictures of past runway shows circulate the periphery of the classroom. There is a window that stretches the distance of the western wall. On the left side of this window, the high-rises of São Conrado cut into the nebulous sky.
Across the highway, on the right side of the window, Rocinha’s ruddy edifices are submerged in fog one minute, only to resurface the next. This scene is uncannily framed by concrete arches from the external structure of the building, creating the impression of a bridge, from one side of the highway to the other.
I realize that possibly no where else in Brazil is the gap between the country’s haves and have-nots so palpable, so symbolically visible, as in this spot where I now stand.
Here I recognize the intrinsic divide between the stigmatized, degraded world of the morro (hillside slum) and the glistening cachet of the fashion universe. Is it possible that in some space, at some point in time, these two worlds can actually converge?
Zé Luiz, who believes he has witnessed a marked improvement in the manner in which mainstream society interacts with the favela and vice-versa, thinks so.
“The rise of a new generation of Brazilian idols, soccer players and musicians, many of whom are poor or dark-skinned, contributed to creating a new social face of Brazil,” he tells me.
Yet despite progress, he dolefully acknowledges that “of ten runway models, eight are white, one is dark-skinned, and one is black.” Moreover, he is aware that few favelados meet the universal standard for height and weight for haute couture models.
According to Zé Luiz, an instinctive longing to be seen resides at the burning core of the human spirit. In the subculture of fashion models, this drive is even more dominating.
If Zé Luiz is correct then could it not follow that, coming from the favela—which sometimes does not even appear on the city map—this primordial instinct might not pulsate even stronger? Could this be true not just for the aspiring model, but for the teenage drug-trafficker as well?
“Perhaps the real value of my project”, Zé Luiz tells me, “should be measured not necessarily in how many runway models it produces, but in how it elevates the self-esteem of the students. I think it makes many of them more comfortable with themselves.”
Gabe Ponce de León is a photographer and writer from New York City. He lived in Rocinha for over seven months. He is on the board of directors of the Two Brothers Foundation, a non-profit based in Rocinha. He can be reached for comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about Dreams Models, Zé Luiz Summer can be contacted at email@example.com.