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The Princess Goes to Rio’s City of God


The Princess Goes to Rio's City of God

Bonds deepen between the Princess and the attentive angels,
for despite the fact that their
social backgrounds are worlds apart,
they all bravely overcome the same obstacles. Paola gains yet

more respect when she informs the group that she would
never rely on merely modeling to secure
her future.

by:
David
Alexander Carvalho

 

Once upon a time there was a charming princess who was so beautiful that she worked as a model. Her beauty and
charm were so revered that she was invited to the City Of God, where she spent the day with some equally beautiful and
charming angels.

The wonderful thing about this fairy tale is that it’s absolutely true. I recently had the pleasure of accompanying the
well-known Brazilian model and Princess, Paola Maria de Bourbon de Orleans e Bragança Sapieha, on her visit to a group of
models in the now famous "slum" of Rio de Janeiro, City of God. This district, once unknown by foreigners and still
impenetrable to most Brazilians, has reached international acclaim through the film,
City of God, directed by Fernando Meirelles,
based on the book of the same title by Paulo Lins.

These mediums focus on the violence and the gang rivalry that once tore the community apart. Though based on the
harsh realities of life there, they are historic pieces that snapshot events from the neighbourhood’s formation in the mid-sixties
until the assassination of the brutal drug dealer and gang leader, Zé Pequeno, in the eighties. It’s a far cry from today’s
reality. "It’s a film from the past.

Things are calmer now, the community is more united and involved in various projects," states Gisele, a 19-year-old
standing proud at 1.79m, herself involved in the group of models called
The Lens of Dreams. It is one of the many projects in the
community that attempts to engage young people creatively and develop their professional skills. More importantly, they try to
tempt teenagers away from the norm of gang life and all the illegal activities and risks it entails.

Tony Barros, 30-year-resident of the community and co-ordinator and photographer of the project, welcomes
Princess Paola to his studio, come dressing room, come home filled with short-skirted, tanned members of the group. He tells her
how the project began as a working arrangement between some fashion and model students needing their pictures taken and
himself, a self-taught photographer on the look out for subjects. He laughs as he recalls their first ever photo shoot: "It took
place on a wooden bridge in the neighbourhood. There was an awful smell which we thought was due to pollution in the
canal. We later discovered we were working above a rotting, human corpse. But the photos were great."

The models go on to share the difficulties they have had to overcome in working within their own community. They
are numerous, including gang leaders demanding them as girlfriends, the threat of having their heads shaved if they cause
trouble at street parties, discrimination from agencies due to their social background and the lack of bus fairs to get to jobs in
other regions.

Roberta couldn’t be a model without the support of her mother: "My mum hated the idea at first. She’s an Evangelist
and thought of it as prostitution. Now she’s seen how professional our work is, she’s really supportive." Family support is
essential to these budding beauties. So much of their work is unpaid, not even expenses, but it is a great opportunity to
gain experience and get noticed. Thus it’s the parents that have to pay for clothes, make-up and transport to jobs.

Some girls get signed up by agencies, Tony explains, but this too brings its problems: "The contracts are absurd.
First the models can only work for that agency. Second they have to pay for the right to go on the catwalk and for copies of
photographs and they end up paying more than they earn. One girl had to sign a contract for five years, give 40 percent of her
earnings to the agency and one time when she wasn’t earning she had to pay a fine."

That’s why the group was formed and started to work as an agency itself. The project does not just involve the
participants in the skills required by models; it also allows them to administer and market the agency, learn something of lighting
techniques in photography and to teach modeling courses to younger, more inexperienced members of the community.

Sharing Experiences

The day continues with Princess Paola giving a talk about her life as a model at the local Resident’s Association
Centre, where The Lens of Dreams has its own office/studio. Like her companions for the day, she too started at the age of
seventeen, though her path has not been such a rocky one and has got her somewhat further down the line. As she speaks her
portfolio is passed around to the gasps of admiration of the assembled crowd, which includes some young schoolgirls and their
mothers anxious to know what their future might hold.

The portfolio is an impressive collection of professionally taken photographs mapping a three-year career upon the
catwalk, modeling costume jewellery and period clothing in magazines, participating in advertising campaigns and appearing in
the social columns and society magazines of the Brazilian press. "Why do the magazines call her a Princess? Is it a
nickname?" Elysa whispers to me. "No, it’s because she
is a princess."

Paola is the daughter of the first marriage of Princess Cristina Maria do Rosário de Bourbon de Orleans e Bragança
to Prince John Paul Sapieha, heir to the Polish throne. As the great-great-great-granddaughter of Princess Isabel, she was
brought up in the Imperial Palace, Grão-Pará, in Petrópolis, in the cooler heights of Rio’s mountains and so favoured by the
monarchy.

I had neglected to tell the group about Paola’s blue blood for a number of reasons. I never really think of her in
those terms. I knew Paola for a year and a half before I even learned of her heritage. Even then I didn’t believe it. She was a
seventeen-year-old who used to come down from Petrópolis to Rio with her friends to go to a techno night club in Copacabana run
by my flatmate. They would all crash out on my floor. "Princesses don’t sleep on my floor," I proclaimed in disbelief.
"That sounds like some Hollywood film with Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts."

She’s always been just an ordinary
menina (teenage girl) to her friends and that’s how she likes to be seen. Thus I
respected this fact and let the models get to know her as Paola, the young model, before they discovered her regal identity. An
identity she has always played down, dropping the many components of her name when starting school, because of the
preconceptions that many have towards the monarchy. The young models of the community ask Paola if the fact that she is a Princess
has helped her in her career.

"Of course it has. The first job I ever got was through a friend of my mum who wanted me to model costume
jewellery because of who I am. I know I get called to do jobs because they think the royal touch will give a little something. But at
the end of the day I have to go out and look for work. I’m not the most beautiful of the models; I’m not the tallest or the
slimmest. And just like you I have to go from door to door with my portfolio under my arm trying to generate work."

Sharing Plans

Bonds deepen between the Princess and the attentive angels, for despite the fact their social backgrounds are worlds
apart, they all bravely overcome the same obstacles. Paola gains yet more respect when she informs the group that she would
never rely on merely modeling to secure her future. "I know it’s a temporary thing. I’m not getting any younger and I’ve seen
girls just dropped like hot coals when their look is suddenly out of fashion. That’s why I’m studying Industrial Design at
university at night. I’m really enjoying the course and would love to work in the area of design."

A ring of recognition runs through the group. Elysa plans to study law or theatre; Gisele dreams of being a stylist;
Roberta too would like to work in the theatre having already studied in the area. And then there’s Josiária, only 19, but already
helping to co-ordinate the project as well as working as an infant teacher and studying to become a nurse. She tells me that she
has to work to help her mother as her father has never been around. Her responsibility has been even greater since the recent
death of her brother in a car accident. With tears in her eyes she tells me that she’ll struggle to be a model or actress, and even
if she doesn’t make it she knows she’ll grow as a person just trying: "At least I can say that I tried. And that I never lost faith."

After lunch Paola, Tony and I jump on the back of motorbike taxis and go to poorest part of the neighbourhood,
Rocinha II. It’s a district made up of about a thousand shacks thrown together from discarded bits of wood and asbestos. We
slalom through the pothole-covered lanes avoiding the multitude of children playing in the street. An area that tastes of poverty,
it is the favourite location of visiting fashion magazines and television crews, always seeking to contrast beauty with
desperation. Tony is no exception, and as he starts to snap away at Paola who poses upon broken concrete slabs in the middle of
the road. I hear a young woman watching the scene from the window of her shack say "It’s just another one of those models."

Children of all shapes, sizes and tones flock around, with yet more arriving from afar on bicycles. We ask a nearby
resident if we can take pictures in front of her home where her own children are playing. Only if we give her a copy, which we
promise to do. So a large crowd of children assemble in front of the shack and Princess Paola sits on the back of tiny bicycles,
and then helps the kids with the impossible task of completing jigsaws that have pieces missing and no box to illustrate the
desired image.

The day ends with yet further photos being taken, this time with seven female members of the group and one male
member sandwiching Paola in the middle of the street, stopping traffic. The drivers don’t seem to mind, no one seems to be in
hurry on this hot Friday afternoon, and they seem happy just to sit back and enjoy the view. Kids coming back from school
wearing the municipal school T-shirt, which allows them to travel on the bus for free, jump into shot.

A man wearing a Brazilian football shirt is invited in as a VW transport van squeezes past the group. Tony takes
pictures of the models and I take pictures of Tony taking pictures. I feel a tug on my shirttail and I look down to see a little,
black girl sucking on an ice pop: "Is she famous?" she asks me. "She’s just a Princess who’s come to visit the angels of the
City of God," I explain. "Oh," she chirps, and skips off sucking her ice pop.

Since writing this article I’ve learnt that a university in the centre of Rio, called The Lyceum of Arts and Crafts, has
offered some free places to members of the group on a course for models and mannequins. The objective is to train the students
to teach a similar course in their own neighbourhood to younger members of the community. Transport costs will also be
paid. I think of the tearful eyes of Josiária, remembering her brother when he was alive. It was she who told me that: "Faith
can move mountains. And we’re just trying to move our own little hills."

 

David Alexander Carvalho is a freelance writer and journalist who has been living in Brazil for over five years. He
can be contacted on davealexrob@yahoo.com

 

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