This Year's Model

Article excerpt

On a tree-lined street in Sao Paulo's tony Jardins district, a double- decker bus pulls up in front of a manor house the color of pink lemonade. Out spills a stream of teenage girls, permed, perfumed and teetering on spindly heels that clatter over the cobblestones. They march through an iron gate into the Brazilian headquarters of Marilyn, a French fashion-model agency, each carrying photo portfolios under their arms and visions of New York in their heads. Inside, overworked bookers and scouts yell into mobile phones or tap away on keyboards. The new arrivals are herded into a waiting room, where they sit nervously, chewing gum, comparing portfolios and gabbing about pimples and shampoo. Two by two, they file in for interviews. "On your feet, and smile, please," says director Zeca de Abreu, looking one pair up and down. "When do the braces come off?"

Schoolgirls the world over have long dreamed of donning designer silks and parading on the catwalk to the steady purr of motor-driven Nikons. But in Brazil, where beauty is as highly valued as futebol or the samba, modeling has become an obsession. Modeling courses, makeup workshops and beauty contests are all the rage. Crash diets are in vogue. A dozen big-name modeling agencies like Marilyn have set up shop in Sao Paulo and deployed an army of talent scouts to beat the pavement for new faces. And from the smallest parish in the southern grain belt to the swank boulevards of Sao Paulo, kids are practicing their posture and perfecting their pouts. Capricho, a glossy teen magazine, recently asked 1,100 Brazilian teenagers if they wanted to become fashion models. Eighty-six percent said yes.

The reason for this craze stands 1.77 meters tall and has smoldering blue eyes. Her name is Gisele Bundchen--known to all as Gisele--and she is the most celebrated Brazilian since Pele. First introduced by designer Alexander McQueen two years ago, Gisele, now 20, is the world's top cover girl, taking to more than 1,600 catwalks and earning a reported $7,000 an hour. When she struts her trademark runway walk-- sassy and high-stepping, like a filly in tall grass--hearts beat faster from Milan to Manhattan. She has become an international icon: Vogue put the Brazilian bombshell on its cover three times last year and in December crowned her "Model of the Year."

To be sure, Brazil's beauty fetish precedes Gisele, going back at least as far as "the girl from Ipanema." But the emphasis on appearances has a dark side, too. Many model wanna-bes live under the tyranny of the bathroom scale, and may be prime candidates for eating disorders. They will often do anything to improve their chances of stardom, whether it means taking intensive English lessons, undergoing orthodontics or visiting a plastic surgeon to pin back their ears or vacuum out some cellulite. A few models even take growth hormones to reach lofty catwalk heights. Experts warn that such practices can be extremely dangerous to growing teens.

But for many kids, it's the price of a better life. Marilyn director Abreu compares the rush to the ramps to slum kids' aspiring to football stardom. Even moderate success can help lift a family out of poverty. Juliana Martins, a 16-year-old who has been modeling since she was 13, earns in a day what her father can earn in a month, about $550 at the steel mills where he works in Sao Paulo state. Patricia Mezzalira dos Santos, a 15-year-old from the depressed farming town of Lajes, hopes to use her cherry cheeks and powder blue eyes to boost her family's $600-a-month income. "One of the first things I thought about was the money," she said at a recent modeling workshop. Some parents think of nothing else. "There are parents out there willing to sell their kids," says Ming Liao Tao, a veteran Brazilian spotter.

It's easy to understand the temptation. Who wouldn't want to live like Gisele? When she isn't on the ramps, adding value to labels like Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren, she's hanging out in her TriBeCa duplex or making sure boyfriend Leonardo DiCaprio doesn't get lonely at the top. …