Beauty still skin-deep for Brazil's next top models

IN THE world of international supermodelling, Brazil is not the same country it was in 1994, when Gisele Bündchen, the world's top earning model, was discovered.

Darker-skinned women have become more prominent in Brazilian society, challenging the notions of Brazilian beauty and success that Bndchen has come to represent across the globe.

Actress Tas Arajo has just finished a run as the first black female lead in Viver a Vida, Brazil's equivalent of Coronation Street. Marina Silva, a former government minister born in the Amazon, is running for president. And over the past decade, the income of black Brazilians rose by about 40 percent, more than double the rate of whites, as Brazil's booming economy helped trim the inequality gap and create a more powerful black consumer class.

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Even the courts have waded into the debate over what Brazilian society looks like – and how it should be represented. So Paulo Fashion Week, the nation's most important fashion event, has been legally obliged to ensure that at least 10 per cent of its models are of African or indigenous descent.

Yet more than half of Brazil's models are still found among the farms of Rio Grande do Sul, a state that has only 5 per cent of the nation's population and was colonised predominantly by Germans and Italians.

Modelling scouts such as Alisson Chornak study books, maps and websites to understand how the towns were colonised and how European their residents might look today, before setting off a new mission.

Chornak says more than 70 per cent of the country's models come from three southern states that hardly reflect the multi-ethnic melting pot that is Brazil, where more than half the population is non-white.

The pattern creates a disconnect between what many Brazilians consider beautiful and the beauty they export overseas. While darker-skinned actresses such as Juliana Paes and Camila Pitanga are considered among Brazil's sexiest, Bndchen and her fellow southerners win fame abroad.

"I was always perplexed that Brazil was never able to export a Naomi Campbell, and it is definitely not because of a lack of pretty women," said Erika Palomino, a fashion consultant in So Paulo. "It is embarrassing."

Some scouts have begun tepid forays to less white parts of Brazil. One Brazilian designer, Walter Rodrigues, recently opened Rio Fashion Week with 25 models, all of them black.

But in the south, scouts still spend most of their time hunting for the next Gisele.

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Dilson Stein, who discovered Bndchen when she was 13, calls Rio Grande do Sul a treasure trove of model-worthy girls. Today, younger scouts like Chornak have taken up the mantle.

On a typical scouting mission, Chornak pulled up at a school where the director, Liliane Abro Silva, showed off albums from school beauty contests. She allows scouts to visit during class breaks.

"Since I got to this school, five have left for So Paulo to become models," she said. "The girls who do not have money to go to university will have to stay here and work in the fields."

At another stop, Chornak staked out a school in Paraso do Sul with the tools of his trade: business cards, camera, measuring tape and a notebook. The bell rang and students streamed out. Chornak stopped a tall, skinny blonde girl. Within seconds he was flouncing her hair and taking her measurements, directing her to pose against the wall.

Chornak drove to Venncio Aires, where a billboard heralded "the land of the Fantastic Girl," alluding to a television show that featured a local girl.

But there are failures as well. At a small tobacco farm he visited Michele Meurer, a blue-eyed 16-year-old discovered while riding her bicycle to school. Timid and shy, she cried the first time she went to So Paulo. The next time, she lasted six days before Chornak sent her home.

Her mother, who grew up speaking German, had never left the town until the So Paulo trip. They live in a four-room house with chickens and dogs. Michele keeps the freezer in her room for lack of space.

"I want to give them a better life," she said of her parents.

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Recently, she went to So Paulo again, where Chornak put her in a three-bedroom apartment with 11 other girls. Two weeks before So Paulo Fashion Week, Michele left.

"I am very disappointed that Michele gave up," Chornak said. "I invested a lot in her."