Brazil has gained a reputation for exporting models who find fame on a global scale, but both Brazilian and international runways barely reflect the country’s racially mixed background. How does Brazil produce so many top models and why isn’t there a more balanced representation of beauty when its local, and increasingly powerful, consumer base is more diverse than ever before?

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Gisele by Tiago Chediak
Gisele by Tiago Chediak

Despite having announced her retirement from the runways last year, —briefly interrupted only to walk a 120-metre runway for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro— supermodel extraordinaire Gisele Bündchen became the highest paid model for the fourteenth consecutive year, earning an estimated $30.5 million in 2016, according to Forbes. The Horizontina-born beauty rose to fame towards the end of the 1990s with the new era of, post-Kate Moss, “supers” and the return of a healthy look first embodied in Elle “the body” Macpherson. With her blonde locks, light sun-kissed skin, blue eyes, and endless legs, Bündchen has sashayed down thousands of catwalks, fronted countless ad campaigns and has been held up as an icon of Brazilian beauty for nearly two decades.

Right behind her on the famous Forbes list is Adriana Lima, the longest running Victoria’s Secret “Angel” earning an estimated $10.5 million. And not too far behind, another “Angel”, Alessandra Ambrosio who holds the 14th spot having earned $5 million in the past year. Like Gisele, they both boast millions of fans on social media and their looks are hailed in their country and across the globe.

Adriana Lima by Georges Biard
Adriana Lima by Georges Biard

Undoubtedly, Brazil’s modelling industry is the most sophisticated of Latin America, continuously producing more successful, high-earning models than any other country in the region. This in part because they have the most developed fashion weeks —with Sao Paolo Fashion Week being regarded as Latin America’s leading industry event— and also because Brazil’s large population of 202 million and diverse cultural heritage gives modelling casting agents a huge pool of potential beauties to draw from. However, the majority of Brazil’s most coveted models have tended to follow a Caucasian beauty ideal.

Typically an ethnic mix of German or Italian heritage with a slither of Slavic blood is celebrated, with girls frequently spotted outside of their school gates for their slim physique, straight long hair, pale skin and lighter eyes. Models in Brazil, like many other countries, become arbiters of beauty, and the idealised figure is predominantly a Euro-American physique as exemplified by Gisele’s 5”11 frame and 35-23-35 body measurements. The techniques used by local model scouts to find the next “it” model were highlighted on an international scale after a 2010 New York Times exposé, which followed a Brazilian scout as he travelled to rural schools to spot his next generation of models. Heading for specific areas in southern Brazil with historical links and ancestry reaching back to Europe, casting agents purposefully look for parts of the country where there was less miscegenation during colonisation.

As one of the world’s most multiracial societies with over 40% of people describing themselves as ‘mixed race’ in the latest census, the lack of diversity on Brazilian catwalks is striking. Despite being home to only one-twentieth of the countries’ population, 70% of models come from the same three most southern estates of Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina and Parana. Rio Grande do Sul’s rural landscape is a key model casting area, it’s where Gisele and Alessandra Ambrosio were both spotted in their early teens. The estate has historical colonial ties to Germany and Italy.

The disparity in employment opportunities and thus visibility for models of different ethnicities has not gone unnoticed within the Latin America modelling industry. Models have taken the representation debate off the runways and onto the pavements, as protests outside fashion weeks have gained in strength and numbers. In 2013, 40 black models staged a topless protest during Rio Fashion Week to draw attention to the low numbers of Afro-Brazilian models on the catwalk. Specific websites and blogs such as ‘Black women of Brazil’ highlight examples of racism in media representation on TV and in the modelling world.

Brazilian models are speaking up about other issues facing the modelling world too. In 2013 Sao Paolo-based model Michelli Provensi released a rap music video ‘All the Models in the House’ in which she raps about the industry and the chasm between perception and reality. Promoting her tell-all book which reveals  the less glamorous side to modelling, “I Need to Go Around the World – Surreal Adventures of a Real Model”, Provensi told the Guardian that “the Brazilian market reflects the market abroad. It is a European standard of beauty.”

[su_pullquote]Over the last decade, the income of black Brazilians grew by 40%, and the rise of the lower middle class across Brazil is seeing the emergence of a new, powerful and largely black consumer base. Marketers and companies will be increasingly looking to tap into that market.[/su_pullquote]

At one point it seemed that the Brazilian government was listening and responding to calls for better diversity in model castings. In 2013 fashion week organisers and the local government in Rio de Janeiro introduced a compulsory quota for its fashion week shows which stated that at least 10% of models used should be of African or indigenous descent. A few years prior to that in 2009, a similar scheme was introduced in Sao Paolo Fashion Week, which also stated a 10% quota. However, within one year the SPFW quota was removed after it was deemed unconstitutional by a conservative judge.

Alessandra Ambrosio at the Balmain SS17 menswear show. Photo Courtesy of Bamain
Alessandra Ambrosio at the Balmain SS17 menswear show. Photo Courtesy of Bamain

Although, it seems that economics rather than ethics and laws will make the most difference for equal runway representation. According to a 2012 study by Fundação Getúlio Vargas (FGV) (a Brazilian institution dedicated to promoting the country’s economic and social development) over the last decade the income of black Brazilians grew by 40%, and the rise of the lower middle class across Brazil is seeing the emergence of a new, powerful and largely black consumer base. Marketers and companies will be increasingly looking to tap into that market.

The past few years have seen more diverse beauty ideals emerging from Brazil. For example, models Lais Ribeiro, Gracie Carvalho, Daniela Braga and Emanuela De Paula (who is also a brand ambassador for L’Oreal) have graced countless international runways and ad campaigns. In June of 2015, Ana Luisa Castro became the second black woman ever to be crowned Miss World Brazil, and this year Raissa Santana was crowned Miss Brazil. Regardless, the majority of the nation’s models that find fame overseas continue to have lighter skin.

[su_pullquote align=”right”]“The public is totally ready for diversity, new markets are opening and there are more international consumers than ever before, brands have no excuse.”[/su_pullquote]

Fashion weeks across the world are also engaging with the ethics of modelling. New York Fashion Week Fall 2015 saw some revolutionary runway moments; American Horror Story’s Jamie Brewer appeared in designer Carrie Hammer’s Role Models Not Runway Models campaign as the first woman with Downs Syndrome to walk at NYFW. In 2013, Activist Bethann Hardison of The Diversity Coalition organisation sent an open letter accusing specific fashion designers of racism on the runway. It seems the designers listened and fashion weeks saw a slight increase of black models to 8% in recent seasons. UK-based All Walks organisation educates young designers on embodying diversity as well as challenging the lack of diversity in the fashion industry. Frei Davi Santos, president of EDUCAFRO (an ONG which promotes the education and rights of Afro-Brazilians) has organised protests at Sao Paolo Fashion Week, drawing international attention to the white-washing of Brazil’s catwalks.

Editorial Director for Hercules Universal magazine Román Lata, who has also worked extensively in the fashion industry as creative director and consultant, thinks that today’s industry calls for a more balanced representation of beauty. “The public is totally ready for diversity,” he says, “new markets are opening and there are more international consumers than ever before, brands have no excuse.”

Comparisons can be drawn to an increase of Chinese models across international fashion weeks at the same time as China rose to become a superpower. Yongzhou-born Liu Wen is an Estée Lauder ambassador and the first Asian ever to walk for Victoria’s Secret, also models such as Fei Fei Sun, Sui He and Ming Xi regularly star in editorial and runway at home and overseas. The future looks promising for a more ethnically diverse modelling arena arising in Brazil; although, as with China, the industry will have economics rather than ethics to thank.

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