Setting the catwalk alight, model who used to be a man

Hot on the heels of Gisele Bündchen, a new Brazilian on the catwalks has taken an unusual route to the top

The sizzle in Sao Paolo as it celebrates its winter fashion week has not been about the Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen or even the American actor Ashton Kutcher, who have both had their catwalk outings. The brightest paparazzi pops have been reserved, rather, for Lea T, a transsexual making her modelling debut.

All of Brazil seems to be basking in the sensation that Lea T has suddenly become. Never mind that it first knew her as Leandro Cerezo, the son of a famous football star, Toninho Cerezo.

Modelling for the Brazilian designer Alexandre Herchcovitch, she set the critics alight, confidently strutting the deck in a black dress with frilly sleeves of black and yellow lace. Leaving the building later with her bodyguards she sparked a mini media riot.

For fashion aficionados the only surprise might have been that Lea T was wearing Herchcovitch instead of Givenchy. It was while working at Givenchy in Paris, first as an office assistant and then as a model, that she apparently first experimented with making her male-to-female transition, encouraged in particular by Riccardo Tisci, the creative director at the French fashion house.

Now, the fashion industry will be agog to see what happens next with Lea T, who is said to exude a femininity rendered exotic by a strong jaw-line and side-swept black hair. She has already made a small splash in Britain, appearing on the front cover of Love magazine kissing an elder-statesperson of the catwalking cosmos, Kate Moss.

If, as many speculate, she does a spin for Herchcovitch at her upcoming show at New York Fashion Week, which begins on 10 February, there may be nothing to stop her from taking Paris Fashion Week by storm in March also, if not for Herchcovitch then perhaps for Givenchy.

Lea T, 28, recently paid homage to Tisci and the encouragement he gave her. "One night, he encouraged me to wear heels to a party," she said in an interview. "We went shopping for these drag queen high heels and bleached my eyebrows. It was a revelation."

She stole headlines in Sao Paolo in the face of red-hot competition. Paris Hilton was expected there to model, and the red carpet was also being rolled out for Christina Aguilera, who has her own fashion brand to flog.

While Sao Paolo marked her catwalk debut, Lea T has already scaled the heights of magazine modelling, appearing nude in French Vogue as well as fully clothed in Italian Vanity Fair. She gave an interview to the latter, detailing the challenges of the physical gender transition as well as coping with the opprobrium of family and society.

But she had no regrets then, and after the sensation of Sao Paolo presumably does not today either. "The choice," she said, "is between being unhappy forever or trying to be happy."