Brazil latches onto favela chic

The world of high fashion may seem a million miles from the squalor of Rio de Janeiro's shanty towns. But some are managing to make the journey
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The Independent US

Liz Leopoldo breaks first from the circle of model students and strides imperiously across the room, her long legs clad in skin-tight jeans. Her legs plunge downwards into high-heeled sandals, and she has a grace borne of discipline and determination. Her true prowess lies, though, in the hips. They possess the trademark Brazilian swagger, the ability to freeze time, command attention and, above all, entice.

Her performance would have graced a catwalk, instead it lit up the concrete gym of Ayrton Senna High School perched halfway down the hillside in Rocinha, Rio's largest slum.

Only a year ago Liz, real name Elizane Souza Leopoldino, had no idea how to walk in heels, let alone stamp her presence on a runway. Now she is hoping that her unconventional features - oval cream coloured cheeks that curve to a pointed chin - will be her passport out of the favela, the shanty town that has been her home since moving to the city. She is one of the star students of Dreams Models, the brainchild of a 35-year-old Afro-Brazilian Zé Luiz da Conceicao Silva, who, for more than a decade, has been running morning classes for aspiring young men and women who want to swap the poverty and violence of the favela for the world of fashion.

Brazil's second city is synonymous with beauty and beach fashion but the reputation earned by the expertly-tanned and finely-sculpted bodies of Ipanema beach, stops short of the tin shacks and shanty-towns that house hundreds of thousands of Carioca - Rio's residents. These slum-dwellers carry the stigma of the favelas, a near guarantee of prejudice in a metropolis of vast and varying fortunes.

Rocinha is the undisputed king of favelas. A chaotic sprawl that spills down the hillside between smart seaside neighbourhoods. Nobody knows for certain how many people live here, though it is generally regarded as Brazil's largest favela, and certainly home to at least 150,000. Spreading across the famous Two Brothers Mountain in the heart of Rio, Rocinha is one of the most recognisable features of the cityscape, along with Corcovado and Sugar Loaf.

In the past century, squatters have erected more than 700 favelas across the city on uninhabited land, often on hillsides. The failure to incorporate them into the city proper has been a monumentally costly mistake. Drug-traffickers buoyed by the cash-rich cocaine industry, consolidated control over most favelas and now act as "parallel powers" in Rio. That has deepened social schisms and contributed to the well-publicised upsurge in violence around the city.

The Ayrton Senna School is only separated from the affluent neighbourhood of São Conrado by the width of the Lagoa Barra highway but passing the gates means leaving one world to enter another.

At half past nine, Zé Luiz is waiting for class to start inside the modest gym. The Cariocas' casual relationship with time means that when the clock indicates 10, the same number of students have just drifted in. They link hands in a circle as Zé Luiz begins the day with a blast of American pop. A circle forms, walking anti-clockwise in time with the music. A few minutes pass and the students break the link to parade around the room, snaking and zig-zagging, showcasing the renowned local flair and knack for improvisation.

Then Liz leads the way with her catwalk drill. In less than a month's time, she and three others from Dreams Models will be in full costume for a cameo in Copacabana Palace's legendary Carnival Ball, where the crème de la crème revel the night away each year. It will be Liz's second ball after her debut in 2003. Later that year, she was selected by the designer George Moreira to model a bridal gown on a top-rating late-night talk show in São Paulo.

The bright lights of a São Paulo TV studio are a long way from Vitorino Freire, the small agricultural city in the impoverished north-eastern state of Maranhão, from where Liz emigrated in 1996, aged 11.

"I feel well, I am happy, when I am on the catwalk," says Liz. "I feel like another person. It's almost as if I don't believe that I am there, because I came from Maranhão, from such a small place in the interior of the country. I arrived in Rocinha and I had nothing."

She remembers the culture shock - and even fear - that she felt on arrival in Rocinha and Rio de Janeiro. Her father bought a house in Vidigal, a favela on the other side of the mountain. She liked Vidigal because it was quieter than Rocinha and its rhythm of life less frenzied. The dangers that surrounded her new life were graphically illustrated when her past and present homes went to war in a battle between rival drug lords.

The trouble began in January last year when a former drug kingpin of Rocinha, Eduíno Eustáquio de Araújo Filho, known as "Dudu," escaped from prison and began mobilising for a war to reclaim his former throne. The stakes would be high: Rocinha's drug trade was the most lucrative in the city, then worth an estimated £2m per week, according to the police.

On Good Friday of 2004, Rocinha became the focal point of a civic crisis when Dudu's gang led a full-scale assault of the neighbouring slum from Vidigal. The siege was squashed by Rocinha's drug-traffickers and the military police but Dudu escaped and the spectre of his return loomed large over the favela.

Several months later, in retaliation for the Good Friday attack, the drug traffickers of Rocinha invaded Vidigal. Within a few weeks, the rival drug gang retook it. "Some nights I stayed up hearing gunshots," Liz told me. "When I went back to Rocinha, I was afraid that people would find out I was from Vidigal."

On 31 December last year, three hours before fireworks exploded over Copacabana Beach, marking the beginning of 2005, the police finally captured Dudu. In Rocinha, the arrest of the notoriously violent trafficker seemed to signal the end of a tumultuous year and was met with widespread jubilation. The victorious drug traffickers shot tracer bullets into the sky in celebration. Zé Luiz was elated by the arrest. "Rocinha is becoming what it used to be. The streets are full again, it's marvellous, it's heaven here," said the Rocinha native, who had to cancel class during the worst of the violence. "We're going to have a wonderful carnival."

Rozeres Paraguara, his student who has lived in Rocinha for most of her 21 years, had a more guarded response. "We were all traumatised by the violence," she recalled. "My mother wanted to leave here; a lot of people were dying. It's calmer now, but we're still not free. Another person could come."

Since she began attending the modelling course two years ago, Rozeres has strode hundreds of miles of imaginary runways. She has dazzled in downtown Rio, been fêted across the bay in Niterói and in Ipanema, and even posed for foreign photographers on the sacred sands known in Brazil as praia.

She once donned a bridal gown in an event called Rocinha Tem Fome (Rocinha is Hungary) which attracted the socialites and their media attention to the favela. But paying gigs are hard to come by and can be counted on the fingers of one exquisite hand.

"There were moments when we seemed ready to lift off," she tells me, "but I don't know what happened. At first we all thought we could become top models, then we realised it's not so easy. It's very hard to break into this profession; most of the work we get is at benefits and things like that."

Liz is also fighting an uphill battle for employment in the fashion industry. To make ends meet, she works in a video rental store in the evening. In the morning, she studies social communication at a local university. But she's still young, and hopeful. "Right now I'm focused on college, but if something comes up with fashion, I will certainly jump on it," she says.

Rozeres believes her catwalk dreams have been invaluable whether they become a reality or not. Learning how to be a model helped her overcome what could perhaps be termed a "favela resident complex," the by-product of social exclusion in Brazil.

"We came into Dreams Models with many flaws that we have since worked out," she says. "Now I can walk into any place and any kind of atmosphere, and hold my own. I was very timid when I came here."

Zé Luiz recalls the words of a television producer that underscored the stigma that sticks to the favela. When he brought the models to the television studio, the producer could not believe they were from Rocinha.

"But they are so beautiful!" the producer exclaimed in disbelief. "[They] think that people from Rocinha have no manners, no culture," according to Thaynara Cantuario, a 16-year-old who says that people from the slums often provide false addresses to potential employers.

"But it's not the place that makes the person; it's the person that makes the person."

But even Zé Luiz cannot be sure that his strutting boys and girls can make the rough alleyways of the favela and the glistening runways of the fashion world converge.

The window that stretches the distance of the north-western wall of the classroom gives a snapshot of the scale of their task. On the left the modern high-rises of wealthy São Conrado thrust high up into the blue sky. Looking to the right, Rocinha's small brick shanties envelop the mountainside.

São Conrado, is home the city's conservative mayor and presidential candidate, Caetano Veloso, and the business élite live in gated communities. A stone's throw away start the alleyways of the favela that, despite its size, does not even appear on the map.

The desire to be seen runs throughout Brazilian culture, according to Zé Luiz and rebellion against invisibility is extraordinarily fierce in the favelas. "When a person is born and raised in the favela, they realise from an early age that everything is difficult because the prejudice is enormous. People view the favela negatively, they think that if you're from the favela, you aren't attractive, you're stupid, you don't read - everything is distorted. I teach that this can change."