This Year's Model

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. It would be difficult to overstate Gisele's impact, not only on Brazil but on the modeling industry as well. Just two years ago the celebrity model looked like an endangered species. The public grew so weary of the pampered princesses that they were pushed off magazine and tabloid covers by pop singers, movie stars, even politicians. Then came Gisele. "She had breasts and hips and great hair," says James Scully, booking editor of Harper's Bazaar. "Men want her. Women want to be her. We haven't had that since Cindy and Naomi."

And so the fashionistas swarmed to Brazil for Gisele clones. Fashion Pygmalions are scouring the hinterlands for beauties in the rough. Models with nondescript accents are pretending to be Brazilian. "Everyone asks me if I know her," says Brazilian clothing designer Alexandre Herchcovitch, whose popular label, Zoomp, is selling even better in the age of Gisele. Other Brazilian companies are capitalizing on the babe from Brazil as well. When the giant beverage company Ambev wanted to add some oomph to its New York Stock Exchange debut last week, they called Gisele--not Greenspan--who tossed Ambev caps and blew kisses. Says Herchcovitch: "It's a good time to be Brazilian."

Especially if you're a model. Once a struggling, underpaid group, Brazilian models now crowd catwalks around the world. No reputable agency can do without a stable of Brazilian models. In Milan last April they came by the dozens, draped in everything from Fendi to Feretti. The Brazilian battalion will be on hand this week when New York's annual Fashion Week gets underway. "Brazil is my favorite country," declares Peruvian fashion photographer Mario Testino.

But why? In a world flush with angelic faces and traffic-stopping figures, what is it that makes the Brazilians stand out? It's hard to imagine now, but before she rose to stardom, Gisele had plenty of doors slammed in her face. Some agents thought her fair hair and angular frame were not "Brazilian" enough. Others said her face with its generous nose was, well, "funny," she recalls. Now the fashion business has learned its lesson: in a society consisting of Indians, Africans, Italians, Germans, Poles and Japanese, there is no trademark Brazilian. Instead scouts are reveling in a land that serves up more colors than Crayola.

The diversity is endless. There was caramel-skinned Fernanda Tavares giving Ricky Martin goose bumps on the cover of British Vogue in August. Gucci girl Caroline Ribeiro, from the Amazon region, is as brown as the nappa-leather slacks she squeezes into. Mariana Weickert is being touted as a young Barbra Streisand look-alike, while Nathalia Costa and Giane Albertoni are as blond as any milk-fed Swede. "It's the mixed blood that drives everyone wild," says The Sunday Times's Isabella Blow, the doyenne of fashion critics.

None of this has been lost on aspiring young Brazilians. Beauty pageants--Miss Swimming Pool, The Girl of Summer, Most Beautiful Student, Grape Harvest Queen--crowd calendars year-round. And teens are willing to subject themselves to all kinds of scrutiny in their quest to become the next Gisele. At a small-town workshop, Ming squeezes flanks and bellies as he watches girls in bikinis and boys in briefs march up and down a makeshift ramp. "You're going to have to lose four kilos," he says, shaking his head at one wholesome blonde.

Indeed, Ming--among others--thinks Gisele-mania has gone too far. "These kids think it's all perfume and beautiful people, when it's really about hard work and brutal competition," says Ming, who spent 11 years brokering contracts for young models in Japan and New York. In Brazil, many aspiring posers turn to Dilson Stein for help. A former model, Stein roams the backcountry of Rio Grande do Sul, setting up makeshift catwalks in high-school gymnasiums and teaching wanna-bes the secrets of the trade. One of Stein's 20,000 former students was a gangly 13-year-old they once called Olive Oyl. Now they call her Gisele and, thanks to her, Stein can barely catch his breath. "There are more where she came from," he exclaims.

To be sure, Brazil's modeling business has changed dramatically since Gisele was a schoolgirl. In the mid-'90s, there were five agencies nationwide. Now there are 11, with branches all over the country and a legion of aggressive scouts. "I have a computer map which shows me each girl in each state," says Waenry Matias of Marilyn. A decade ago amateur agents combed the streets for the odd princess in the crowd. Turning her into catwalk material was another story. "Most of the models weren't earning enough to be professionals," says John Casablancas, the maestro for 30 years at Elite. "They were trophy girls for rich boyfriends." Since then the fees for those who make it to the runways have tripled and the competition has grown fierce.

But even those lucky few who are admitted to fashion's inner circle face a life of sacrifices. Most models live in cramped rooming houses and sleep in bunk beds: four, six or eight to an apartment. The agencies not only take a huge cut of a model's fees but also debit room, board and travel expenses. (Many successful models never get out of debt to the company store.) The lucky ones may get to see the world, but not on a first-class ticket. And because agencies rarely go out on a limb to sponsor a work visa for an untried Lolita, scores of models start their overseas career by working illegally.

Still, the wanna-bes keep coming. "The whole world is looking for the next Gisele," says Casablancas. And there will be a next Gisele. But whether she's Brazilian or Somali or Indian is anyone's guess. "This is not about a country, it's about beauty," says The Times's Blow. "Fashion buys beauty, wherever it may be found." For the moment, at least, that's in Brazil.