As a young boy in Brazil’s heartland, Carol Marra watched her parents politely correct strangers who said what a pretty daughter they had. In her teenage years, she coveted the boyfriends of her female classmates and tried out androgynous outfits, dutifully changing back into a young man’s clothes in her car before returning home.
Now a favorite among Brazil’s growing class of transgender models, Marra, 26, has become a star. She filmed two mini-series for major Brazilian television channels, is starting a lingerie line and was the first transgender model to walk Fashion Rio — considered a top national runway event — and also the first to pose for Revista Trip, a Brazilian culture magazine that features female nudes.
Her popularity points to striking, if precarious, gains in Brazil’s popular culture for Marra and her small number of peers. In a country that publicly celebrates its mixed-race and multicultural heritage, Brazil’s cosmopolitan capitals like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have become places where crossing gender lines is increasingly accepted. Still, transgender models themselves say Brazil is also in many ways a deeply conservative country with strong religious forces that can create a hostile environment for its gay and transgender population.
“They say Brazil is a liberal, progressive country, but it’s not really like that,” said Marra, as a stylist curled her long dyed-blond hair in the upscale Jardins neighborhood of Sao Paulo before a television shoot.
Marra herself has become a success story for a rising number of transgender models who, like her, migrated from more remote regions to Sao Paulo, considered the most important fashion hub of South America.
“When I arrived, I immediately felt the difference,” said Melissa Paixao, 22, who moved here at age 19.
She was born Robson Paixao in Belo Horizonte, a more traditional city in Brazil’s interior. As a teenager, she made extra cash posing as Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn in a store there and said she drew stares on the street, which she attributes less to prejudice than to being a 6-foot-tall woman.
Relative newcomers like Paixao, Camila Ribeiro and Felipa Tavares have gotten runway and catalog work in the national fashion market. Ribeiro walked in the Fashion Business show in Rio for Santa Ephigenia, a classy women’s wear brand. And Paixao will be in the coming catalog of Walerio Araujo, a Brazilian designer, who is known for flamboyant styles and has dressed Brazilian celebrities including singers like Preta Gil and Maria Rita.
The transgender models say that their experiences bear out the idea that progress in gaining social acceptance has been uneven despite the anything-goes image the nation projects. The country’s gay and transgender movements were stunted during the military dictatorship that steered the country from 1964 to 1985, years when similar movements were taking root in other countries, scholars of gay rights here say.
Gender-bending has a long history in Brazil; public cross-dressing peaks each year with the pre-Lenten Carnival celebrations. The participation of boisterous men in women’s clothing and crude makeup is as much a tradition as samba competitions.
Drag shows by transgender and gay performers became a fad in Rio nightclubs in the 1950s and 1960s, and in subsequent decades some transgender women began using hormonal treatments and silicone to feminize their bodies, according to James N. Green, a historian and the author of Beyond Carnival: Male Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century Brazil.