Brazilian fashion consultant Erika Palomino recently told the New York Times, “I was always perplexed that Brazil was never able to export a Naomi Campbell, and it is definitely not because of a lack of pretty women…it is embarrassing.” Over the years, fair-skinned girls like Gisele Bundchen have come to symbolize the ideal of Brazilian beauty, both within Brazil and abroad, leaving the majority of Brazilian women, in all their glorious colors, painfully unrepresented in the fashion world.
There is, however, a sense that the inequity is starting to change. Take, for example, Malana, the exquisite black model who, with her shaved head and Grace Jones swagger, is causing quite the stir. The warmth in her voice and the optimism with which she, at only 22, approaches life make her all the more beautiful. Her story takes us from the streets of São Paulo to the runways of São Paulo Fashion Week and beyond…
Did you always want to be a model?
I always liked the idea of being a model, but it wasn’t an option for me because I had to help my family financially from a very young age. I didn’t really have much exposure to the fashion world growing up, except for sometimes skimming through fashion magazines on newsstands. At the age of 14, I started to understand more about what it meant to be a model and I became interested in the profession. I saw all those beautiful women, looking gorgeous and so powerful walking down the runway, in the midst of all that glamor with thousands of cameras flashing. Every girl is enchanted by that image, in the same way that every boy growing up in Brazil wants to be a soccer player.
So you began working at a very young age?
I come from a big family of six brothers and sisters. My grandmother and mother raised us. Our childhood was difficult and complex because we essentially grew up without a father figure. It was tough and my mother worked hard to support us. I started working at the age of 13, distributing pamphlets to people in their cars, while they were waiting at stoplights. That was a really hard time in my life.
How did you end up modeling?
I actually started modeling with my younger sister. I took her by the hand and we went to an agency. But in the end, she felt that it wasn’t for her. It’s really funny because I always saw her as the model. She has perfect teeth and perfect skin. But I’m the one who ended up sticking with the career. There was no scout that found me on the streets. Modeling was really something that I sought out on my own.
Was your family supportive of your career?
In the beginning, they weren’t very present in my modeling career, and after a while, as I grew in the industry, they started to understand what I was doing and what I wanted. They began to gain a better grasp of my world. Nowadays things have really changed. My grandmother, for instance, will call me up and ask me to bring photos of the work I’ve been doing. She’ll be really disappointed if I don’t bring her any images.
Your shaved head has become your signature.
Yeah. Actually, I used to have a huge afro and one night I dreamed that I was bald. At that time I really wanted to change my hairstyle, and I was thinking of getting dreads or dying my hair some crazy color. Coincidentally, a little while after having that dream, I saw a sale at a hair salon where you could get your hair cut for just $5. Also, I had seen pictures of Alek Wek, the Sudanese model, and I found her so stunning and exotic. So I had been flirting with the idea of shaving my head, but I really only got the guts to do it when I was literally standing in front of the salon, telling myself, “I’m going to go in and just do it.” Of course, when I first saw it, I was like, “Oh my God, oh my God, what have I done?”
Alek Wek is someone who has also been through a lot.
Yeah, she was a refugee from Sudan, and she really grew up in poverty. She really became an inspiration for me in terms of life experience, persistence and personality.
Have you met her yet?
No, I have not yet had the pleasure. I admire her from afar. Not just in regards to her modeling career, but I mean, if you actually read her story, it definitely makes you question yourself and your reality. It makes you realize how much you have to be thankful for and how much we take for granted everyday. Her story really moves me.
Your debut at São Paulo Fashion Week in June 2009 really caused a buzz. You pretty much made fashion history by rocking Neon’s thong bathing suit. What was that experience like?
[Laughs.] Well, I wasn’t embarrassed. Even though when I went to the fitting, I was kind of like, Okaaay. [Laughs.] But I tried on ten different looks at the fitting and I didn’t know what I would actually be wearing at the show. I guess my only fear was that the feedback wouldn’t be as positive as it was, but I definitely wasn’t afraid of wearing the thong at the show.
You were awarded third place in Brazil’s Next Top Model and you’ve talked about how it changed your perception of the industry…
I was on Brazil’s Next Top Model in 2008. It was a great experience. I met a lot of people from the industry who really became my very good friends, such as Erika Palomino and the fashion designers Marcelo Sommer and Dudu Bertholini, among others. I really learned a lot, and got to take classes on things like photography and the history of fashion, as well as learning to walk the runway with the incredible model instructor Naime Wilhby. You always hear these horrible stories of jealousy and drama in the fashion world, but the girls on the show were really nice and cool. It made me realize that the fashion world isn’t exactly what it’s stereotyped to be.
Who do you most want to work with?
I would really love to do an editorial for Chanel. It’s such an incredible brand. Also, Coco Chanel inspires me so much. I love the idea of a chic, seductive and elegant woman, and she really embodies that. I also really want to work with John Galliano.
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