Black Women of Brazil

The site dedicated to Brazilian women of African descent

Overcoming the odds, poverty and racism, Emanuela de Paula becomes one of the top black models in the world.




The model Emanuela de Paula, that earned US$2.5 million in 2009, left behind the days when she didn’t have enough money for bus tickets. But she continues, as in 1997, to be called the “negrinha”.

“Hello, people, everything okay? We are selecting black or mulata models, they can be light-skinned too, if they have curly or kinky hair and are beautiful, with a minimum height of 5’5”. The selection will be tomorrow, March 10th, Tuesday, until 1pm, at the agency in Vila Mariana.  20 girls will be selected to do organic brushing – the last word in straightening without formaldehyde that treats the hair – at the Hair Brazil Fair (1), which occurs at the end of the month of March. The treatment will be done by professionals from Belo Horizonte (2) on a stage, so the model should be uninhibited and beautiful, OK? The fee is R$180 for a treatment that, in the salon, costs about R$1,200.”

When model Emanuela de Paula (born April 25, 1989 in Cabo de Santo Agostinho, Pernambuco, Brazil),  the 11thhighest paid model in the world of 2009 (earning $2.5 million in 2009 or R$4.4 million Brazilian reais) according Forbes magazine, climbed on stage for the finale of the Miss Pernambuco Children’s contest, it was not a time for powerful hair straightening products: the rise and fall of formaldehyde in the capillary area was yet to come. The most common way of “correcting” black hair was the brush – the chapinha (flat iron), this phenomenon that today unifies classes as much as yogurt and the flatscreen TV, was uncommon in the country. The girl, 8 years old in 1997, would surprisingly be elected “Miss”. Her hair had gone through the dryer and brush that straightened her hair. Even so, going through that adherence in becoming the “normal” type, the audience that crowded the the Barreto Júnior Theatre could not contain itself – they even accepted the girl as a competitor, but never as the winner. “Negrinha! Crioula!” (3) and other exclamations came her way, all in a violent manner.



The shouting seemed to come in slow motion to Emauela, who was accustomed to using a ponytail holder. And a lot of them, those little bands in her head, that in the southeast and south of the country were called “xuquinha”, even if they weren’t quite the same thing. It was a discredited hairstyle in a general way; she said in a very loud voice, “I’m black”. Her aunt Eliane, that doesn’t straighten her hair, made a point of helping her niece get ready, who until that day had been called Kate by all of the family (coming from her middle name, Katyleen,  that she would soon abandon). This was Kate, and not Emanuela, the one who helped her auntie to make cake, chocolate truffles and other sweets, that she, despite being a child, avoided eating. Since she was little, she knew that models were thin and that they had more lettuce than chocolate truffles in their lives. It was also Kate who took advantage of the fact her grandmother, Amara, 72, works as a money collector on the bus to travel from the town of Cabo de Santo Augustine to Recife (4) – she didn’t always have the money to pay for the bus in her days of going to auditions or posing (for free) for local newspapers.

“Negrinha” and “Crioula”, was 15 when she went to  São Paulo, ceased from being Kate who would catch a ride on the bus. She assumed the name de Paula. In the photos from that period, her hair was kinky, full of hair bands and natural. She modeled dressed in bikinis, all sorts of weird clothing, beautiful clothes, and almost no clothes. A few months later, she traveled and started the basic itinerary of a new model: Japan and New York. The thin body of the daughter of the white housewife Josefa and black radio announcer Ely José was capitalizing more and more, trading in her salary being paid in Brazilian reais to American dollars. The editor of a magazine that rarely puts black models on its cover – they prefer actresses, because the cinema, the celebrity, always manages to whiten them – praised the girl, who in those days only dreamed of her aunt Amara’s beef soup.



The praise of this editor was highly profitable, although until that day, she had only given space for two small photos of the model in their Vogue magazine. She said what everyone knew: “You’re beautiful.” They didn’t waste time and her name began to be accompanied by the phrase “the top most successful black Brazilian abroad.” She appeared on catwalks in Paris, Italy, London, New York. A huge poster with her face ended up in Times Square. Her hair looked kinky and sometimes sumptuous, and the next moment straight and flowing. To achieve this, Emanuela didn’t need to appeal to the bargain hair products: by this time she had enough money to buy a car for his father, a giant TV for grandma, and an apartment for herself in New York. For, finally, she does her hair the way she wanted (and the market as well). The thing is that the Children’s Miss Pernambuco contest sometimes comes back to her. As in one of these days after she appeared in Forbes, in Times Square, after walking for Ralph Lauren, M. Officer, Donna Karan and Zac Posen, of the campaigns for Victoria’s Secret, Bloomingdale’s, MAC, Osklen, Next and H & M, then Vogue, Allure and Marie Claire. After her success came the duplex apartment in Manhattan and the straightened hair. 


It was in 1997 de Paula says when, an old colleague who was modeling in Brazil came up to her taking advantage of a chance to get close to her family (auntie Elaine had come to see her in São Paulo). The girl walked up to her and said: “Macaca (monkey).” The thin waist, the experience of loneliness in Japan and the United States (when she arrived, she could only say “hi” and “bye”), the nostalgia of her aunt Amara’s beef soup, the long hours working and traveling, the days when she got sick, took care of herself all alone, the day when she called home crying stranded on the side of a road, all of her  experiences and everything that she was were reduced to “macaca”.


The now famous girl had issues dealing with justice that needed to be resolved, like how that angry crowd has reacted to her at Barreto Júnior Theatre dismissing her because of her color. It was just one day after the incident that Emanuela was challenged and questioned about racism – she had not yet spoken about the incident in the dressing room. She appeared to be surprised and in a hurry, but, unlike the time when she was called “negrinha” and “crioula”, she no longer allows the topic to pass without expressing herself. “Prejudice is a crime,” she said to the former partner. And it, Emanuela realized as much through traveling through several countries as experiencing the specific universe of fashion, it’s not only due to having black skin. “It’s something that always happens. Whether it’s because of the color of the person, or because someone is fat or skinny, or because someone is rich or poor, or because you are Jewish or Muslim; I suffer prejudice because I’m black.”

Selling raffle tickets

She had already stopped parading the runways, the story is known, in cities like Paris. She was almost going to the casting of a runway when the inadequacy of clothing in her bust was an excuse to eliminate her from the catwalk – in these cases it’s common to simply adjust the clothing. But looking at all the other girls, pale skin, blue eyes, she realized something. There is something in the fashion world that still insists on perceiving the translucent as only being possible in this construction: the white skin. It was difficult to penetrate this blockade, but she insisted, a common practice for the girl who sold raffle tickets to participate in neighborhood contests consisting of girls living in Cohab (5) homes. The aunt, raised the girl since she was little, she remembers. “You didn’t find her in the shopping malls, as often happens with others, as the story goes. She was dedicated to the struggle.”



The white catwalks are also common in the runways held in Brazil, to the point of the Public Minister of São Paulo establishing a kind of quota so that the name brands would put guys and girls of African descent under the spotlight. “At first I was not sure that this business of quotas for black models was a good thing. I felt annoyed to find that they would only call us out of obligation because they had to comply with a determined number. But now, seeing that the number of girls of African descent on the catwalk has increased, many have had the impetus that they needed, I changed my mind.” The model had hardly finished speaking when she was interrupted by a colleague, a model like her, but in the opposite spectrum in terms of body type: the girl has very fair skin, almost translucent, light eyes, European features and an accent that hints at her southern origin (Emanuela’s accent, which is easy to recognize when she speaks in interviews, almost disappeared). She wants to take a picture with Emanuela de Paula, the legitimate representative of the dreams of Cinderella, the one that got there, to what is considered the top for the girls whose lives are more lettuce and less chocolate mousse. All of this even when her life story foreshadowed an outcome that was not even as glamorous as this.

Beauty, market and skin color

“In Fashion Week there are many blacks sewing, creating the clothes, many with hands of gold, making beautiful things, there are black assistants, sellers…why do they have to be on the runway?”
     – Glória Coelho, designer (Folha de S.Paulo, 12/4/2009)

Quotas on the runways

In May 2009, the organization of the São Paulo Fashion Week (SPFW), the largest fashion week in Latin America, signed a term of behavior adjustment with the Public Ministry of São Paulo pledging to compose a minimum of 10% presence of models of African and indigenous descent in fashion shows, a controversial measure that aims to increase the presence of non-whites on the catwalk. The national report was based on data released in the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, showing the details of the catwalks in January 2008, when 344 models walked the runways with only eight (2.3%) being black. If the amount of 10% for the catwalk is not achieved, the organization of SPFW could be fined R$250,000 (Brazilian reais).

Lower paychecks

According to data provided by HDA, an agency specializing in black models, paychecks of models of African descent (at the beginning of their career) is R$400, while the white models usually receive $1,500.

January of 2011: Emanuela becomes the first black model featured on the cover of Vogue Brasil

Vogue and blacks

According to research conducted by Kledir Henrique Lopes Salgado and Dr. Regina Ap. Sanches entitled “Deusa de Ébano: A construção da imagem da mulher negra a partir da iconografia de moda contemporânea (Ebony Goddess – the construction of the image of black women from the iconography of contemporary fashion)”, of the 120 issues of the Brazilian edition of Vogue analyzed between 1998 and 2008, only 48 featured some model of African descent. In 1974, the directors of Editora Abril (6) refused an editorial with model Dalma Calado because she was “too dark for company standards.” It was in this same year that Vogue’s American edition founded in 1892, featured a black woman on its cover (the model Beverly Johnson). In 2008, Italian Vogue published an issue dedicated entirely to black women, the “Black Issue”. In January of 2011, Emanuela de Paula became the first black model to be featured on the cover on Vogue‘s Brazil edition in the 35 year history of the magazine in the country. 


Not bad for a girl who once upon a time couldn’t afford bus fare. 


1. Hair Brazil is an annual event focusing on beauty, hair and aesthetics and is the largest such fair in Latin America. 
2. Belo Horizonte is the capital city of the southeastern state of Minas Gerais. It is the largest city of the state and the third largest city in Brazil. 
3. Terms like “negrinha” and “crioula” are sometimes seen as being racially offensive terms depending on the region where it is used. The level of offense is dependent upon the person. Some Afro-Brazilians feel comfortable using the term “crioula” amongst other black Brazilians but not from non-blacks while the rejection of the term “negrinha” is also becoming more common. 
4. Recife is largest and capital city of the northeastern state of Pernambuco. 
5. Cohab is a kind a low-income housing in Brazil
6. Editora Abril is a large Brazilian publishing and printing company and has one of the largest media holdings in Southern America.


Source: Jornal do Commercio


Previous article: Negra Li discusses her career and new album

3 comments on “Overcoming the odds, poverty and racism, Emanuela de Paula becomes one of the top black models in the world.

  1. MINASEK
    April 4, 2012

    Very interessing article; Look how her look became more and more "european" ( no intend to be offensive); The statment of Gloria Coelho is quite disturbing and illustate how in Brazil you can get away with racism so easily; YEAH THERE IS NO RACISM IN BRAZIL! HA HA HA!

  2. AALBC.com
    April 4, 2012

    A fascinating article!

  3. oscar
    June 13, 2015

    Black is beautiful

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