Deise Nunes, crowned Miss Brazil in 1986, changed the concept of Miss winners in the country to put an end to the supremacy of blondes and brunettes. She was the first black woman to win the contest.
Deise went down in history at only 18 years of age, on May 17, 1986, but the prejudice was such that at the time, people came to think that she was not really from Rio Grande do Sul just because they followed the stereotype of women in her city, Porto Alegre, with predominantly German features, as a result of heavy European colonization. But their values were greater than any demonstration of prejudice.
Deise’s victory served as a reference for the appreciation of black beauty. “A Miss must have several attributes such as friendliness, ease, charm on the catwalk and know how express herself. Even with all this, I think the deciding factor of my victory was being black”, she says with pride.
At the age of 14, she gave had already set her sights on the catwalk. It was in 1984 that the watchful eye of Paul Franchini, then director of Sport Club Internacional, took note ofthe beauty of Deise for the first time. He invited her to represent the club in the “Queen of the Swimming Pools” competition, which she won. “I heard people upset, saying that, in the midst of so many blondes, that a black had won!” she says. The Miss Brazil soon followed, held at the time on the program of Silvio Santos (1). With the sash and crown in her hands, Deise traveled the world taking part in other competitions. In all, rarely a black candidate was part of the casting. During her reign, she made appearances on behalf of social causes, carrying out the true role of a Miss. “I learned a lot in my career. I traveled representing our country abroad and went to several cities in Brazil. Being a model requires a lot of a woman. You work a lot and sleep a little, it’s not easy.”
Deise was the only black Brazilian woman to compete for the Miss Universe, ranking sixth. Today, 25 years later, she welcomes the victory of Miss Universe 2011, Leila Lopes, and celebrates the new era of universal beauty. Leila has dark eyes and long hair, just like Deise. Deise has a contagious smile and a harmonious way of speaking, like Leila. They have more similarities than differences. But the greatest virtue of both certainly was having raised black self-esteem around the world. “The first Angolan elected Miss Universe has already shown why she won. Gentle, friendly and well articulated, she seemed to be focused on her goals,” said Deise, who now works behind the scenes. She was a judge, lecturer, host of local programs on fashion and has given fashion runway classes, opportunities to share much of her experience with today’s girls who dream of winning the title. Married and the mother of Peter and Julia, she plans to open a runway school and etiquette school and in Rio Grande do Sul.
What did it feel like to become the first black woman to be elected Miss Brazil?
It was a joy and honor to be elected the first black Miss Brazil. I confess I didn’t expect it and it only hit me two or three days later. Winning showed me that it is possible to believe and fight for every dream. At first, when I was a victim of prejudice, I thought about quitting, I didn’t quit only because of my mother’s encouragement.
In a competition such as Miss Brazil, where most of the winners were blonde, did you suffer prejudice?
At that time, there was a lot of racial prejudice; I almost never met a black woman in beauty contests. Fortunately, I didn’t suffer prejudice in the Miss Brazil or in the Miss Universe. My worst experience happened in a contest that I participated in in 1984, called “Queen of the Swimming Pools of Rio Grande do Sul”. It was the first time that I had suffered discrimination, I heard some people saying the following: “In the midst of so many blondes, a black woman wins.” I suffered, but then I realized that it gave me renewed strength to fight for my goals.
Black and from Rio Grande do Sul. Did people find this strange?
Undoubtedly, people questioned me a lot when I went to São Paulo with the Miss Rio Grande do Sul sash. Many people were astonished at the fact that a black person represented a state settled mostly by Germans and Italians. It just showed how uninformed they were, after all, in the South there are all races, like elsewhere in Brazil.
I think the role of a Miss is to always be engaged. Helping whoever needs help is the best thing in the world. Knowing that a smile, a hug or even the mere presence at an event makes a difference, it’s wonderful. Whoever is able to donate, you get more than you can imagine. I worked in favor of different causes.
Leila’s victory in the Miss Universe contest has a special meaning?
Leila is the fourth black woman to be elected Miss Universe. The first was from Trinidad and Tobago in 1977. In 1998, another black woman from Trinidad and Tobago took the crown and the following year, in 1999, a representative of Botswana. All this shows that people have begun to accept differences. We are still far from a perfect world, where every one really cares about your life, but we can’t give up fighting for that to happen as soon as possible. Leila’s victory lit the flame of self-esteem of black women around the world. The first Angolan elected Miss Universe already showed why he won the contest. She’s sweet, friendly and well-articulated, in a few interviews she’s already shared her message. She seems focused. Second, I read that she will work on behalf of children with AIDS in Angola and the world.
What has changed from your time to the Miss contests of today? Do you think that Leila Lopes will suffer less prejudice?
I want her to suffer less prejudice, or better yet, none. Nobody deserves to be discriminated against because of race, color, creed or even for sexual orientation. We must learn to live together and respect differences, only then will we build a more humane world. As for fashion, the change is visible, starting with the profile of candidates. With each passing year they are looking more like models. Today, the women don’t have many curves, they are taller and slimmer.
Do you still have any involvement in the world of beauty queens?
I’ve always been involved in the Miss titles, either as a judge for competitions or even a speaker. And I have plans to open a school where I can teach runway, posture and etiquette. And it’s not just for Misses, it will also help all those who aspire to ascend in life; that want to be recognized in work or even to raise self-esteem. Having given runway and etiquette classes for the Misses was very important, I make myself useful dealing with the students’ doubts and of the tendencies to be in constant professional development.
What impact will the election of a black woman be in a country like ours, where the only model and prevailing standards of beauty are the white, blue-eyed Scandinavian?
I wish that the impact is positive because even in the 21st century, we have suffered all forms of prejudice. Any kind of prejudice is unacceptable. We have to respect people for who they are and not color, creed or sexual orientation. There is a saying: “Respect in order to be respected” and that is what I try to do in my life.
As the most beautiful woman in Brazil in 1986, what were the barriers that you faced so that your beauty and intelligence would prevail?
In the Miss Brazil I didn’t face any kind of prejudice, but I suffered discrimination in a previous contest before Miss Brazil. I say that that was the worst I had ever experienced and I wouldn’t want anybody to experience this.
Are you familiar with what happened in 1977 when Apolenice, Miss Passo Fundo, was prevented from being crowned Miss Rio Grande do Sul, because she was black?
I was not aware of this fact and I confess that I was astonished to learn of it. It’s amazing that this news is not part of the history of the Miss contest. Regrettably it’s unknown by the general public.
How can the election of a black woman as Miss Brazil or Miss Universe, as what happened with Leila, influence advertisers to expand the market to include beauty for black girls?
This election will raise the self esteem of black girls and with this show everyone that we are able to face all obstacles, including modeling market. Unfortunately we don’t see many blacks in commercials. It has already been a lot worse but this has improve to the point that it is satisfactory.
To be strong and to never give up your dreams. As hard as it is, that they always fight because there is no better reward than can achieving our goals.
How do you see the situation of the black Brazilian population and, in particular, the black woman?
The situation of the black Brazilian has improved a lot but we still have disadvantages especially in the labor market. Unfortunately we still suffer discrimination, especially if female and black.
You once dated the singer Julio Iglesias. How was this passage in your life that projected you internationally?
We met and casually dated for eight months. With him I met several people and visited some places, but our professional activities prevented us from continuing the relationship. He is extremely gentle, a gentleman and a good friend. I always wish for the best in regards to his health and success.
1. TV show host, entrepreneur and owner of Brazil’s third largest television network, SBT