Before setting out in a pink S.U.V. to comb the schoolyards and shopping malls of southern Brazil, Alisson Chornak studies books, maps and Web sites to understand how the towns were colonized and how European their residents might look today.
The goal, he and other model scouts say, is to find the right genetic cocktail of German and Italian ancestry, perhaps with some Russian or other Slavic blood thrown in. Such a mix, they say, helps produce the tall, thin girls with straight hair, fair skin and light eyes that Brazil exports to the runways of New York, Milan and Paris with stunning success.
Yet Brazil is not the same country it was in 1994, when Gisele Bündchen, the world’s top earning model, was discovered in a tiny town not far from here. Darker-skinned women have become more prominent in Brazilian society, challenging the notions of Brazilian beauty and success that Ms. Bündchen has come to represent here and abroad.
Taís Araújo just finished a run as the first black female lead in the coveted 8 p.m. soap opera slot. Marina Silva, a former government minister born in the Amazon, is running for president. And over the past decade, the income of black Brazilians rose by about 40 percent, more than double the rate of whites, as Brazil’s booming economy helped trim the inequality gap and create a more powerful black consumer class, said Marcelo Neri, an economist in Rio de Janeiro.
Even prosecutors have waded into the debate over what Brazilian society looks like — and how it should be represented. São Paulo Fashion Week, the nation’s most important fashion event, has been forced by local prosecutors to ensure that at least 10 percent of its models are of African or indigenous descent.
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