Note from BBT: Ok, so we know that Brazil has long been and continues to be a very exclusionary country in terms of race and what types of people are seen as being fit for representing the country in certain genres. No need to debate. It’s simply a fact. But being a country that maintains a racial hierarchy also means that there was a probably a group or circle of Afro-Brazilians who managed to achieve against all odds and find success, even with this number being rather small.
Right now, I’m speaking more of decades past. These days, even if it’s mostly for show or window dressing, there are more and more companies expressing interest in allowing black Brazilians access to training and employment opportunities that just a decade ago simply didn’t exist.
Just a few weeks ago, for example, a report showed that, between 2020 and 2021, internships for blacks grew almost 200% in Brazil. I’ve seen many more black Brazilians being used to promote certain product brands and numerous companies seem to be jumping on the ‘diversity bandwagon’ than at any other time in Brazil’s history. While I love to hear progress, at the same time I do also wonder what’s driving all of this all of a sudden.
It is true that black demands, protests and online militancy have played a huge role in this, I’m still looking at all of this with a crooked eye. For decades, Brazil has simply ignored its black population as if it didn’t even exist and now the changes are becoming so apparent that we see people complain when a black woman wins a beauty contest because it seems that being black is ‘’in’’.
Go back a few decades as you will see that choices for social ascension were rather slim for black Brazilians. I mean, then it seemed that the only area that black men could move up was on the soccer field while both black men and women also found some degree of success in the world connected to Carnaval in some way as singers or dancers. Keep in mind that today, this is still true although, musically, the musical genre that keeps producing up and coming singers is now probably funk.
Years ago, people who managed to slip through the cracks, find success and became famous because they became the exceptions. After all, when you’re one of the few, everyone will probably know your name. This was the case for musician/actor Mussum over thirty years ago as well as singer Wilson Simonal in the 1970s. The subject of today’s post, Veluma, is not as well known as Mussum or Simonal, but she was one of the few black Brazilian models that appeared on Brazil’s catwalks starting in the 1970s.
‘I never felt prejudice in fashion,’ says Veluma, former black top model
By Paulo Sampaio
In the experience of the former top model Veluma, 67, there has never been racial prejudice in fashion: “I’m not into that. I’m a black woman who likes to be black, so there is no predisposition within me for these attacks that I see today. I don’t like that story.”
At the height of her success, liking herself didn’t require much effort. Thin, 5’11” tall (over six foot in heels”), with a bright smile and a strategic mole on her chin, Veluma was very popular on the catwalks in the 1970s and 1980s. A contemporary of models Silvia Pfeifer, Betty Lago, Isis de Oliveira, and Dalma Calado, she later shared a dressing room with other famous Brazilian women such as model Luiza Brunet, television host Xuxa, and model/actress Monique Evans.
Born Vera Lúcia Maria, in 1953 (“I prefer to say the date rather than the age, whoever wants to do the math”), she explains that Veluma is an acronym of her baptismal name. “I made it up myself. And I still wanted it to be read backwards, Amulev, to make it look more different.” Her father drank, her mother was beaten, and then, soon after Vera was born, Ana Nunes abandoned her husband in the interior of São Paulo and migrated with her daughter to the capital.
While talking to the TAB website, Veluma shows pictures she brought for the interview, taken on the catwalk, in fashion editorials or advertising pieces. She points to one published in Vogue, in the 1980’s, and says: “Look at this, produced by Regina Guerreiro”, referring to the fashion journalist who, at the time, was the magazine’s editorial director.
Regina: “Veluma was an apotheosis figure. She had ‘allure’, floated, was very/very beautiful, instinctive, sensitive. In a show I produced for Alpargatas, there was a sequence with a ‘farm atmosphere’ in which she entered the catwalk holding a duck (or was it a swan?), at the time, and the bird spread its wings. It was divine! She definitely made her mark in the fashion world in the 70s/80s. At that time, black people, unfortunately, hardly appeared on the catwalk, but she reigned absolute, above prejudice. Beautiful skin, Belgian chocolate, pure cocoa. Nobody could resist!”
Vogue, Elle, Desfile, Figurino, Claudia Moda, Veluma was in all the fashion publications and also in the celebrity ones – Manchete, Fatos e Fotos, Gente. The collection of images she shows was packed capriciously by her mother in a folder with plastic sheets. “I didn’t keep anything, I lived in the moment,” she says.
Ana Nunes was a cook with an oven and stove, hotly disputed by São Paulo’s high society in the 1960s. Among other houses, she worked for the legendary Italian playboy Francisco Matarazzo “Baby” Pignatari, who was raised in São Paulo. Ana died in 2005, of complications from Chagas disease.
“I grew up accustomed to beauty, eating well, in a four-centennial São Paulo. I studied in a boarding school, with nuns, until I was 16. Society likes to have a black daughter on the side.
Cachê de negra (Black Woman’s Salary)
I decided to open the text with the denial of prejudice in fashion, for three reasons. First, because it is something unexpected, and even impactful, in a country that is known to be racist. Second, because the fight against discrimination – not only racial – has become a globalized flag, and this includes fashion: in Brazil it was necessary to institute quotas to guarantee the presence of black models on the runway. Third, because Veluma herself returns to the theme several times, not always in a coherent way.
When telling, for example, that she never missed a job, that her beeper would ring all day long and she would spend all her time running to the phone booth (“at the time, a telephone was a luxury, it cost a fortune, I only had one in 1984”), Veluma lets slip that she accepted all invitations for fashion shows and campaigns, despite often receiving a lower fee.
“Because I was black.”
She acknowledges a certain disconnect with what she had said earlier, but then explains that discrimination never got in her way. She simulates a possible racist comment, with a debauched accent: “Buá-buá (crying sound), Paulo said I’m crioula (see note one)… buá-buá. They don’t want to call Veluma because she’s scandalous…”
“There was no problem, I was doing other parades. Some days they would call me for so many jobs that I couldn’t coordinate my schedule.”
Black is beautiful
It’s worth remembering that the environment, even if in a stylized way, was favorable to minorities. While in Europe and the US, young people were breaking behavioral paradigms, promoting revolutions of customs and demonstrations for freedom of expression, Brazil was going through the peak of the military dictatorship. In spite of being radically opposite, both scenarios served as inspiration to fashion designers. It was the moment to “face the repression” and “break pre-established barriers”. Journalist Mario Mendes, who in the 1990s was editor-in-chief of “Elle” magazine, recalls that in the 1970s blacks were literally in fashion.
“There was the ‘Black is Beautiful’ [the North American civil rights movement that started in the 1960s], Angela Davis became a fashion icon, she went to court with those incredible miniskirts, the big afro hair. In France, (Yves) Saint Laurent embraced this negresse, he made Moroccan and Indian collections, his best, with black models full of accessories, turbans, colored fabrics, it was exoticique, it was a great success.
Pregnant at 16
Married since 1979 to a black man, Veluma admits that she used to have a certain avoidance against whites. “They don’t like black women,” she says, in yet another controversial statement.
In addition, according to her, her mother had put it in her head that “white men make babies” – because of Veluma’s own experience, who got pregnant at 16: “I left the boarding school without knowing anything about life, and that’s what happened. In 1971, she left her son in her mother’s care and moved to Rio, the city that has always inhabited her dreams of freedom. She says she has no idea what might have happened to the boy’s father.
“I landed here when I was 18 years old,” recalls Veluma, who currently works as a hostess in a hair salon in Ipanema, in the south zone. She has been there since 2002, to the delight of her mother, who can finally celebrate the fact that her daughter has a “registered job”.
“For me, Rio has always been the city of free women. I love this word, ‘free’, it’s to it that I attribute my detachment from prejudice.”
Romance at Portela
Veluma met Gilberto, her husband, in one of the rehearsals of the Portela samba school, which used to take place every weekend at Mourisco, in Botafogo, on Rio’s south zone. She has always been into samba, Carnaval, and the Sapucaí carnaval stadium. At the same time that she reaffirms the theory that white people make children, she says that Gilberto had two children with his ex-wife.
“One of them, to assert himself as a macho man, took too many anabolic steroids and ended up having health problems. He died. The other lives in Paris, and one day he told his father that he liked ‘people’. This was his way of saying that he was homosexual. His father says that he became a faggot because of living with me.
One son, many grandchildren
Veluma’s own son is not white, but, according to her, he is an excellent “baby maker” – he already has five with different women. To accommodate his offspring, he occupied the house where Ana Nunes used to live in São Paulo – and now Veluma is having trouble claiming her share of the property. “It’s complicated,” she says.
With a smile that is more scenographic than aggregative, she recognizes that she is not one to make random approaches. I ask her who was her friend among the models, she thinks (but not too much) and answers: “Nobody.
She falls back on a controversial argument: “I am a Cancer. Crabs have no friends. I don’t like hustle and bustle, partying. My life is from home to work, from work to home.”
Elke Maravilha, partner in many works – Reproduction/Personal Archives
It wasn’t always like this. At the time of the beep-beep-run to the phone, she says she traveled a lot around Brazil, “by Vasp, Varig, Transbrasil” (airlines), and around the world. In 1978, she went to Paris at the invitation of Ricardo Amaral, owner of the nightclub Hippopotamus, to work in the inaugural show of Le 78.
She sums up her participation in the show: “I wore a fancy costume, with a huge hat, and walked around.”
She says it didn’t go well. “Before I boarded, at the airport, Monique (Evans), said, ‘I don’t like this. I’m not going.’ Marlene Silva didn’t go either, because she had a TV contract. I decided: ‘Oh, I’m going!’ Within twenty days I was mortally sorry. I wondered why I didn’t follow my colleagues’ lead! Besides having arrived in winter, he (Amaral) hosted us in the rue Lepic (in Montmartre), which is a stronghold of gay promiscuity. My best friends were always the gays, I had an entourage, they dressed me up, produced me, made clothes for me, but when it was time to sleep, when I came back from the show, I wanted peace, not all that movement.
Heat in Senegal
The experience lasted six months. Veluma says that she still had to do extra work to be able to buy a return ticket. Despite the alleged celebration of blackness in France – and, as Mario Mendes says, since Josephine Baker – Veluma says she didn’t get involved with any man. She only remembers, without much excitement, a Senegalese man who fell in love with her.
I ask a question that has become customary in interviews with women – especially those who are very desirable or, because of their profession, physically exposed.
Have you suffered sexual abuse?
“No. Men wouldn’t come near me. Take a good look (makes a wide gesture with her arms, to show her own size): you have to be a lot of man to mess with me!”
Outside of the runway, Veluma also did stints in theater, cinema, and TV. Until today, she is surprised when she tells the story of the audition for the staging of the show Floresta Amazônica em Sonhos de Uma Noite de Verão (1992), by the German filmmaker Werner Herzog, with Antônio Grassi and Lucélia Santos in the main roles.
“I went there to see if they would cast me in any role, and I came out with the role of Queen Titania. Herzog himself chose me among 150 candidates. Lucélia Santos even said: ‘But she’s a model’, and Herzog said: ‘No problem, she learns’.
The production was a critical and public failure – not because of Veluma’s Titânia, but because of W. Herzog’s conception.
Saudade (longing) has no age
In September 2019, after almost 20 years of making the Jacarepaguá-Ipanema circuit daily, going from home to the salon, Veluma landed her magnetism in the celebration parade of the 40th anniversary of the Yes, Brazil label, at the Fairmont hotel in Copacabana.
She was one of the divas invited to relive the atmosphere of the brand that blew up in the 1980s. Set up around the pool, the show also brought together Xuxa and Monique Evans, singer Evandro Mesquita, and musician Gilberto Gil.
Although he’s not of the generation that saw Veluma at her peak, stylist Thomaz Azulay, 34, son of the brand’s creator, Simão Azulay, speaks of her with the admiration of someone who has heard a lot of adult conversation. The concept of the show is his.
“Veluma is an event! She doesn’t even need a catwalk to perform. We were pleased to see her in the show, and more than that, to be able to provide this image to people who haven’t seen her for a while and to those who didn’t know about her. People my age don’t know this generation of models that, besides all the beauty standard issues, gave personality to an outfit,” she says.
Thomaz sees in Veluma “the synthesis of a celebration. “She is Brazilian, original, timeless, tropical, tough and light as a feather.”
Regarding this last consideration, Veluma herself says that there was something that worried her more than the eventual racial discrimination: the fight with the scale.
The daughter of dona Ana Nunes learned to cook very well (“I make Arabic food divinely”) and likes to eat in the same proportion. “Today I’m stronger, but back then I couldn’t afford that luxury.”
I mention anorexia and bulimia, she grimaces. “Nobody talked about that!”
Regarding “plume,” an adjective that was always attributed to her and that rhymed with “Veluma,” she says that such lightness was not an effect of the invention of her own style of parading. “It turned out that I wore a 42, and there were almost never any shoes in my size. I would get into the ones that were in the dressing room, and come out floating!”
The Great Veluma.
- Although here the model probably uses the term crioula to mean black, she could be using the term in a pejorative manner as the term is sometimes considered offensive