Walking the catwalk in a Brazilian bikini is a nerve-racking experience for even the most seasoned of models, but for Felipa Tavares it's nothing short of terrifying.
The 6-foot-tall Tavares is among Brazil's small but growing ranks of transgender models - leggy, high-cheekbone sirens who were born men and are causing a splash here as well as in Paris and other international fashion capitals.
Though they emerged onto the scene here just around two years ago, Brazil's so-called trans-models have already added a pinch of exoticism to the country's showcase modeling sector - long dominated by blonde women such as Brazilian uber-model Gisele Bundchen. The trans-models' newfound prominence also points to a seismic shift in Brazilian society, which has seen macho, homophobic attitudes soften in recent years as gays win more legal rights.
"We are in the 21st century and there is just more tolerance in the air. Here in Brazil we now have gay mayors, gay lawmakers," said Sergio Mattos, director of the Rio-based modeling agency 40 Graus Models. "So why not trans-models? The world has evolved and now discrimination is, thankfully, becoming a thing of the past."
In the fashion world, gender ambivalence has been a la mode since the 1970s with the emergence of glam rock and its poster child, David Bowie. But today's trans-model trend exploded with Lea T., a 5-foot-11 stunner who catapulted to international stardom in 2010 as the muse of coveted Paris couture label Givenchy. Born a boy to Brazilian soccer-star Leandro Cerezo, the wild-maned brunette model appeared last year on the cover of edgy British fashion magazine Love, where she's shown locked in a smoldering kiss with supermodel Kate Moss.
In some ways, the trans-models have a proverbial leg up on their female colleagues, Mattos said. Unlike even the thinnest of women, who often fight cellulite and stretch marks, the trans-models have long, sinewy limbs unscarred by such typically female afflictions. Once they've lasered away facial or body hair, they can sometimes look more feminine even than models who were born female.
With her sharp features and lanky silhouette, 26-year-old Tavares said she'd always harbored vague dreams of becoming a model. But growing up a boy in the interior of Minas Gerais state, far from Brazil's glitzy coastal metropolises of Rio and Sao Paulo, it always felt like something of a pipe dream, said the model.
"As a kid, I remember being so uncomfortable in the boys' clothes my parents dressed me in. I never played football and I just wanted to hang around with the girls, playing dolls or dress-up," said Tavares, who goes by the feminized version of her birth name, Felipe. Despite its international reputation as a haven for transgender people, 114 trans people have been killed in Brazil this year to date. Brazil and Thailand are reputed to have among the world's largest transgender populations.
Nonetheless, the gay rights movement has made major headway in Brazil, the world's largest Catholic country. A 2011 decision by the nation's high court to recognize same-sex civil unions was hailed as a watershed, although it stopped short of legalizing gay marriage.
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