RIO DE JANEIRO — “City of God” is a neighborhood where enormous pigs wallow in open sewers and alligators sometimes wash up in the clapboard shacks when it rains. Shootouts between drug gangs and police are almost routine.
None of that deters fashion photographer Tony Barros in his quest to find the next Gisele Bundchen among the rutted alleys of Rio’s most notorious favela, or shantytown.
“We are still in the process of discovering our top model from the favela, but we have more than a few that are promising,” says Mr. Barros, who grew up in the City of God.
Rio shantytowns are suddenly in vogue. Fashion models in Paris are flocking to the restaurant Favela Chic, and moviegoers in Brazil and elsewhere have been lining up to see the film “City of God.”
And modeling agencies are keen for exotic new looks from the Third World. Super model Iman was discovered in Kenya on the campus of the University of Nairobi, and Alek Wek, whose family fled civil war in Sudan, was spotted at a London street fair.
Hoping to put City of God on the fashion map, Mr. Barros began Lens of Dreams, a shoestring project that seeks to transform favela girls into models.
It puts on classes in a dreary concrete building that houses the local neighborhood association, some 15 miles from the fashionable Ipanema beach district and a world away from the catwalks of Paris and Milan, Italy. Twice a week, young women learn to strut and sashay under harsh neon lights and the breeze of a single ceiling fan.
The instructors, all volunteers, are neighborhood natives who managed to take modeling classes outside the favela and have come back to impart their knowledge for free.
It’s not just about hair and makeup, says Ludmila Gomes, an 18-year-old instructor and aspiring model. The students also get lessons on health, hygiene and attitude.
“We teach the girls to respect themselves and take pride in where they come from,” Ms. Gomes says. “Self-respect helps because the biggest problem here is teenage pregnancy. It’s a lot easier to get pregnant than to keep studying. Modeling is a cool thing, because it’s not just fashion shows and photo shoots. It teaches discipline.”
That’s why Mr. Barros photographs the would-be models in the favela, rather than at one of Rio’s many glamorous locations.
“When Tony told us he wanted to take modeling pictures of us in the community, showing all the garbage and open sewers, we thought he was crazy. But the pictures were a hit,” says one of the students, Gisele Guimaraes, 18.
When the pictures appeared on the front page of a Rio tabloid, local drug-gang members bought out the newsstands and held their copies up like trophies.
“They were happy to finally see something good about the favela being published on the front page of a newspaper,” Mr. Barros says.
The photos also yielded a fashion spread in Britain’s FHM magazine. It was the first time the favela girls ever had a chance to try on designer clothing by Christian Dior and Dolce & Gabbana.
Miss Guimaraes even got to fly 225 miles to Sao Paulo — her first plane trip ever — to appear on the popular TV talk show “Jo Soares Eleven Thirty,” Brazil’s equivalent of “The Tonight Show.”
“When I told them where I was from, they couldn’t believe it,” she says.
Still, the overwhelming poverty of the favela is an impediment to careers in fashion. Poor nutrition has left many of the neighborhood girls too short for the runway.
“The biggest problem is we don’t have much money. I mean we don’t even have many clothes. Forget about a [photo] book. That’s too expensive,” Miss Gomes says.
She says a photo portfolio — the model’s equivalent of a resume — can cost as much as 1,200 reals, or $400, six times the monthly minimum wage. Even with Mr. Barros doing the pictures for free, printing and binding would still cost about 200 reals.
“Even if my family earns 200 reals a month, they’re not going to spend it on my book,” Miss Gomes says.