Tall and tan, young and striking, Raika Ferraz is not the girl from Ipanema. But she has just been crowned queen of Brazil’s newest and most daring beauty contest.
Besting 27 other transgender and transvestite contenders from 11 Brazilian states, the 21-year-old model and escort from São Paulo paraded in a bikini and then in an evening gown to win the second annual Miss T competition before an emotional crowd at the Teatro João Caetano, one of Rio de Janeiro’s most traditional stages.
With a smile as big as Brazil, that not even a mouth full of corrective braces could spoil, Ferraz was overcome with emotion as she took her bows and swore to uphold the honor of the transgender community.
As well as a bouquet and the gleaming tiara, she won an all-expenses-paid excursion to Thailand for the global version of the beauty contest, Miss International Queen 2014, plus the right to a sex change operation in a Bangkok hospital. Ferraz, however, demurred, creating an instant buzz across the gender-bending spectrum where genital surgery is often held up as the final passage to freedom for those convinced they were born in the wrong body. “I love being the way I am,” she said.
As Miss T, Ferraz will, like her heterosexual counterparts, travel widely and represent the transgender cause throughout Brazil. Less clear is whether she will be able to conciliate her crown affairs with her apparently thriving escort service, TransEscort, touted on a plush, photo-studded website.
Though the rumble in the Rio audience suggested that not everyone was in agreement with this year’s choice of Miss T, the coronation itself was hailed as stiletto-heeled step for the cause of equal rights and a blow to hate crimes against lesbians, gays, transsexuals and bisexuals.
“The competition was an important demonstration for people who traditionally have no voice in society and are still seen as victims or as culprits on the police blotter,” said Majorie Marchi, president the Rio Association for Transvestites and Transsexuals, Astra-Rio, which sponsored the contest. “The trans community doesn’t just want the right to food and sustenance. We are about music, entertainment and art.”
Marchi celebrated the fact that this year’s event was backed not only by the city government of Rio, which put up 70 percent of the budget, but also by a number of private investors, such as noted fashion designer Almir França, a Brazilian cosmetic surgery clinic, and the Kamol Cosmetic Hospital in Bangkok. “Our voice is being heard across the country,” she said.
Others are less sanguine. Acclaimed transgender model Lea T, who made her name on the catwalks of Europe, still sees obstacles to anyone who dares thwart the behavioral codes of the straight world. She should know. The son of a Brazilian football star who says she was never comfortable in a male body, Lea put up with insults, pranks and outright aggression for years because she was different.
“There is still plenty of discrimination against gays, the transgender community, and anyone with an alternative form of sexuality,” she wrote in an email from Italy, where she is part of the cast of the local version of Dancing with the Stars. “We still have a long way to go.”
Still, others see progress. One of them is Jane di Castro, a famous Rio de Janeiro transvestite stage artist and singer, who kicked off the Miss T contest in Rio with a pulsing Brazilian rock tune that has become the competition anthem, Exagerado (Exaggerated), by the late Cazuza, a popular stage star who died of AIDS in 1990.
“I think prejudice has its days numbered,” says Di Castro. “The [Miss T] beauty contest is one more example how we are winning more recognition and space in society. Gays are coming out of the closet. They can’t hold us back.”
She also sees an aesthetic sea change in Brazil. “I’ve seen beauty contests and competitions for Miss all over the world, but never have I seen any as feminine as this year’s crew of transgender models,” Di Castro told the Daily Beast. “And that includes heterosexuals, too.”
Will “trans” beauties and heterosexuals one day compete for the same crown? “Mark my words, we will see a transvestite Miss Brazil,” she said. “I might not be alive by then. But then again, whoever thought transgender couples could legally marry, like I did? That’s progress!”