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From Red Light To Runway
At Rio Fashion week in 2005, a new name hit the headlines. This show wasn’t staged in one of Rio’s grand seaside palaces, but on an alternative catwalk up in the hills where the city meets the favelas (shanty towns). And the bright new designs – mostly T-shirts and cotton jersey dresses – didn’t come out of a fashion studio or even an art college. Instead they were all the work of prostitutes.
‘The newspapers showed Gisele Bündchen modelling uptown and me modelling downtown,’ says Jane Lucia da Silva Eloy, 32. ‘It was fantastic!’ Daspu – short for ‘das putas’ meaning ‘from the whores’, and a send-up of Daslu, Brazil’s most upmarket boutique – is no ordinary fashion label. Even the 20 models in the collective are all working girls who, in their other jobs, sell sex for as little as £15 an hour.
Now, with Daspu, they are on a different mission. ‘We want to change attitudes and win respect for what we do,’ says Eloy. As well as producing clothes, Daspu promotes the civil rights of prostitutes. Prostitution is not illegal in Brazil, but the Penal Code criminalises ‘agents of prostitution’ pimps, brothel owners and madams. Daspu aims to bring sex workers out of the shadows, and the limelight of the fashion industry has done much to publicize their wider cause.
As Brazilians snap up Daspu designs from 13 shops around the country and online (daspu.com.br), the women are feeling proud of themselves. ‘Prostitutes used to hide away and were too afraid to speak up for themselves,’ says Eloy. ‘Now they’re clamoring to join us at Daspu.’ The mastermind behind the label is former prostitute Gabriela Leite, 53 years old. We meet in her office in Rio’s crumbling colonial district. Leite comes from a middle-class family in São Paulo and turned to prostitution at the age of 20, she says, ‘partly out of a sense of rebellion.’ I liked the work, I the nightlife, the money and the guys. While all my hippy friends were talking hot air about equality and free love and human rights, I felt I was not theorising, but really doing something.’
Leite’s family would have preferred her to be a housewife, but she’s not the stay-at-home kind. ‘I became politically active in 1978, when police murdered my friend for being a prostitute. That year, there was a police crackdown and we were banned from leaving our building, but my friend went out anyway. They arrested her, took her to the police station and beat her to death.’ Leite organised a protest march by prostitutes, and the police officer involved was later dismissed from the force. ‘I thought: if I can do that, then I can do more.’
In 1982, Leite moved to Rio and helped to organize an international meeting of prostitutes. ‘Two thousand people came and that’s when I met Flavio.’ On cue, her long-term partner, Flavio Lenz, appears. A tall, bearded man in his late fifties, he wears a Daspu T-shirt emblazoned with a topless Mary Magdalene and the words: ‘She who loves most’. ‘We’ve been together a long time now,’ says Leite, ‘I’ve had a lot of companions in my life, but never married.’ Her two daughters, aged 32 and 25, and her three year-old granddaughter live in São Paulo.
In 1992, Lenz and Leite set up ‘Davida’ (meaning ‘for life’), an organisation dedicated to helping prostitutes. In the early days, it was funded by a restaurant they ran on the ground floor of the building. But as Davida grew – it now links 30 prostitutes’ associations across Brazil and has 20,000 members – so did its costs. ‘We started asking how we could raise our own money – and came up with the concept of Daspu.’ Leite, who thrives on scandal and provocation, chose the name Daspu because she knew the pun on Daslu would attract attention. The boutique’s owner was outraged and threatened to sue, backing off only after being ridiculed in the media. This very public spat gave Daspu huge publicity very early on.
‘It has changed my life,’ beams Maria dos Santos, 60. ‘I’ve been on television! I’ve even been on an aeroplane to São Paulo! It makes me very proud. Modelling makes me feel beautiful.’ She has spent 40 years of her life as a prostitute. Her black waist-length hair is tied up in a high ponytail and her face shows a touching mix of sweetness and emotional damage. She has ten grandchildren and one great-granddaughter – and still works. She married at 18 and became a prostitute two years later to support her children. Two of her four sons are now dead – she doesn’t want to say why, but in her world, life and guns are cheap.
Violent clashes between drugs gangs, armed paramilitaries and police killed 6,000 people in Rio last year. Add poverty and Aids to this urban war zone and the mix is lethal. There are at least 600,000 people infected with Aids in Brazil, and dos Santos distributes free government-issued condoms. ‘Gringos give the best money and they will pay double not to use a condom. But I explain to the girls why they must never agree to that.’
At least one Daspu model is HIV positive, and the organisation offers support. Jane Eloy started working as a prostitute when she was 17. She has three children aged 17, five and three, and says she works ‘out of necessity’. Her hair is braided with blue, green and red string and her left eye droops, half closed. Her husband died of Aids five years ago; she was 22 when she discovered that she was HIV positive. ‘I stopped taking the medicines because I was desperate,’ says Eloy. ‘I was thinking of killing myself. Another girl told me about Daspu, so I came here. When they found out I was HIV positive they were even more supportive. I don’t want to die anymore. I have found a new family.’ Eloy is still working as a prostitute and also helps distribute condoms to other sex workers. As a result of Brazil’s aggressive preventive operation and free medical treatment, Aids mortality figures are half those predicted a decade ago, and officials say that a working partnership with prostitutes is the key to this success.
Dos Santos, Eloy and the other women in Daspu have become Brazil’s fieldworkers. Dos Santos says, We are political whores: whores who know what we want, whores with rights and whores with duties to society.’ So far, Daspu appears to be winning battles, but there’s still a long way to go. At its Rio office, the music is turned up and the girls are getting ready for another show. Fluorescent lights highlight peeling paint and crumbling walls and the windows are barred. Ultimately, Daspu hopes to bring about a change in the law to legalize the agents of prostitution. As one girl says, ‘We want to be treated the same as women who work in offices or factories.’ Meanwhile, police attitudes have changed for the better.
Leite says, ‘For our last catwalk show, the police offered us their protection. And when one male resident complained in a letter to the local newspaper about our presence, the police Commander sent a written reply saying these ladies belonged to an organisation and that they should be seen as ordinary working women.’ If Leite can manage to educate the notoriously corrupt and macho Rio police force, then surely there can be no stopping her. Later that night, Eloy models a bride’s white mini dress on a catwalk in a local shopping mall, a huge white lily in her hair. She looks radiant, as if all the humiliations and sorrows of her life are cancelled out in this one triumphant moment. A huge bouquet trembles in her hands as paparazzi huddle to capture a close-up shot of this ‘puta political’ and catwalk queen.