Brazil's Young Miss pageants an escape from poverty

Story highlights

  • Young Miss Brazil contestants are girls between ages 8 and 12 whom are enrolled in school
  • Brazilian photographer Luisa Dörr documented the competition and its young contestants
  • Dorr later focused on Maysa Martins, a 12-year-old from Brasilândia, a dangerous slum on the outskirts of São Paulo

(CNN)It's not hard to get a Brazilian "Young Miss" to pose for the camera. You don't even need to ask. She'll ask you.

Walk into the room with a camera, and she'll grab you by the hand, tugging you into position.
In front of the lens, she transforms herself into a supermodel. She swings her hair around to one side, stretches her neck into a long line, and delicately cocks a hand on her hip.
    In fact, it may be a more difficult task to get a Young Miss not to strike a pose.
    "It wasn't easy," Brazilian photographer Luisa Dörr said. "I needed to catch them slightly distracted to be able to do my photos." Dörr spent hours following a cadre of preteen girls as part of the nationwide Young Miss Brazil contest.
    It began as an assignment for Revista São Paulo. Dörr arrived early and began photographing girls who caught her attention -- not just the contest hopefuls, or the reigning champions in their sashes. Dörr also was fascinated by the other girls who came solely to watch the Young Misses, each likely dreaming about becoming a Miss herself one day.
    That was how Dörr met Maysa Martins, a 12-year-old from Brasilândia, a dangerous slum on the outskirts of São Paulo. Dörr spotted the girl, wearing a green dress, at a contest in April 2014. They chatted, and Dörr took her photo — a shadowy portrait shot under a tree outside.
    Photographer Luisa Dorr
    Four months later, Dörr received an email from Maysa's mother asking if the photographer could take some portfolio images of her daughter to help her start a modeling career. Dörr agreed to do the work for free, and began spending time with the family as Maysa rehearsed, took lessons, and prepared for the contest.
    "I got close to her everyday life, and we became friends," Dörr said.
    She speaks glowingly of Maysa's "astounding personality" and down-to-earth determination and dedication to her studies. She is Catholic, and the daughter of a policeman and a secretary.
    For Maysa, being a Miss is about more than talent, Dörr said.
    "It's a way to survive her environment," the photographer said. Maysa is among many young women in São Paulo "facing entrenched poverty, violence, racism, trauma, and a range of other barriers to health and well-being."
    Maysa acclimated to the pageant life quickly, and rose to win the state title of Young Miss São Paulo "Black Beauty," a separate title from Young Miss São Paulo, created to encourage black girls to participate.
    "Racism is, unfortunately, very common, even with most of our people being a mix of several different ethnicities," Dörr explained. "It's not common seeing many black people in beauty contests."
    Maysa proceeds next to the national finals in October. There, she'll be among young girls competing for the titles of Young Miss Brazil, Miss Brazil National Black Beauty, 1st and 2nd National Princesses, and Miss Congeniality.

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    To be in the contest, a girl needs to be between 8 and 12 years old and enrolled in school. The pageant is divided by national states. Girls pass up and down the catwalk in myriad outfits, and perform various talents.
    Looking through Dörr's photo essay, it can be easy to forget that these girls are, in fact, children.
    In an image of 9-year-old twins Laryssa and Rayssa, the girls are styled nearly identically. Their hair is teased and curled into blond creations. They wear flouncy gowns. They gaze into the camera, porcelain faces strategically highlighted and contoured with makeup. They could be teenagers. They carry oversized teddy bears, and wear Velcro high-top, iridescent sneakers, as if to remind the camera they're just kids.
    Dörr said the twins have been modeling since before their first birthday. Their mother told the photographer they learned to do their own makeup at age 7. They earn anywhere from $100 to more than $650 a month through acting and modeling gigs. Half goes into a savings account; the other half is donated to an orphanage.
    With those kinds of opportunities on offer for a select few, much like in any American youth pageant, the emotions run as high as the stakes -- for both the girls and their mothers.
    "It's very hard on a child to lose a contest," Dörr said, recalling a girl fighting with her mother at a final competition. The girl had lost, and was sobbing.
    Dörr was quick to point out that it's a beauty contest, but it should also be approached with a fun spirit. She said it teaches girls to put in hard work to achieve their goals.
    Maysa hopes one day she'll win the title of Miss Brazil. For now, she is still a child. Dörr said Maysa often writes in her notebook, making rhymes. She likes perching in a chair by the window that overlooks her street in Brasilândia.
    "[Maysa is] aware of the difficulties and sacrifices of the career that she wants to follow," Dörr said. "[She] won't give up."