Skip to content
For literary responses to COVID-19 from writers around the world, check out our Voices from the Pandemic series.
from the June 2020 issue

Ricardo and Vânia

In this nonfiction excerpt, Chico Felitti tells the story of two Brazilian makeup artists who became famous for their radically altered appearances.


The cemetery in São Bento, Araraquara, has a grave with no name. It’s the second tombstone in the fourth block on the left, if you walk in through the gate by the coconut-water stand.

The family of the man buried there can't afford the R$140 (about $30) it takes to have a grave marker installed. But the man whose ashes rest there died with an identity: his name was Ricardo Correa da Silva.

Ricardo lived in São Paulo, the biggest city in Brazil and the world’s fourth-largest metropolis, for most of his life. He used to say that he’d only go back to Araraquara, a rural city 150 miles from São Paulo, over his own dead body. He’d escaped because he was the black sheep of a traditional family in town, the first ones in the community to own a radio receiver, back in the thirties. He was ambitious, gay, and a schizophrenic artist. Not necessarily in that order.

In the São Paulo of the 1970s, he made a name for himself as a makeup artist. A man who “worked miracles,” in the words of legendary samba singer Beth Carvalho.

Even so, Ricardo eventually became famous for his own appearance, rather than the appearance his talent allowed him to give others. Ricardo wanted to look like a Chinese porcelain doll; he invested part of the money he earned from his salon work in raw silicone and injected the substance with the help of the love of his life, Vânia.

Ricardo and Vânia had injected five liters of silicone into each other’s faces by the time Vânia fled the country and Ricardo’s mental illness worsened until he lost his salon, his home, and his name.

It was then that Ricardo started begging for money on Rua Augusta, one of Brazil’s most famously bohemian streets.

 ***

In 1980 a seventeen-year-old knocks on the door to an apartment on Praça Julio de Mesquita in downtown São Paulo.

The door opens, revealing a studio painted black from floor to ceiling. “I have nowhere to go,” says Vânia (who went by Vagner back then). “Please, come in. You can stay here,” replies Ricardo, his voice affected by the plastic splint that covers a nose retouched less than a week ago. 

It’s been almost a year since the two of them first met, but they haven’t gotten much closer. After running into her brother Valter at Shirley’s hair salon, Vânia went to dinner with him and Ricardo. And the beauty that had struck the teenager stopped mattering even before the entrées came. “Valter told me that they were a couple, and I lost interest right then and there. I also lost my appetite.”

Vânia started going to Ricardo’s house every weekend; a group of hairdressers, artists, and bohemians filled the 400-square-foot place. They discussed poetry, art, and makeup, and practiced it, too: Ricardo painted the guests’ faces while they recited poems.

While Valter was dating Ricardo, he met—and fell for—Anthok, a German journalist living in Paris and vacationing in Brazil. To the point of packing his bags and moving on a whim to Paris, leaving his job at Shirley’s. And leaving Ricardo behind.

Ricardo and Vânia were brought together by an unfortunate event: Vânia’s aunt kicked her out of the house where she had lived for three years. “It was the point of no return. I had stopped going to class. I was wearing makeup and spending my nights out. They were afraid I was turning into a woman. They were afraid I was going to become what I already was.” Vânia is sixteen when she finds herself on the streets, with only a briefcase-sized bag to her name. She hops on a bus that will take her to downtown São Paulo.

Ricardo, now age twenty-three, opens the door with a splint on his face. “He had just had plastic surgery to make his nose thinner. Whenever he got to the end of his rope, like when my brother left for France, he ran to the surgery center.” He would have thirty procedures done in all—which serves as some indication of the number of times Ricardo got to the end of his rope over the course of his life.

Vânia’s arrival is a breath of fresh air. One of the first things Ricardo does when she moves in is to take up the rug and hang it on the wall. The wooden flooring that had been hiding underneath it is then painted bright red. “He said the house needed a new look.”

The two start to create together. “We covered the walls with pictures and drawings. He was so avant-garde,” says Vânia. They’re soon extremely close.

Vânia refers to the first two years of the relationship as “the salad days.” Ricardo is already the main hairdresser at Casarão, the beauty salon whose clients include actress Tonia Carrero and Ana Maria Braga, the host of a morning show watched by about ten million Brazilians. Vânia can’t remember how much their weekly income was, but she knows where it went: “Ricardo had a huge collection of silk shirts and almost two pounds of gold. Golden necklaces and rings.”

For the first three months, Vânia didn’t work. “He paid for my hairdressing classes at Teruya. He insisted that I graduate before becoming his assistant.” Teruya is a hairdressing school stretching across eight floors of a skyscraper on Avenida São João, where people said that Ricardo came in and taught unsolicited, impromptu classes in the 2000s. After Vânia got her degree, she became the first of Ricardo’s assistants—back then he had a crew of three helping him out in the salon, working twelve hours a day, on a good day.

The hectic schedules didn’t keep the two of them from having a good time. “I took care of him, and he wined and dined me at the clubs. We went out every night. And I surely couldn't afford it.” She wasn’t well-off, but she was fresh and young, two valuable currencies out on the town. “When we got to the club, all the men would head straight for me like moths to a flame. Ricardo would go one way, I’d go the other.”

But the twentieth time they go out together, Ricardo stops Vânia before they part. He catches his young friend by the arm and says: “I want to be with you tonight.” Vânia smiles. “I had no feelings for him. Except lust, of course.” The two of them start kissing in the club and hold hands on their way back home, like few LGBTQ couples would do at the time. A ten-year relationship is born without anyone proposing.

“In the beginning, I didn’t love him. But I wound up loving him. I don’t know if it was real love, but I felt like I was under a spell.” They had a normal relationship, even if from the outside they might have seemed the most unusual people in town. “Folks would look at us and think we were free-love. Hell, no! It was a soap-opera love story. Monogamous. Exclusive.” Years into the relationship Vânia discovered some cheating, but the first years were the happiest of her life.

“People would ask if we were twins. We’d go out in matching outfits, the same makeup. We were so similar.” She describes the two of them on the dance floor at Medieval, a nightclub on Rua Augusta, a block off Avenida Paulista. Both of them are bare-chested, wearing crocheted thongs, six different colors of makeup around their eyes. They dance until their feet are sore. When one of them decides to give up, the other one rallies, and they dance till the sun comes up.

After months of enjoying a carefree life, Ricardo is fired from Casarão, and Vânia along with him. “I can’t quite recall why that was,” she says. But a dozen of the people who lived with them at the time say the reason was clear: their attitude.

“She was shady. If she wasn’t happy with a client’s hairdo, she wouldn’t mince words. She wouldn’t say ‘Oh, you can do this or that to improve it.’ She’d look at it and say: ‘This is hideous,’” recalls Suzanne Lee, a transvestite1 who left the street life and now works as a cleaning lady at a private school in southern São Paulo. “They liked to humiliate the clientele a little bit.”

The couple starts working independently. They print up colorful flyers offering their hair and makeup services and hand them out to the neighbors. The six-floor building they live in is mostly devoted to prostitution. Overnight, the black-ceilinged studio becomes a beauty salon.

 

One afternoon in 1980 before her eighteenth birthday, Vânia comes back from the supermarket to the studio where she lives with Ricardo. She’s just about to put the shopping bags on the table in the kitchen—which is also the couple’s bedroom—when she sees something new. A jar filled with thirteen ounces of a dense, transparent substance is sitting in a nest of fashion magazines.

Ricardo is standing by a steaming pan on the stove. He pulls out needles that had been boiling in the water. “Thick needles, like a child’s fingers,” Vânia recalls.

Ricardo says something to the effect of “This is the new hot thing in town. Want to give it a shot?” He promises, as he attaches the needles to a glass syringe and sucks out a little of the contents of the jar, that it’ll only sting a little. Ricardo tells Vânia that he met a man who works in a pharmacy nearby and can sell him raw medical silicone without a prescription. “It’s for your face. It’ll make us look better.”

Vânia says yes, even though she has no idea of what is about to be done. “I’d never heard of silicone. I didn’t know what a transvestite was. I was really insecure, I thought I looked hideous.” They take a seat at the table and Ricardo injects the silicone into Vânia’s cheeks. But they don’t use the verb “inject.” Back in the eighties, the verb used to describe the act is “pump”—referring to the strength needed to push the thick gel out of the syringe. Minutes later, Vânia pumps silicone into Ricardo’s face. And the result is immediate. “My cheekbones were instantly higher and my lips were plump. I thought it was amazing!”

The feeling is also immediate, and lasts for days. “It hurts. It burns a lot when the needle is going through the skin, like an antibiotic shot. But that pain goes away quickly.” The worst part, she says, starts on day two. “It feels like the worst sunburn you’ve ever had. Your skin stretches like someone is playing tug-of-war with your face.” The new weight on her face causes migraines. And that’s just the start. Vânia now has an arthritic neck; she blames the silicone in her face for the damage to her cartilage.

She can't count how many times she had silicone applied to her body. Let alone the number of times she saw Ricardo doing it to himself, or helped him in the process. “There was a time when he was using way too much. He even pumped it into his scalp. His cheeks would start at his forehead. They looked like they might fly away.”

The medical team at the Hospital das Clínicas and at Hospital Mandaqui calculate that Ricardo must have injected at least seventy ounces of silicone into his face.

Soon after they modified their faces for the first time, Ricardo explains to Vânia the look he’s going for. At a flea market in Bixiga, the Italian neighborhood in São Paulo, he comes across two Chinese porcelain dolls for sale. “Aren’t they glorious? Wouldn’t you want to be like that?” he asks. Years later, he would start telling people he wanted to emulate the singer Rosana, whose hit “O Amor e o Poder,” or “Love and Power,” played nonstop on Brazilian radio in 1987.

Vânia had another ideal in mind, and hers remained the same: Rita Hayworth. The star of Gilda and Salome had a wide face with generous cheeks. What Vânia, or any self-respecting fan of hers at that time, knew was that Hayworth had also resorted to plastic surgery to get her iconic look—using electrolysis to lift her hairline and narrow her eyebrows.

Not everyone understood their new appearances. Vânia’s mother burst into tears when her daughter walked through the door, starting to sob and yell as Vânia tried to soothe her. “It’s just the aftereffects of the surgery, it’ll go back to normal,” she lied.

“Everyone started looking at us on the streets. And I guess we liked that.” Today, however, Vânia attributes her professional decline to their metamorphosis. “Ricardo died fucked-up and broke. And that was partly because of the silicone. Every door closed on us after what we’d done to our faces. Can you imagine going to a job interview with a face like that?”

“People would say to me: ‘Can’t you see you look like a monster?’ And I couldn’t. Because I had Ricardo’s love. He was the only person who loved me.”

Ricardo never considered himself a monster. “My face is beautiful. So many people have copied it. Cindy Crawford and Sophia Loren did it, those Silly Sallys,” he said, looking at a mirror in the tenement building in Cracolândia in mid-2017.

Whereas Vânia stopped injecting herself in 1989, when she moved to Paris, Ricardo would keep on retouching himself occasionally. Several thirty-three-ounce containers of silicone are stashed under the kitchen sink in the house in Araraquara. When Ricardo moved to Ribeirão Preto in the nineties, he put all of his bags in the trunk—except for a half-liter bottle of silicone, which he put between his thighs.

“If I hadn’t injected silicone in my face,” Vânia says now, “none of this would’ve happened.”
 

Author's note: In Brazilian LGBTQ culture, the term "travesti" ("transvestite") is chosen politically by poorer trans women who work on the streets and don't identify with the term "trans woman," which they consider elitist. 


From Ricardo e Vânia. Published in 2019 by Todavia. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2020 by Flora Thomson-DeVeaux. All rights reserved.

Read more from the June 2020 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.