The Girl From Ipanema: A Cruise to the Muse

By Scott Vogel
The Washington Post

Tall and tan and young and lovely and now 62 or 63 years old, depending on whom you ask, Heloisa Pinheiro — the woman who inspired The Girl From Ipanema — has never made a single centavo off the song.

I don’t know about you, but when I heard that I was deeply troubled. Friends tried to tell me that Pinheiro wrote neither music nor lyrics for the bossa nova classic, that her sole contribution came in walking past the Rio de Janeiro bar frequented by a musician (Antonio Carlos Jobim) and lyricist (Vinicius de Moraes) in 1962, day after day, usually while picking up a pack of smokes for her mother or making her way to an obscure stretch of sand the world would soon come to know as Ipanema Beach. They’d noticed the girl and been moved to write a song, but in essence she was just an impressive pedestrian.

Yes, but a pedestrian with a walk like a samba that swings so cool and sways so gentle, and unpedestrian poetry like that doesn’t just drop from the ether. She was their Muse. But is artistic immortality enough of a reward for a Muse? I’d say she deserved more.

People go places for all kinds of reasons. I like to spend my vacations seeking out unwitting cultural revolutionaries and finding out if they’ve made peace with obscurity — it’s a niche, I know. And so, I was determined to sail to Sao Paulo (Pinheiro abandoned Rio years ago) and make the acquaintance of the now-Grandma from Ipanema.

Another thing I like to do on trips: avoid other Americans — whom I think we’ve all had just about enough of — at all costs. Given such a penchant, a cruise ship might seem the wrong choice — unless your destination is South America. Despite being one of the last places on Earth where the dollar isn’t struggling, despite relatively untrampled ports of call where nary a trinket salesman rushes the boat, despite sailings that can be as cheap as 400 bucks a head, the continent is still overlooked by many an American cruiser. Meanwhile, a newly emerging Latin American middle class is filling cabins in unprecedented numbers.

I couldn’t have been happier last December when Pinheiro’s husband, Fernando, whom I’d e-mailed out of the blue, invited me to visit the Sao Paulo dress shop his wife runs called … Girl From Ipanema. It would just be me, Grandma, hundreds of gorgeous, cruise-happy Brazilians and not a single American anywhere.

2007 was a banner year for the Brazilian coast, one in which more passengers boarded cruise lines there than at any other time in the country’s history. Ships from most of the major lines prowl its waters (or, like Carnival in 2009, soon will be). Itineraries range from lavish Chile-to-Brazil sailings via the Chilean fiords and Cape Horn to modest four- and five-day Brazil-only trips, where the stops include Rio and smaller ports along the Emerald Coast.

The Costa Victoria, my ticket to Ipanema and beyond, specializes in trips of the latter sort; they leave out of Santos, a port town 50 miles from Sao Paulo. Costa Cruise Lines may be owned by Carnival now, but it still references its Italian roots, in the Victoria’s case by naming most of its decks after operas. Which is how, on a gray, overcast day just before Christmas, I found myself making a quick pass through my Manon cabin before racing up six flights past Carmen and Tosca and Rigoletto, arriving at the pool on the Butterfly deck (think Madame). More than a thousand Brazilians had already bounded up the gangplank — not a single American in the bunch — and I didn’t want to miss it when burger bar met bikini, when swarthy and skinny cariocas tried to samba their way through I’m Your Boogie Man.

I mention I’m Your Boogie Man because later that evening the ship’s house band, Melodia Brasil, did a remarkably good cover of it, and because I now realize I’d been somewhat naive about how easy it might be to escape America.

Hundreds of people packed the dance floor that first night, all of them chanting with perfect diction: “At first I was afraid,/ I was petrified …” and “It’s like thunder and lightning,/ the way you love me is frightening” and “You can tell by the way I use my walk,/ I’m a woman’s man: no time to talk …” They certainly looked like Brazilians — especially the women, who teetered on spike heels and favored the kind of dresses that go to the brink of vulgar and pull back at the last possible moment — and an actual conversation in English seemed beyond most passengers. Still, I have no doubt each of them could have gone five rounds on The Singing Bee.

*     *     *     *     *

It was raining in Rio when we docked the next morning, our only day in Rio. The fog never lifted from the peaks of Sugarloaf and Corcovedo, and the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, just a few miles from the ship, were desolate. Some of my cruisemates braved the elements and snapped a few pictures, but their presence on the beach did little to combat the surrealness of an empty Ipanema.

I wandered inland a few blocks, looking for the Rua Montenegro, the street Pinheiro once owned, where when she passes, each one she passes goes — ah. This proved difficult; they’ve changed the name to Rua Vinicius de Moraes, after the Ipanema lyricist. I looked in vain, too, for the famous Veloso Bar, where he’d first caught sight of his Muse. Yep, it’s the Garota de Ipanema (Girl From Ipanema) bar now. In fact, looming high above the beige facade is a huge reproduction of de Moraes’ original napkin scribble of the Ipanema lyrics. Inside, another oversize facsimile hangs from the wall, as do photos and newspaper clippings featuring Pinheiro et al over the years.

Soaked to the bone, I walked slowly back to the ship. Suddenly I was seeing the American Way everywhere. Even all those skinny, gorgeous passengers on the boat began to look different. Huddling with the masses who’d sought refuge at the indoor pool in the Pompei spa, I saw paunches cascading over Speedos and kids sucking Cokes while their moms worked the treadmills with the identical hopelessness of treadmillers everywhere.

But then, the following morning, the Victoria slowly approached the lush garden isle of Ilhabela, 150 miles southwest of Rio. Thickly planted trees glowed a Kelly green, clung for dear life to steep mountainsides and leaned uncertainly over the sea. A few cars cut through the vegetation from time to time, but all roads led to pastel-tinted colonial architecture and raucous sidewalk cafes and not a single franchised anything.

Best of all, though, was the sound coming from a bandstand just off the docks, a sound I’d given up thinking I’d ever hear in Brazil: samba. A quintet of white-shirted men strummed and sang while shoeless kids tapped their feet and a few showoff couples swayed with the palm trees in the breeze.

Suddenly I felt my hopes surge. Here it was — the Brazil I needed now, a place cordoned off from cultural imperialism — and oh, wait: Every beach umbrella on the island was sponsored by MasterCard. Every one. There must be some kind of law. Oh, and just across the street, the secret ingredient in Cafe Atlantico’s signature appetizer turned out to be Nacho Cheese Doritos.

But still: Just a few steps off the main drag you entered a forest primeval where candy-apple heliconia flowers dripped from the trees and natural water slides wound their way to chilly lagoons. In another direction lay powdery beaches and the chance to snorkel for sand dollars the color of blood. And everywhere was another person with whom you could only communicate via hand gestures. Paradise regained.

Back on the ship, they seemed to be taking a tip from Ilhabela. As night fell and the Victoria steamed south to Porto Belo, Melodia Brasil once more mounted the stage and at last began to conjure some actual melodies of Brazil. In response, the dance floor quickly flooded with geriatrics and teen-agers alike, all of them gyrating through an endless variety of line dances, none of which I’d ever seen.

The beat was relentless, the lines five or six deep. Soon the ship itself seemed to be dripping with sweat. Here it was — an unending Dionysian parade of gleeful Brazilians, the same ones as not yesterday but the day before.

What about that woman I was cruising to? Somewhere out in the wavy darkness sat Pinheiro, who had forgone fame and self-promotion and countless American overtures so she didn’t have to leave this glorious place. Now I really couldn’t wait to meet her.

But I had to wait, as Porto Belo beckoned. An overnight sail south from Ilhabela, the little town on the Emerald Coast is notable mainly for its proximity to Ilha de Porto Belo, an island just off the mainland, and secondarily for its unequaled collection of Sao Paulo’s beautiful people, for whom the island is a cherished weekend destination. Not being one of these, I decamped for the hiking trails, where I chased mauve-dotted butterflies with my camera as enormous black vultures hovered overhead.

Farther and farther from the beach I climbed, finally reaching a place where bromeliads grew in the notches of every tree and Adventureland’s Imagineers obviously make pilgrimages for inspiration. Verdant, pristine and — wait, that was a five-foot iguana? Maybe it wasn’t. I hightailed it back to the beach. If this was what the jungle was like without Disney, I’d take my chances with the beautiful people of Sao Paulo.

*     *     *     *     *

When the boat docked for a final time, it was in Santos, a 1 1/2-hour ride to the third-largest city in the world with the worst traffic in the universe by a mile. I fell hard for Sao Paulo: the smartly dressed men sipping espresso on bar stools on the Avenida Paulista, where newsstands sold everything from magazines to porn to Emily Dickinson; the grungily efficient subway system that stopped mere steps from the MASP museum and its unparalleled collection of Latin American art; and especially the enormous Mercado Municipale.

At night the restaurants replenish their stocks there, but by day Paulistanos of every stripe wander its stalls, buying fruits you’ve never heard of and eating pork sandwiches made from parts of the pig you never eat. Whole rows devoted to spices, cinnamon sticks sold by the bundle, ropes of tobacco coiled like snakes and everywhere men pressing strange cherries into your hand knowing you won’t be able to resist buying a bag — Sao Paulo is unceasingly exotic, where everything is strange and new and Starbucks has yet to make any serious inroads.

And then, at last, it was time. The taxi rolled over a hill and we were there: Garota de Ipanema, a closet-size boutique on a nondescript street in a district far from the glitz of Rua Oscar Freire and its monuments to Versace and Ferragamo.

Inside, I was greeted warmly by Fernando, a former star volleyballer who beat out Jobim for Pinheiro’s heart all those years ago. He led me upstairs to a small fitting room that appeared to double as an office and a shrine, with giant posters of Pinheiro in her glory days staring down at us. Twenty minutes later, a woman in an aqua blouse strolled in, golden-haired, tall, tan, as young and lovely as it is possible to be at 62 or 63. Her smile hadn’t lost any of its wattage. Clearly, obscurity had been good for her.

“I am the first one that used the two-piece on the beach,” she said, by way of explaining her unlikely path to Musedom. “But it was so big” — the pair of bottoms, that is, which Pinheiro confirmed by showing me an old black-and-white photo of herself wearing what looked like a Sears catalog girdle. But it hadn’t hidden that body completely. You could still see writing a song to that body. And to this one, for that matter.

“I had a simple life,” Pinheiro said, remembering the day she turned on her radio and first heard the tune. She was in her bedroom, already aware of the rumors about having inspired the song. “But it’s not for me,” she recalled telling herself. “I didn’t believe it. I (thought) it was so beautiful, so beautiful that it’s not for me.”

Meanwhile, in the absence of any announcement, girls all over Rio started staking claims to the title, which is why, Pinheiro said, de Moraes finally went public with the news that there was only one girl from Ipanema, at which point photographers from all over the world descended on the small flat she shared with her mother — “it was snap, snap, snap” — and the offers began pouring in.

“The American people came to Brazil … and they asked my mother, ‘Please, we want your daughter to make a movie.’ And my mother said, ‘No, no, no; it’s impossible!’” Pinheiro’s mother was convinced that Hollywood would lead to drug use and other loose conduct, and so she kept her teenager under house arrest until all evidence of photographers had passed.

Pinheiro was crushed. Later, she would suffer the indignity of having to judge one of the annual Girl From Ipanema pageants that Rio began having. She watched from the sidelines and cried and cried, eventually marrying Fernando, having four children and dreaming the modest dream of opening a dress shop called Girl From Ipanema (the heirs of Jobim and de Moraes sued her for copyright infringement, although the suit was eventually dropped).

It hasn’t all been anonymity, of course. Pinheiro tried TV journalism for a while, gave out a clue in Season 2 of The Amazing Race, posed nude in Brazilian Playboy with her daughters a few times. She watched again from the sidelines as her youngest girl, Ticiane, became the star of Brazil’s The Simple Life and eventually married Roberto Justus, a wealthy ad executive who now plays the Donald Trump part in Brazil’s wildly successful version of The Apprentice.

Still, it has been mostly anonymity … until now? It is, after all, the 50th anniversary of the bossa nova, which Brazil is celebrating this year — and the photographers may once more descend.

We talked for an hour, going back and forth over the story of her miraculous luck and how little she’d made of it, wondering whether being a Muse really is enough of a reward, comparing notes on how hard it is to leave home, no matter how desperately you want to. Then the sun began to set, and I told Pinheiro I had a plane to catch. We walked outside and I took a few pictures of her in front of the store.

“Have you liked being the Girl from Ipanema?” I asked.

“When I die — this is good for you to put in your article — I think I am eternity because the history exists and you can’t wipe it out.”

I couldn’t help but smile. “That’s true, you know!”

She nodded.

Snap, snap.

“I like all the time the United States. I always wanted to live there.”

Snap, snap.

“I think in the life before this life I was an American.”


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