By Nathalie Bonney @nathaliebonney
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Videographer / director: Kadeh Ferreira
Producer: Nathalie Bonney, Ruby Coote
Editor: Sonia Estal
In its thirteenth year, the annual Miss Talavera Bruce beauty pageant is held in unlikely surroundings: a women’s prison in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Instituto Penal Talavera is the only maximum-security women’s prison in the city with inmates serving life sentences for murder, fraud and drug trafficking.
But for one day each year, a handful of the inmates are judged on something other than their crimes: ‘their beauty and attitude’ as they vie for the first place sash and title of Miss Talavera Bruce - or ‘TB Girl’ as it is referred to.
Out of the estimated hundreds of inmates at the prison, only 10 make it the pageant, the selection based on behaviour records. As well as dressing up and getting their hair and makeup done, the pageant provides a rare opportunity to see beloved family members somewhere other than the visitation room – and in some cases it’s the only time inmates get to see their children.
The contest is also a chance for the contestants to feel like women again - as one contestant and inmateTatiane Basílio de Souza puts it:
“It’s a long time since we know what beauty is. We feel more like women, It is a wonderful thing. That we feel inside us.”
The 24-year-old has been in prison for two years and four months, charged with drug trafficking and is hopeful of early release next year. She says her mother “doesn’t have the courage” to visit the prison usually.
Tatiane told Barcroft TV: “The hardest part for me is, us being here, and everything out there stayed still. And being far from our families. But me being here also was good. It has been like a school, I am learning. I am going to get out of here a new mother, a new person.
“I wanted to participate in the pageant because it is a chance that I can have to see my family, my daughters, it has been too long already.”
This year’s winner was Verônica Verone de Paiva, a 25-year-old woman with platinum blonde hair, who became known as ‘the fatal blonde’ during her trial.
She said: “It was very good, to be able to participate in the pageant, I didn’t expect to win first place but I am really happy, it really surprised me.
“It is very touching, it is a very joyful day, very happy.”
Convicted for murder in 2011, Verônica was sentenced to 15 years for killing her lover in a motel room, using a belt to choke him.
Having served seven years and seven months of her sentence, she is hopeful for early release and according to local newspaper reports could even be released in 2019.
Verônica said: “I always tried to follow a modelling career, but my mother never agreed to that, but I intend to finish serving my sentence and get out of Brazil, to live in another country.”
Ana Christina Faulhaber, co-ordinator of the female prison units, says the pageant began as a way to raise the self-esteem of the inmates.
She told Barcroft TV: “Here at Talavera Bruce there was a newspaper called Só Isso [Only That], that was organised by the inmates, and then, together with the Director of that time, they decided to make a beauty pageant to raise the self-esteem of the women, here of this penitentiary.
“For the pageant to happen, the prison unit itself has to behave, it has to have good discipline, and actually all the women who have been selected have a good discipline to participate in the pageant. There were 50 women who signed up, and of these 50, ten were selected.”
The contestants are marked by a judging panel of prison staff over two rounds: formalwear and carnival wear. The dresses, shoes and makeup are donated by local volunteers, who also do the inmates’ hair and makeup.
The 2018 contest took part at the start of December and the 2017 winner Mayana Rosa Alves, in a pink strapless dress, was there to lead out the 2018 contestants
Mayana said: “This year I think there is more competition than last year.”
Winners of the pageant receive an electric fan – a welcome prize in the Rio heat – while the runner up is awarded with a pair of hair straighteners.
Mayana said: “I used my award a lot, which was a fan - in the summer there are a lot of mosquitoes.
“I think the event in itself is much better than the award. The people are chatting with you, there is not all that discipline, you feel a bit free.“
The contest took part on a temporary catwalk in the prison grounds, with family watching on plastic lawn chairs under white gazebos. For mother Maria Jose de Santos, it was a rare moment to see her daughter Mariana smiling and happy.
Maria said: “It is the first time that she got excited [for me] to come. She cries a lot, she gets very sad, she misses her family a lot.”
Maria works every day as a cook and each weekend takes three buses to come and see her daughter Mariana at Bruce Talavera Prison.
She said: “It is the first time she is going to see her siblings today after five years.”
Serving 15 years for her involvement in a telephone tapping scandal, prior to her conviction, Mariana Santos da Silva didn’t have a criminal record.
The 24-year-old told Barcroft TV: “I am already happy to be here. To be participating, it is a very nice opportunity and I have already won to be able to be here, to be able participate, and to see my family, that is the best of all.”
Mariana, who was crowned runner up, says the pageant has given her hope again:
“I think it is an opportunity to show the world that we can have a second chance, that we are women, that we are human beings, that we deserve, and that we can also change, like everyone else.”