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A scene from Avenida Brasil
A scene from Avenida Brasil
Fabio Brisolla

RIO DE JANERO - The saleswoman smiles ironically while pointing out the best-selling product in Zecabiju, one of the dozen accessory shops in Saara, the most crowded open-air market in Rio.

"Suelen’s earring, of course. I didn’t even need to tell you, right?” she says.

A long golden earring on the right ear -- this is one of the trademarks of Suelen, a popular character from the new soap opera "Avenida Brasil," the top-rated show in Brazilian prime-time today.

Suelen lives in Divino, a fictitious working-class neighborhood in suburban Rio that has become THE reference for fashion, music and slang.

This is quite a change for Brazilian television. Always shot in upper-class neighborhoods, mostly in Rio and São Paulo, prime-time soap operas, called telenovelas, are for the first time featuring middle and lower class characters. In Avenida Brasil, out of 41 characters in the last episodes, only nine belong to Rio’s high-priced ritzy neighborhoods.

"When we portrayed poor people, they were always dreaming of leaving their suburbs and striking it rich. But now we want to show a place that, in spite of being poor, is cheerful and warm, a place where there can be prosperity,” says Ricardo Waddington, coordinator of Avenida Brasil.

The soap opera, produced by Rede Globo, the leading TV broadcaster in Brazil, is watched by 65 % of viewers.

New protagonists

Along with the show’s resounding success, its characters’ new style has become a reference for all social classes.

Sporting a tank top and sunglasses, character Leleco laughs out loud to punctuate his sentences. Actor Marcos Caruso, who plays the part, has noticed a change in the way telenovelas portray working-class neighborhoods. "It’s different. We don’t criticize the suburbs, or make fun of the way people there speak, the catchphrases they use. The idea now is to mirror their lives, without stereotyping.”

At the beginning of the year, Caruso spent two months in working-class Santíssimo, west of Rio. He took subways and buses, walked through the neighborhood and talked to people at bars. He became familiar with the vocabulary and slang that would later become Leleco’s.

Actress Fabiula Nascimento did something similar for her character, Olenka the hairdresser. She changed her way of talking, altering the pronunciation of several words. The actress tries not to overemphasize the grammatical errors her character makes, though.

"My intention is not to show that she’s grammatically impaired, but to reproduce the dialect spoken in these neighborhoods,” says Fabiula, who was surprised by the audience's interest in the clothes and accessories worn by her character.

"I’m the champion of lipstick. Everybody wants to know what brand Olenka uses," says the actress, laughing.

The show’s costume designer, Marie Salles does her research in Bangu e Madureira, north of Rio. She also looks at what pop stars and soccer players are wearing, as they often come from working-class neighborhoods.

Last week, walking around Saara, she noticed that some shops had banners advertising “Suelen’s pants”, to attract buyers. The licensing department of Rede Globo has six lines of products associated with Avenida Brasil, selling over 50 different items. "Working-class clothes are the new fashion," Marie says.

A new soundtrack

In Avenida Brasil’s soundtrack, a working-class repertoire is also prevailing. Among the main hits are songs like "Assim Você Mata o Papai" (This way you’re gonna kill daddy), a pagode by group Sorriso Maroto—pagode is a subgenre of samba, usually with catchy lyrics about love and sex.

With over 80 songs played in Globo’s soap operas, composer Michael Sullivan points out the change in prime-time soundtracks: "Before, soap operas shown at 9 P.M had more traditional Brazilian songs. Now the songs, like the plot, have become more low-rent."

Anthropologist Everardo Rocha, a professor at Pontifical Catholic University Of Rio (PUC), is optimistic about this new trend. "These people are being well-treated on Brazilian TV because they are getting wealthier. This is good news for the Brazilian economy,” Rocha says.

Avenida Brasil director Ricardo Waddington says his only objective is to provide good entertainment. "The show portrays working-class suburbs, but it’s not for their viewership only, it’s for everyone. I think we have achieved this.”

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