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A Touch Of Magic

Did Maria Jo√£o use the occult to make the SI cover?

Maria Jo‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬£o Leal De Sousa and her friends watched as the chicken's throat was sliced and blood spurted over a yellowish floury substance in ceramic bowls. Although she found it repulsive and difficult to understand, de Sousa was fascinated by Candomblè rituals, Brazilian black magic practiced mostly in the northeastern state of Bahia. As the spiritualists, dressed in white, chanted and danced, their leader began drinking the chicken blood. De Sousa cringed and thought how glad she was that Christie Brinkley, her newly acquired friend and modeling partner, wasn't there. It was long past midnight, and Brinkley and the other SI models were back at their hotels asleep—as de Sousa should have been. They were exhausted from the day's work, and they would all have to be up again at sunrise for a photography session on the beaches of Salvador, Bahia's capital.

So what was de Sousa doing out so late at a Candomblè center? "I just wanted to have some fun," she says. And when you're competing with the likes of Brinkley and Cheryl Tiegs for the cover of the 1978 swimsuit issue, a little black magic might come in handy. Besides, the night was still young by Brazilian standards, and as de Sousa didn't have to be up until 5 a.m., she and her pals went on to a popular nightclub for some dancing and a few batida de coco (a national drink made with coconut, condensed milk and sugarcane brandy). She returned to the hotel at four, which gave her plenty of time to wash her hair and catch a few minutes of beauty sleep before her wake-up call.

A few minutes of beauty sleep? Wasn't this one of de Sousa's first experiences in international modeling? Didn't she want to impress the American visitors? Wouldn't she have dark circles under her eyes for the photo session? Well, no. "If you're happy, your eyes will show it, and you will look just great," she says.

Right. A few hours later, as the sun rose over the Atlantic and warmed the rough sand of Itapo√£ beach, there was de Sousa, in a one-piece suit, playing in the shallow surf and looking, well, great. "This is the cover shot," photographer Walter Iooss Jr. told de Sousa as he snapped a few frames of her sitting on the beach. "I thought he was joking or just saying that to make me feel good," she says. "Still, I've always been fortunate, and I felt, with my luck, it could just happen."

Whether Candomblè spirits made their way to New York and influenced the selection is not known, but when the 15th annual swimsuit issue appeared, the headline on the cover read MARIA JO‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√¢O ON THE BEACH IN BAHIA.

"Sure I was excited," says de Sousa, now Mrs. Alden Brewster. She's standing next to her husband on the balcony of their four-story, cliffside mansion that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean just south of Rio de Janeiro. "I knew it was important, but honestly I didn't think it was that big of a deal. I remember thinking, It's not Cosmopolitan or Vogue, it's only a sports magazine." Alden—son of the late Kingman Brewster, who had been the president of Yale and the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain under President Carter—laughs. "Only a sports magazine," he says. "She had no idea what the swimsuit issue was all about."

Brewster did. When he was a teenager at the Groton School in Massachusetts, the swimsuit issue was, he says, "the hottest item of the year." School authorities censored the students' mail and banned magazines like Playboy. "But they didn't dare touch SPORTS ILLUSTRATED," says Brewster. "That would have been un-American. My friends and I always waited with great anticipation for the swimsuit issue to appear. We used to fantasize about those women. I never in my wildest dreams thought that one day I'd be married to one of them."

Brewster and de Sousa met a few months after the photos were taken, at a reception at the Brazilian embassy in London, where he was working in a bank and she was modeling. "It was love at first sight," he says. Three months later they married and moved into a flat in Notting Hill Gate. According to Brewster, there was only one drawback to living in England: "There I was, a man whose wife was SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S swimsuit cover model, and nobody knew anything about it. If only my school buddies had been around."

Still, de Sousa's face was familiar to many Britons. Though she never won a beauty pageant, she had become a kind of Miss Brazil in 1977 when Embratur, the Brazilian tourist authority, selected her to represent the country in an international advertising campaign. Billboards and posters showing de Sousa in a white bikini appeared in travel agencies around the world. The image was so successful that only last year did Embratur switch to a new poster model. Says an Embratur official, "That one picture of Maria Jo‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬£o probably lured more people, especially men, to Brazil than anything we've ever used. It's hard to find someone with that classic look of Brazilian sensualidade: long dark hair, a sculptured body, soft lips and dark, secretive eyes—the Sonia Braga look."

De Sousa has often been compared with, and even mistaken for, Braga, the most famous of Brazilian actresses. When the makers of the Brazilian film Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands were searching for a lead actress, they first offered the part to de Sousa. Only after she turned it down—"because of the nudity and that raunchy sex scene under the kitchen table," she says—did the filmmakers give the role to Braga.

"No regrets," says de Sousa. "I never wanted to be an actress. A movie or soap opera demands a long commitment, and that's not for me. Luckily, I was always financially secure, so I never had to do things I didn't want to, like movies and posing nude."

De Sousa was born in Lisbon and was brought to Rio by her family when she was 18 months old. Her father, Fernando, was a wealthy architect who designed the houses of many of Rio's elite, including the one where the Brewsters now live with their two daughters, a German shepherd, a Persian cat, a turtle and two parakeets. "My earliest memories are of the beach," de Sousa says. "Our apartment was only a few blocks from it, and I lived for the sun and the sand. I became a good Carioca [citizen of Rio]."

The beaches of Rio are the home of the culto do corpo ("cult of the body"), where well-muscled men and buxom women in fio dental ("dental floss," or string bikinis) spend their lives worshiping bodies, primarily their own. "The Cariocas learn at an early age how to attract looks—what works and what doesn't," de Sousa says. "I've seen beautiful women in New York, London and other cities, but they don't know how to walk or hold themselves. They lack confidence in their bodies."

De Sousa had plenty of confidence. When she was 17 and a freshman communications student at a university in Rio, a friend asked her to pose for some photos. The pictures wound up at a publicity agency, and it wasn't long before de Sousa began doing TV ads and appearing regularly as a fashion model in Brazilian women's magazines. In 1976, the Brazilian Vogue named her the country's model of the year. "Then came Embratur, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED and Alden," she says. De Sousa's modeling career ended when she married. "I wanted to stop so I could devote myself to being a good wife and mother. It was time to change," she says. "I've led a very blessed life and done everything I've wanted. Good fortune just seemed to come my way, professionally as well as personally."

Now it is late in the afternoon, and the sun is setting behind the house in Rio. Alden, who normally works at home as a broker for loans between international banks and Third World countries, has gone into the city for a meeting. The Brewsters' daughters, Jordana, 8, and Isabella, 6, are back from the American School and are leafing through a tattered copy of SI with their mother on the cover. Jordana looks up from a two-page photo of her mother stretched out on a sand dune and asks, "Mommy, will you ever model again?"

Mrs. Alden Brewster smiles. She knows she could. Since the family moved from London to Rio two years ago, she has gotten back into the body cult. When the kids are off at school, she works out at an aerobics center and spends time improving her tan. She's slimmer than she was 10 years ago, and her sensuality has been refined by a touch of elegance. "If a good modeling offer came my way and the conditions were right, I would probably accept it," she says. "But I'm not going to go out looking for that to happen. Still, with my luck, it probably will, as it did with the cover. It's strange: I think or wish for something, and then it happens, like magic."