An Elite Model – Taking Notice of Brenda Costa

Circa 2003

When you model for Elite, a top New York modeling agency, you’ve got it made. All eyes are on you.

Your life is an adventure; you may be doing the runway in Paris tomorrow or appearing in a photo shoot in Milan. Perhaps there’s an ad campaign being filmed in Los Angeles, or promotion work in the Caribbean. You jetset to and from New York, your home base and the modeling hub of North America.

Beauty and confidence are essential traits a model must possess in a fiercely competitive industry. At Elite, models are expected to portray an image that exhibits beauty and confidence, while exuding a glamorous allure.

But how glamorous can you be when you wear hearing aids that are conspicuous even from 50 feet away? What does that do to an image that is your livelihood and lent to the brand of others? What detrimental effect does that have on your attraction if you have to work with photographers and fashion designers who understand a singular beauty?

Remember, all eyes are on you.

Brenda Costa, a 21 year-old native of Rio de Janeiro, has beauty that still smolders when she wears her hearing aids. At 5’8″ and 120 lbs, with knockout measurements of 34-24-36, she has recently been featured in Steven Klein’s fall 2003 Baby Phat campaign, promoting a line of clothing for smart, sexy women with a charged attitude.

“No, never, this never was a problem to me,” Costa answers. She had just been asked if her deafness was ever an issue during a modeling gig. “It’s great working with photographers and other models,” she says. Costa moved to New York in January 2003, after sweeping through Brazil. “I’ve met so many people,” she reflects.

Costa signed with Elite, an institution in the modeling industry that has a decidedly international presence, and has appeared in Vogue for the Russian, Italian and Spanish markets, in addition to Gloss and the Baby Phat campaign.

“It’s wonderful because I get to travel to a lot of places and see different cultures. I’ve done a lot of things and gone to Italy, Mexico, France, Germany and Spain.”

Costa was discovered at age 14 while walking down the beach. However, the exposure didn’t come until her mother took her to Mega Agency two years later. “I was 16 years sold. They liked me and I started modeling.”

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It was serendipity the owner of the agency had a son who was deaf. Naturally, there was no doubt at the top that Costa could make a successful career out of modeling.

Most people perceive modeling as an industry centered on image and attitude, where flawlessness and supreme confidence are the only standards. How could one fit the persona of an elite model while wearing hearing aids and remain self-assured?

Costa admits that she confronted the same question early on. “I stopped wearing hearing aids; I didn’t feel comfortable with them.” The self-consciousness eventually melted away. “Now I don’t think it’s anything. Anyway, people know that I’m deaf. To be deaf or to wear hearing aids isn’t a big deal. Modeling professionals want to work with me because they think I’m beautiful, not because I’m deaf.”

Her first break was photo coverage in Jornal do Brasil, a national newspaper that carried fashion features on weekends. At the time Costa was a student and attending public school with her mind already set on glamour and dreamed of becoming a fashion designer. “It was what I wanted then and it’s still what I want to be when I stop modeling.”

It wasn’t long before her amazing cinnamon looks brought her demand outside Brazil’s borders and catapulted her onto the international scene. “When I came to New York for the first time, this was the big opportunity. Modeling in Brazil is big, but not like here!”

When she is not out modeling, Costa does what any 21 year-old would do in one of the most vibrant cities in the world. “I hang out with friends, shop, go to the movies and go on the Internet!”

Movies? Yes, she watches them with captions. Captioning technology enables options for text viewing at select movie theatres, and nearly all TV sets have built-in decoders. The FCC has mandated captioning of all programming by 2006, and there are subtitles for DVDS even in Portuguese.

Costa can even tell her parents which movies aren’t worth watching. With her Blackberry, a wireless hand-held device with phone and email capabilities, she sim ply types a text message to a friend who lives nearby and it gets relayed within minutes.

“I was born deaf.” Costa said, “but I don’t know why.” Her best guess is that her mother had complications or unintentionally took a toxic medication during the pregnancy. Costa knows no other deaf persons in her family and has ruled out hereditary deafness. “I’m the only one in my family.”

As a baby, Costa was unusually quiet, not crying as much as most babies and her parents began to wonder if there was something wrong. A visit to the doctor led to a series of hearing tests which confirmed that Costa had severe hearing loss.

That was early in the 1980s. Still the biggest economic power in South America today, Brazil does not require hospitals to test newborns for hearing loss. It is estimated that in 2000, fewer than 30 percent of Brazilian children with hearing loss were diagnosed by the age of 2 and almost 40 percent were 4 years old or older at diagnosis.

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A child’s most important years for language development are from birth to age 3. Because Costa’s detection was early, her parents were able to get the necessary audiological attention and Costa grew up speaking Portuguese and attending public schools. She knows little sign language, a novelty to her taught by a friend, but acknowledges that she thrives on speech. “I talk all the time!”

She wears a hearing aid mostly for the auditory cues, hearing only vibrations but not discerning between sounds. A lifetime of practice has helped her become an expert at understanding Portuguese from reading lips.

Today she does all her modeling without a Portuguese English translator. Costa doesn’t even have an interpreter to repeat Portuguese or English to her, as some oral communicators with hearing loss do. “I can understand people. Everybody is so patient with me.” That was not the case when she first arrived in New York. “Because I didn’t speak English, it was hard. It’s much easier now. I had to be persistent. Now I love New York so much.”

Here is where her deafness takes on a changed perspective. The Brazilian media has taken to describing Costa as sorda, literally translated to mean a deaf female. In the US, Costa would be more accurately referred to as hard of hearing since the deaf label carries a second definition that is cultural in basis, and Costa neither uses sign language nor socializes with other people who are deaf.

Growing up by the beaches of Rio de Janeiro and naturally attracting attention has proven that being deaf has its advantages for Costa. If she isn’t in the mood to receive another corny come-on statement from a strange suitor, she simply ignores him, pretending not to have heard what was said.

Brazil is still home. Says Costa of her family. “They all still live in Brazil. They support me a lot and have been wonderful in helping me in my career.”

Understanding how important support and encouragement can be. Costa says she’d be pleased to help other deaf models. “I would tell them to go to my agency and do an interview! Anybody who wants to be a model should get to try, like I did. I live my life to the fullest. even with its challenges.”

by Glenn lock

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