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A model dubbed "Brazil's Cinderella" hopes to build on her own improbable success story by introducing a more Brazilian sense of beauty to the rapidly growing Chinese fashion market.

Sandra Passos, 28, is already a sensation. After a childhood that included picking through garbage dumps near Rio de Janeiro to survive, she not only built a career as a model in China a decade ago but went on to open her own agency. Now back in her native town of Sao Goncalo, outside Rio, she is teaching other young Brazilian women the basics of modeling and English. In February, she hopes to take some of them to Guangzhou in southern China, where her business is based.

The idea is to bring something new to China, where black and -size models are still a rarity, Passos explained. In all, there are 24 models enrolled at Passos' Rio School, more than half of them non-whites and four of them -size. A mixed-race male model, 26-year-old Luiz Filho, is also of a heavier build than typically seen in clothing catalogues. "My selection process has nothing to do with the market norms, which wants girls to look like Barbies -- tall, thin, blonde, blue-eyed," Passos told AFP.

From dump to glamour

Passos herself comes close to the more standard look. She is white and has green eyes and used her looks and remarkable determination to launch a seemingly impossible career. Her childhood was spent accompanying her father "who raised pigs and searched through garbage dumps for recyclable refuse," she said. Encouraged by her mother, she took part in beauty contests for girls. By the time she was 16, she had been recruited by several modeling agencies and suddenly sent to work in China.

Today she makes a living as a lingerie model for brands sold on Chinese online giant Taobao. But the success which earned her that "Cinderella" nickname in the Brazilian media didn't come quickly. "I went around the world without knowing English, much less Mandarin, not having a penny and hardly even knowing what I was doing there," she recalls. "It took me time to adapt. It was six years before I broke through." Eventually Passos expanded beyond fashion shoots to running her own agency in Guangzhou, Rio Model Management.

Changing fashion

Already Passos has had some success in China with a -size model called Caroline Patrao, who is from near Rio de Janeiro. "I know that Chinese concepts of beauty are rigid but we want to try and change all that. Before Caroline came, they weren't even accepting -size models," she explains. Ivan Li, a booker and make-up artist who works with Passos, said "people are becoming more accepting of new things." Li said he'd worked with Passos and her models in Guangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing and Hangzhou, focusing on the e-commerce market. "You can see the more popular ones among the two shooting Taobao ads for robes, -size bridal wear and gowns," he said.

Although Li doubts that -size and black models will ever be as popular as white and Asian models, they're finding their niche in China. "Plus-size models won't become the mainstream, but they will have a market," Li said. At the Rio School, Passos gives modelling lessons in person and online. It's a way to find new talent. During a recent practice session at a sports club, mixed-race and -size model Jessica Soares paraded in heels and a white and black bikini. "Going to China sounds frightening. It's another country, with another culture, another language. Until now, I've never traveled out of Sao Goncalo," Soares, 22, said. "But today I know I can become a -size model in China." (AFP)