A Bewildering Online Hit, Now Brazil's Newest Star: Dom Phillips

Anchor Carlos Nascimento began the nightly news program on Brazilian television channel SBT Jan. 19 in unusual fashion. "Look," he told viewers, "either all Brazilian problems have been solved or we have become perfect idiots. Because it is unbelievable that two subjects so trivial have called the attention of the entire country."

Most viewers knew exactly what he was talking about.

Nascimento first drew attention to an alleged rape on the Big Brother Brazil reality show, which had briefly gripped Brazil -- until both protagonists denied any sex had taken place. "Second," he added, "a person who nobody knows becomes a celebrity in the media, only because her name has appeared millions of times on the Internet. Luiza has already returned from Canada, and we have been more intelligent."

The anchor was referring to the surreal case of Luiza Rabello. The 17-year-old student was on an exchange program in Canada when her father Gerardo Rabello, a gossip columnist and television presenter in the city of Joao Pessoa, recorded a local television commercial for a luxury condominium development.

In the advert, which aired Jan. 11, Rabello describes the wonders of the apartments up for sale as the camera sweeps over them. Then he's shown sitting in an armchair. "That's why I insisted on getting the whole family together," he says, gesturing toward his relatives seated around him, "except for Luiza, who is in Canada." The camera zooms in on a framed photograph of his absent daughter, on a table next to him.

The phrase "except for Luiza, who is in Canada" instantly became an Internet phenomenon. Within 24 hours, it had become one of the 10 most-popular Twitter topics in the country. But nobody seemed to know why.

Brazilians began using it as a catchphrase or ironic payoff for any comment. Party invitations on Facebook declared: "I insist that everybody comes. Except for Luiza, who is in Canada." The rock star Lenine used the line in a show in Joao Pessoa. A presidential press officer used it on an official Twitter account to make a joke about Jose Serra, losing candidate in the 2010 presidential election. The unknown official apologized and the phrase was removed -- but not before Serra had retaliated, using the same phrase.

Soon, Luiza herself was becoming a celebrity. A TV Globo news crew tracked her down for an interview. "At first I was a little frightened, and I called my father and he calmed me down," Luiza told the show. "I’m a little shy. To suddenly have everybody talking about me was really strange."

She said she was concentrating on her studies and future career. Brazilians nodded in approval at her good sense.

But then the Rabello family tried to capitalize on their sudden fame. Luiza recorded another commercial for the same condominium development, playing up on her own celebrity -- at twice the original fee, reported the Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper. Her father was offered another commercial, for a mobile phone network. Luiza was offered two more spots.

Before long, Luiza was being photographed for celebrity sites, going to exclusive parties, attending a show at Sao Paulo Fashion Week and even DJing at a celebrity party. "Everybody recognizes me," she told celebrity magazine Caras. "I’m going to confess I’m beginning to enjoy it."

Not everybody in Brazil was cheering her new-found fame. "This is a reflection of the regression that humanity is suffering," argued Thiago de Brito on his blog Jan. 20. He continued:

We take into consideration that our songs are getting worse, that soccer players talk badly, that important websites (not in my case) commit serious Portuguese gaffes and people who write badly on MSN because of 'Internetismo.' At least Luiza was in Canada doing an exchange program while we are getting more stupid in allowing things like Big Brother Brazil to invade our lives and fill us with useless information. And though in the end I register without understanding why ‘Except Luiza who is in Canada’ was such a hit, at least I discovered who Luiza is, just an illustrious and unknown 17-year-old native of Paraiba state who now will become famous and certainly have a better life than I who have to work hard to survive.

De Brito's comments, however bitter, revealed another fascinating element of Luiza's story. Brazil remains a deeply capitalist country -- and the business press were quick to pick up on the commercial implications.

In a story on Jan. 30 entitled "Luiza from Canada is Just the Beginning," Epoca magazine’s business section interviewed social-network specialist Gil Giardeli on the ramifications of the Internet hit.

"Is there a formula others can follow to take the same advantage of networks?" interviewer Daniela Almeida asked. Gil replied:

These are such exceptional times, that the marketing plan made yesterday is already old ... Companies are going to have to understand that, for the first time, the true market director is the people, the social-network user. The whole point is to know how to respond in a timely fashion.

The Brazilian department store chain Magazine Luiza was clearly taking that advice. They announced Jan. 26 that Luiza would be endorsing the brand as part of a new strategy where social-network users create their own "mini virtual shop" selling the brand's products -- and even gain commission.

But business implications aside, Luiza's instant celebrity struck many as a peculiarly Brazilian phenomenon in other ways. Responding to Nascimento's dour newscast, writers at the Blog da Lista, based in Goias state, wrote on Jan. 20:

Look, Mr. Carlos Nascimento … To spend time and have fun with frivolous things has nothing to do with the fact that the country doesn’t have problems. Much to the contrary. It’s because we have problems (be they personal or collective) that we need subterfuges, relaxation, be it on the Internet or at a bar's table.

(Dom Phillips is the Sao Paulo correspondent for World View. The opinions expressed are his own.)


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