Maria Jo�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 Candombl� 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 Candombl� 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 Candombl� 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�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�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.