RIO DE JANIERO – The song has played all over the world, for a half-century, drifting from car radios and kitchen stereos and elevator speakers and Frank Sinatra’s lips. The sweet, simple, serene melody is one of the most popular tunes in the history of the world and it’s unmistakable even if you don’t know the words.
Tall and tan and young and lovely …
“The Girl from Ipanema” appeared on an album exactly 50 years ago, and a lot of us have hummed along without knowing exactly where Ipanema is or what the song is about.
Or that the girl herself is a real person, with a real name and a story.
Her name is Helo Pinheiro, and back then she was a 19-year-old brunette named Heloísa Eneida de Menezes Paes Pinto who walked through the seaside district here, running errands, sometimes in a two-piece bathing suit. A songwriter named Antonio Carlos Jobim spotted the beauty who would one day be described as “a golden teenage girl, a mixture of flower and mermaid, full of light and grace.”
She was not, however, full of awareness. Pinheiro had no idea she was even noticed until after the tune was famous and an entire nation was speculating about who the girl might be – or whether she existed at all.
“I didn’t believe it,” she tells Yahoo Sports, “because I was so thin and a normal girl.”
A friend of hers told Pinheiro he heard the songwriters talking about her when she walked by a snack bar in Ipanema. She had been oblivious to the stares, and then to her role in the legendary song. Pinheiro had become symbolic of a new era in Brazil: the nation had won two straight World Cups and had burst onto the world’s stage. The Girl was a flag bearer of sorts – an icon of promise and exotic mystery.
Oh, but he watches so sadly …
How can he tell her he loves her …
Yes, he would give his heart gladly …
But each day when she walks to the sea …
She looks straight ahead, not at me …
She finally did meet Vinicius de Moraes, who wrote those lyrics, in 1965. He announced to the world the identity of The Girl at a press conference. Her life changed forever.
“They gave me this song as a gift,” she says now. “I just have to say thanks, because my life is so much more bright.”
The Girl from Ipanema is now 68 years old. She has had a full life, marrying and raising four children (one boy, three girls). She was pressured not to choose stardom over family – remember, these were the 1960s – yet in later life she became more public with her persona.
“I became famous,” she says, “and I gave many interviews all over the world, but I didn’t sleep on the song. I work and I have a normal life with my family.”
It’s never been that normal, though. She appeared on the cover of Playboy twice – once in 1987 and again in 2003 with her daughter, Ticiane. She’s still wildly popular, so much so that when she was sued in 2001 for borrowing the song title for a boutique, there was a flood of support and she won the case. Judges ruled the song would not have existed without her. She hears the bossa nova standard “all the time,” and it still tickles her. “Everybody loves the melody,” she says, “and what they wrote about this beautiful girl.”
Asked what would have happened if the writers never noticed her, Pinheiro figures she would have become an artist. In a way, she did anyway.
Her boutique is now near where she was first noticed, on a street that is named after Moraes. She still goes to the snack bar where she was found, and she’s now flagged down unfailingly. She’s happy to take photos and doubtless she’ll take many during the World Cup. She still owns a house in Rio, where her parents raised her and sent her to run errands in full view of two young songwriters.
Moraes, reflecting back upon his subject, wrote, “she carries with her, on her route to the sea, the feeling of youth that fades, of the beauty that is not ours alone – it is a gift of life in its beautiful and melancholic constant ebb and flow.”
This beauty has not faded, though. Nor has her hometown. This city has grown incredibly since Pinheiro first walked to the sea in her bathing suit. It is now hosting the world, awash in attention and all the perks and problems of modernity. The Girl remains an eternal reminder of the promise of Brazil, and the idea that something beautiful is ready to appear, and remains just out of reach.