RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- "Fantastic plastic beauty!" shouted samba dancers in a parade celebrating plastic surgery during Rio's Carnival this year.
The homage continues: Even as Brazil sinks into a recession, with unemployment historically high, the nation's vain and affluent are rushing to cosmetic surgeons in greater numbers than ever, trend-watchers here report.
"What I'm hearing from doctors is that it has increased," said Norberto Busto, editor of Plastic & Beauty, a fat, glossy 2-year-old bimonthly, circulation 80,000, that claims it is the world's only magazine dedicated to surgical aesthetics.
Liposuction before shoes
"Women here will put off buying shoes before they'll forgo liposuction," Busto said.
Brazilian cosmetic surgeons are performing about 300,000 surgeries a year, Busto reports, up about 30 percent in just the last two years.
Plastic surgeons in Rio, a world center for breast work, nose jobs and "liposculpture" -- the art of moving fat from one body spot to another -- say demand dropped briefly just after Brazil devalued its currency in January, but is now topping prior records.
Busto listed three reasons for the boom, which can be summarized as Ivo Pitanguy, economies of scale and tropical garden-variety vanity.
Pitanguy, 72, is a plastic surgery pioneer who has reconstructed many famous faces, including that of film star Gina Lollabrigida.
At a plastic surgery parade, put together by the Caprichosos de Pilares samba school, Pitanguy danced atop a float in a white suit in February before crowds who cheered him as "the master."
Pitanguy has long been one of Brazil's richest men, owner of an entire island south of Rio, and has contributed to making the profession so attractive that the city is studded with plastic surgery clinics.
Rio's chapter of Brazil's Association of Plastic Surgeons counts 640 practicing surgeons in this city alone, even though health plans do not subsidize cosmetic treatments.
The surfeit of qualified practitioners has kept prices so low that demand is burgeoning among aesthetically but not economically challenged patients all over the world.
And with the recent devaluations, the surgeries are nearly 40 percent cheaper in dollars. Liposuction now costs as little as $900, while the cheapest breast jobs can be had for about $2,300.
Finally, Brazilian demand for plastic surgery remains high -- especially in hot, seaside Rio -- because of the force of what's known here as the "body cult."
`The bikini test'
"In the United States, you can get away with a pretty face and a fur coat, but here you have to pass the bikini test," said Dr. Paulo Muller, one of the city's best-known surgeons.
Breast remodeling is the cosmetic surgery of choice, accounting for 30 percent of the procedures, according to Busto, followed by liposuction and face work, including nose jobs and wrinkle removal.
In contrast to women in the United States, many Brazilian women brag about their plastic surgery instead of trying to convince friends that they have improved themselves through diet or exercise.
The status of the symbol has increased in recent months, with popular magazines full of testimonials and photos of leading actresses who have gone under the knife.
"I got liposuction last year, and I loved it, loved it, loved it," said Lilian Moreira Souto, 37, a mother of three who said she gave up her job in a jewelry store because the economic downturn meant she wasn't earning enough in commissions.
While looking for a new job, she makes time to work out for two hours a day, five times a week.
"The liposuction hurt a lot, and I had to stay home for 25 days, but it was worth it," said Moreira Souto, who now proudly wears tight shirts and bikinis. "Now I'm thinking of getting my breasts done, though I'm a little afraid of the silicone."
The plastics craze isn't for everyone, however.
When Moreira Souto left the room for a cup of coffee (with artificial sweetener), her husband, a stocky, balding businessman, spoke up.
"I liked her better before," he confided. "She had a body you could really hold on to."
Pub Date: 4/25/99