RIO DE JANEIRO –
Betto Almeida is the Mr. Lucky of Rio's Carnival.
The 36-year-old artist awakes at 8 a.m. Has a little breakfast. Survives a commute through the city's tough traffic. Arrives at the office by 11.
Then he spends hours painting the bodies of gorgeous women — and earning as much as $2,000 a day.
"You wouldn't believe how many applications I get for an assistant," Almeida deadpanned, never taking his eyes from his work as he brushed bright orange paint on the stomach of a model in his glass-enclosed studio under the grandstands at the Sambadrome, where Rio's Carnival parades ended Tuesday at dawn.
"But it's hard work, man. I take my job seriously."
Slight, soft-spoken and unassuming, Almeida devotes his art to a sideshow of the samba parades: models who earn about $250 a night to mingle, clad only in paint, with high-rollers in the luxury boxes.
Wearing plaid pants, a green shirt with a red phoenix on it and a denim-and-camouflage hat, Almeida goes about his work with a nonchalant air as the party-crazed hordes outside press their noses to the glass and snap photos.
His day job is art director on television soap operas, but for the past 12 years he has been brushing, dripping and spraying paint on some of the most beautiful bodies Brazil's Carnival has to display.
Michele Peres, a 28-year-old model wearing tiny black shorts, snakeskin stilettos and a watch, said the quality of Almeida's work was vital to her professional success.
"I've been doing this for nine years, for Carnival and other events," she said as Almeida painted a jaguar on her breasts. "He is the best body painter I've come across and his work draws more attention to me. It is good for him, it is good for me."
A gentleman tapped on the studio window and, as gingerly as a drunk Carnival reveler could, requested that Peres turn toward the growing crowd. With a barely perceptible sigh, she complied, not hesitating to light up a smile once the cameras started popping.
Luana Minini, a 22-year-old actress, was making her first appearance as a Carnival body paint model and she took a slightly more timid stance: She had Almeida paint critical areas of her body in a back room before agreeing to have a red parrot with green wings covering her chest completed under the public's gaze.
"I've always worked in theater and dance. This is a bit more free- spirited. But I've learned to control my nervousness. The paint acts as a cover, it makes me feel protected," she said, motioning toward the jungle foliage in which the parrot on her breast resided.
Both women said some men — mostly foreigners — get a little frisky in the box seats, where the models mingle for 15 minutes before taking a champagne break for 15 minutes in a glassed-front room next to Almeida's work space.
"It gets a little rowdy. Not too many men grab us or anything, but there is always one or two who get a little confused," Minini said. "Brazilians understand the ambiance of Carnival and they come here prepared to see this."
As the models answered questions, Almeida kept working. On his knees behind Peres, he dipped his brush into one of a dozen plastic water bottles cut in half to hold his paint, carefully painting jaguar spots on the back of the model's thighs.
Sweat on his brow, he said the hard work is worth it. A modeling agency that employs the women pays him $1,000 for the roughly two hours it takes to paint each model. During the samba parades, he paints two women a night. And in a typical year will paint a minimum of 50 women for various events.
"I started doing it for theater and one of the samba parade officials asked if I would do it for Carnival models. How could I say no?" he asked, diving into a cheeseburger after finishing up with Peres. "A lot of guys are jealous of my job."