Who was the real ‘Girl from Ipanema’?
“The Girl from Ipanema” is one of the most covered songs of all time—second only to “Yesterday”—and an “elevator music” cliché the world over. The story behind the bossa nova standard is so well-known to most Brazilians that our readers there might find this a really obvious thing to write about, it’s not so well-known anywhere else, I don’t think.
Ipanema is trendy, beach district in south Rio de Janeiro. Near Ipanema Beach was Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim’s favorite hang-out, the Bar Veloso. Every day, the married musician would await the arrival of a “tall, and tan, and young and lovely” young girl who would pass by the bar on her way to the beach, never making eye contact with the bar’s patrons, even when she came in to buy cigarettes for her mother.
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Jobim invited his friend, a writer and poet named Vinicius de Moraes to come by the Veloso to see this girl. Eventually, after several days had passed, she walked by. Jobim said to his friend, ““Nao a coisa mais linda?” (Isn’t she the prettiest thing?) and de Moraes replied, “E a coisa cheia de gracia” (She’s full of grace). Moraes wrote their banter on a napkin and this exchange became the seed from which the original Portuguese lyrics of “A Garota de Ipanema” (“The Girl from Ipanema”) grew.
A few years later, “The Girl from Ipanema” as performed by Astrud Gilberto, João Gilberto and Stan Getz, from album Getz/Gilberto became one of the top-selling records of 1964. Only the Beatles outsold the song and it was nominated for, and won, several Grammy awards.
But who was this beautiful girl from Ipanema?
From Stan Shepkowski’s “The Girl from Ipanema”:
Heloísa Eneida de Menezes Paes Pinto was a born and raised Rio de Janeiro girl – a true carioca. The daughter of an army general from whom her mother divorced when Helô was 4, she grew up on the Rua Montenegro, some blocks up from the Bar Veloso. At age 17 she was shy and quite self-conscious: she had crooked teeth, she felt she was too skinny, she suffered from frequent asthma attacks, and she had an allergy that reddened her face. And on her way to and from school and on her treks to the beach, she had to walk by the Bar Veloso.
Although the song had been around since 1962, it wasn’t until 1964 that Helô learned the truth. Friends introduced her to Tom Jobim, who still hadn’t worked up the courage to talk with her. But with the ice finally broken, he set out to win her heart. On their second date, he stated his love for her and asked her to marry him. But she turned him down. Two things got in the way. Helô knew Tom was married and that he was “experienced,” whereas she was inexperienced and would not make him a good wife. The other was that she had been dating a handsome young lad named Fernando Pinheiro from a prosperous family in Leblon since she was 15. Undaunted by her refusal, Tom told her that she was the inspiration for the song. This confirmed the rumors she had heard from others and, of course, thrilled her beyond imagination, but she still turned him down.
The world would not learn the truth until 1965. Tired of all the gossip and particularly concerned that a contest was going to be held to select “the girl from Ipanema” Vinicius de Moraes held a press conference. In a detoxification clinic in Rio where he was undergoing treatment (you’ve got to love poets), and with Helô at his side, de Moraes told the world. And he offered her one more testament:
“She is a golden girl, a mixture of flowers and mermaids, full of light and full of grace, but whose character is also sad with the feeling that youth passes and that beauty isn’t ours to keep. She is the gift of life with its beautiful and melancholic constant ebb and flow.”
Although Helô became an overnight sensation, Brazil was a very conservative country at the time and she did not take advantage of the modeling contracts and movie roles she was offered, opting instead to become a mother and housewife, marrying Fernando Pinheiro the following year.
That might have been the last the world would have heard of Helô Pinheiro, but in the late 1970s Pinhero’s companies fell on hard times and Helô gave birth to a handicapped son. Although reluctant to do so her entire life, faced with the situation she was in, Helô decided to capitalize on her identity as “the girl from Ipanema” and became a successful model, gossip columnist and television host. She endorsed over 100 products.“You move mountains, when it comes to providing for your children” she said.
In 2003, at the age of 58 and still quite lovely, Helô Pinheiro appeared with her own daughter, supermodel, actress and reality TV star, Ticiane Pinheiro in the pages of Playboy magazine, making her their oldest model, ever. She now owns a successful line of swimwear and boutiques under the “Garota de Ipanema” name.
Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz performing “The Girl from Ipanema” on TV in 1964.