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Brazilian Women and Their Hair: Local Secrets for Looking Like Gisele

In celebration of the World Cup, we take a look at the products and treatments used by a nation whose women are exceedingly preoccupied with their hair.

Thanks to the 2014 World Cup, all eyes will be on Brazil for the next month. However, you can be forgiven if you find your eyes occasionally wandering from the man-buns and faux-hawks on the soccer pitch to the luxurious waves of the footballers’ WAGs (wives and girlfriends) and female fans.

While Brazilian hair trends have definitely crossed over into North America and beyond over the last few years thanks to the popularity of Brazilian straightening procedures (which have also become controversial, due to the toxic chemicals some of those treatments contain), in Brazil the hair preoccupation goes way beyond straightening. A good chunk of women’s time -- and income -- is spent maintaining their hair. Like soccer, it’s something of a national obsession.

The patron saint of aspirational Brazilian hair is, not surprisingly, Gisele Bundchen (who happens to be presenting this year's World Cup trophy). “Brazilians are, in general, very much into long, bouncy, wavy hair," said Victoria Ceridono, the beauty editor at Vogue Brazil and the founder of the popular Dia de Beauté blog. "And ombré highlights even for darker hair is also still very big. Basically, Gisele's hair!” Brazilian telenovela actresses also inspire the nation’s women, according to Maria Clara Povia,  the beauty director at Marie Claire Brazil.  She specifically called out Giovanna Antonelli and Bruna Marquezine, an actress who also happens to be dating the popular Brazilian soccer player, Neymar. (He’s so well-known that he doesn’t need a last name, and the NYT offers an argument for why he may be the next David Beckham, fashion-wise at least.)  But locals aren't the only hair influencers: Povia said that American celebrities like Jennifer Lopez and Kim Kardashian inspire women in Brazil, and Emma Stone and Alexa Chung are popular with the fashion and It-girl set there. So Brazilians have a bit of a type when it comes to hair worship -- mostly long and very Victoria's Secret-esque.

Achieving this look isn’t easy, though, nor is it cheap. Povia said that women in Brazil spend a whopping 10 percent of their salaries on hair care alone. According to Euromonitor International, Brazilian women spent almost $9 billion on hair care in 2013, up from $6 billion in 2009. It’s the second-biggest market for haircare in the world, after the U.S. So what exactly are they spending it on? In addition to the popular straightening procedures, “the average Brazilian woman goes to the salon once a month to retouch their roots and twice a month to hydrate,” Povia explained. “They color and straighten so much, so they have to go to the salon for deep conditioning.”

Barbara Fialho, a Brazilian model who’s walked in the Victoria’s Secret fashion show, can’t do a lot of the traditional chemical treatments because of all the torture her hair is already put through for work. “If I did [straightening treatments] I would lose all my hair! They’re very strong,” she said. To combat styling damage, Fialho hits the upscale Laces and Hair Salon in Sao Paolo whenever she goes home, to partake of its signature velaterapia procedure.

In velaterapia, a hair stylist uses the open flame on a lit candle to burn off split ends and essentially “cauterize” hair, to keep moisture in. (I had to ask Fialho several times to repeat this to me: “Wait, what? They use an actual lit candle on your hair?” I asked. “Yes!” she insisted.)

Ceridono confirmed that this treatment, which takes between two and three hours, is legit. “They burn the hair to get rid of split ends,” she explained. Laces also does ‘embroidery’ therapy, where they meticulously cut only split ends throughout all the hair length. "It's unbelievable. You don't get shorter hair, but if you touch the treated side it feels so much smoother and healthier!” It’s reportedly popular with wealthy women and models -- Fialho said Alessandra Ambrosio and Isabeli Fontana also go there for treatments.

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Watch a demo of velaterapia and the split end trimming treatment here. And for heaven’s sake, do NOT try this at home:

The majority of Brazilian women turn to products, not candles, to take care of their self-inflicted damage. Oils, conditioners and leave-in treatments are in high demand. According to the Household and Personal Products Industry (HAPPI), they use three times the amount of “post-treatment” products used by women in the U.S.

American companies like P&G and Unilever have launched brands in Brazil in recent years with great success. Povia said that Moroccanoil, L’Oreal, Tresemme and Garnier are popular, as is Pantene, which -- probably not coincidentally -- just named Gisele as the face of the brand. Pavio calls the upscale brand Kerastase, which is particularly expensive in Brazil, “a gift for yourself, an investment.” HAPPI estimates that there are more than 3,000 brands of shampoos and conditioners on the market -- and Brazilian women don’t have much brand loyalty. They’re looking for whatever works.

Brazilian-made products, like Natura and O Boticario, are becoming more common, but natives seem to still trust foreign brands more. Pollyanna, a banker from Brazil who’s been living in the U.S. for the last two months, told me, “In Brazil there is this culture that foreign products are much better than national ones -- and the foreign ones are very expensive there.” She notes that when her friends visit the U.S. they stock up on our brands, which are cheaper than they are in Brazil. But Brazilian brands, particularly organic and natural ones, are starting to pick up steam.

Fialho only uses Laces’ all-organic products, and buys them in bulk when she travels to Brazil. Other brands like Natura manufacture natural products that take advantage of ingredients like acai and cocoa that can be sourced from the nearby rain forest. But, like  so-called "natural" skin care here in the U.S., it’s going to take a cultural shift there before natural products go thoroughly mainstream. There’s a perception that mainstream products work better and that “results come from technology in the products,” Povia said. “Average women want to ‘feel’ the chemistry in the products, you know?”

While long, bouncy -- not kinky -- curls are currently the ideal, there’s a small but burgeoning movement among some women to embrace their natural texture, according to Povia. And length may not always be as important. Short pixie cuts are definitely not trending in Brazil, but some popular women’s sites are giving the look some attention, and Ceridono predicts the long, layered bob will become more popular.

But the overall GOAL (soccer humor! Sorry.) when it comes to hair: Gisele. And, really, who can  blame them?