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Brazil strode confidently on to the world stage this week, silencing the doubters with a FIFA World Cup opening that came off without a hitch. Soccer will be the focus for the next month, but the tournament brings an opportunity for the rest of the world to get a sense of Brazil beyond the football pitch. (And the beaches, flip-flops and dancing ladies in sequined bikinis.)

Brazil today is the world’s sixth largest economy and flexing the muscles of its international influence – but comparatively few of the conversations that happen within its borders are shared outside. There are lots of reasons for that including Brazil’s historical isolation, which lingers after the dictatorship, and the barrier of the national language, Portuguese, which is shared with so few other nations.

With this in mind, The Globe’s Stephanie Nolen in Rio de Janeiro introduces you to some of the most important Brazilians to know today – the ones Brazilians themselves are talking about: A super-chef turned activist. A savvy businesswoman capitalizing on the aspirations of people vaulting out of poverty. An evangelical preacher with critical political influence. And a dance music diva from the Amazon, who is leading the charge as power and tastes shift in Brazil.

Luiza Helena Trajano, businesswoman

Luiza Helena Trajano is head of Brazil's fastest-growing retail chain (Handout)

Luiza Helena Trajano cultivates an image they call tiazinha in Brazil – that is, your favourite auntie, all cardigans and pearls, quick hugs and kind words.

She is also the most ferocious businesswoman in the country, the head of one of Brazil’s fastest-growing retails chains, with nearly $5-billion in revenue last year. Magazine Luiza sells white goods, furnishings and decor items; it doesn’t, on a first visit, feel much different than any of the other big chains selling kettles and TVs. But Ms. Trajano has a canny understanding of Brazil’s new consumers, and she has built a personal relationship with them that has allowed her to expand into every corner of the country.

Ms. Trajano’s retail career began at age 12, when she started working behind the counter at her aunt’s and uncle’s appliance shop (it’s named for the aunt who started it as a family business in a small town in Sao Paulo state). By age 18, she worked there full-time, progressing through the departments, until one day, when she was 39, her Aunt Luiza sent a letter suggesting it was time she became the big boss. Ms. Trajano accepted with alacrity, but she had ambitions for far more than a local shop: she launched the company on a string of takeovers, financed with its own cash, that grew it to 24,000 employees and 737 stores. They earned $56-million on $4.8-billion in revenue in 2013, a growth of 14.6 per cent over the previous year.

Millions of Brazilians have seen their standard of living rise rapidly in the past 15 years, thanks to a combination of economic growth and social policy. They are hungry for white goods and other symbols of new prosperity, and Ms. Trajano has put a priority on making their transition into consumers a positive experience. Her staff is trained to be approachable and patient with questions and cautious shoppers. One of her most successful innovations is a “virtual store,” a computer terminal where a shopper can peruse a wider range of merchandise than is available in the store. It’s a bit like online shopping but it appeals to small-town, lower-income buyers who are not comfortable making a big purchase on the Internet and want to talk over options with a salesperson while they surf.

Ms. Trajano is an unabashed patriot (employees in every store begin Mondays by singing the national anthem) and has been a vocal supporter of the ruling Worker’s Party and President Dilma Rousseff, and she is believed to have considerable political influence. Ms. Trajano shuns media, but a few years ago a Brazilian business magazine asked her what she thinks about the growth of the lower-middle class. “As a citizen I see it in a very positive way because the difference between social classes is bad for everyone,” she said. “As a retailer I see it as something very important because these are people who have access to assets that up until now they didn’t.” Less than half of Brazilians own a washing machine, for example, she noted.

Ms. Trajano has a reputation as a relentless competitor who snaps up small chains with the sole goal of keeping other firms out of a regional market. “Eat so you won’t be eaten,” is said to be her motto. When she moved into the city of Sao Paulo a few years ago, she did it not by opening a single flagship store, but by opening 50 – all on the same day. Magazine Luiza regularly wins awards as one of the top companies in Brazil to work for; employees are part of a profit-sharing plan. Her customers feel special too: she spends hours each day answering e-mail. There are many stories about startled customers taking a defective toaster back to the store and having Ms. Trajano herself take it off their hands, full of apologies.

“It isn’t just a business, it’s her – she’s very aggressive in a positive sense, very concerned with the relationship and with giving power to people and employees,” said Egard Barki, a professor of marketing and the author of Retail for the Low-Income Population, who has studied Magazine Luiza and its CEO closely. “It’s genuine. Although she’s very rich, she’s a very simple person, very open and transparent. The success of the stores comes both from good strategic choices and from their organizational culture.” People like to work there, he said, and they really like to shop there. “And that comes from her.”

Alex Atala, celebrity chef

Alex Atala’s D.O.M. restaurant is regularly in the top 10 of the world’s key lists of best eateries (Lalo de Almeida)

Chefs, Alex Atala likes to point out, are hot these days – and no chef in Brazil is hotter than this one. He is lean and tall and much tattooed; his crew cut has gone grey but his beard is still red; his eyes twinkle and his black biker boots gleam. Mr. Atala’s D.O.M. restaurant in Sao Paulo is ensconced near the top of the world’s key lists of best eateries (it is number seven, according to Restaurant magazine). He has pioneered the use of obscure or unusual Brazilian fruits and roots and bugs in high art cuisine, and attained celebrity status in the process.

His life story gets as much discussion as his cooking: how the grandson of Palestinian immigrants became an amateur boxer and punk rock DJ with a hard drug habit, then cleaned up and took off for Europe where he made a living painting houses; how he enrolled in a culinary training program so he wouldn’t get deported, then cooked in Belgium and Spain; how he came home and, after some time in restaurants with unpromising names such as Sushi Pasta, began the experiment that would make him famous.

At D.O.M. you can eat jambu, an Amazonian leaf that numbs the tongue and fattens flavours. And there is pupunha, a palm heart he turns into fettucine, and large ants with a lemony tang, served on a cube of pineapple. (Mr. Atala is an atheist but the name comes from Deo Optimo Maximo – “to God the good, the great,” a phrase Benedictine monks inscribed on their doors to indicate travellers would find food and shelter.)

D.O.M., in the heart of Sao Paulo’s most elite neighbourhood, is a peaceful space with Brazilian wood tables, cane-backed chairs and a giant dugout canoe upended as decor. An indigenous headdress of indigo macaw feathers, preserved under glass, hangs in the narrow glass-walled kitchen. The tasting menu runs to $250 per person with wine pairings. In 2009, Mr. Atala opened Dalva e Dito, half a block away: a restaurant focused on “your mama’s cooking, your auntie’s”, and affordable (by Sao Paulo standards, anyway.) Recently, he revived Riviera, a one-time hangout for the Sao Paulo intelligentsia.

Although he still puts in 15-hour shifts at the stove, today he is more activist than chef. The restaurants help fund the ATA institute, which he founded with some of Brazil’s leading environmentalists. They support small producers, bring traditional products such as dried peppers from the Amazon to market, advocate for research and a more sustainable meat industry. The name is the word for fire in one of Brazil’s main indigenous languages.

His goal is to reawaken Brazilians both to what the country has, and what is valuable. He makes refular trips to the giant forest in the north; half-amused, half-horrified, he sputters through a story about a recent trip to Amazonia where a small farmer ordered his wife to prepare a chicken dinner for the visiting chef. “There were chickens running all around and this was great, I love chicken.” But minutes later, he caught sight of the woman defrosting a factory-farm chicken. “Because they wanted to give ‘the best’ to me!” He throws up his hands.

Mr. Atala loves to tell the tale of a broke, and broken, rice farmer who knocked tentatively at the door of D.O.M. a few years ago. His community, in a valley two hours from the city, was being consumed by agribusiness and his small farm was crippled by debts. The farmer gave the chef a sample of a black rice he had grown – hoping to diversify, but unable to find a market. The chef loved it, began to buy it and to promote it. Today it is sold all over Brazil (even at Wal-Mart), and the valley where the locals were once on the brink of extinction has become an epicenter for heritage rice production.

“Step by step my voice became strong and stronger in Brazil,” he says. “Nowadays not only young chefs are listening, companies have started to listen, maybe even government starts to listen.” He insists has seen in a change in the 15 years since he opened D.O.M.

“Chefs are pop!” he says, in erratic but impassioned English. “There are chefs in the world who just want to be pop, and done. There are chefs who want to build empires. I am pop, I can accept this – but I am doing something, really changing the Brazilian landscape of food and trying to improve people’s lives, and this nobody can doubt.”

Gaby Amarantos, singer

Gaby Amarantos is a national superstar and the voice behind an anthem for the FIFA World Cup (Handout)

Gaby Amarantos is a woman from the periferia, as they call it in Brazil. Once that term applied only to the grey cement sprawl that extends to the horizon around Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, warehousing millions of people in neighbourhoods full of violence and crime, devoid of jobs or social services. In recent years, as Brazil’s big cities have boomed, the periferia concept has come to include the edges of the country – the chronically drought-stricken and impoverished northeast and the grubby frontier towns of the Amazon basin, such as Ms. Amarantos’ home town, Belem do Para.

A year ago, she was known as a glitter-encrusted performer at street parties, singing tecnobrega, a music style scorned in Brazil’s big cities. Today, Ms. Amarantos is a national superstar, the voice (and the beaming, diamante-eyelashed face) behind an anthem for the FIFA World Cup, and a symbol, she says, of a critical change in Brazil, long one of the world’s most unequal countries.

“My Brazil is a country that is getting better,” she says. “I see the country growing. It’s not the perfect Brazil, but it’s undeniable that the country has improved. Of course, it’s a country being made by the people. Before, the country wasn’t administered for the people. So people in the elite are pissed off. There is an undeniable shift of power.”

Millions of once-marginalized Brazilians have seen a dramatic improvement in their standard of living in recent years. The economy surged while a left-wing government dramatically hiked the minimum wage and used cash transfers to guarantee income security. These people, with their hunger for televisions and washing machines, have become the key driver of the economy. They are now a feverishly-courted political constituency, and they have shed some of their deference to Brazil’s traditional elite in the process.

“The periferia imposed this change, they didn’t ask for permission,” Ms. Amarantos said in a recent interview in her office in a Sao Paulo record label, seeking to explain her people and their moment. “They kicked the door: ‘Now it’s our turn.’ The elite was obligated to accept.”

And suddenly the tastes of the periferia are chic, she said – including tecnobrega, performed by a curvy black woman in outfits that are Katie Perry-meets-Liberace. “People who would have thought I was tacky 15 years ago think I am a fashion icon today. People who thought my music was laughable today think it is the most incredible thing in the country. People who thought I was the ugliest woman on earth think I am a beauty icon. And a role model. Today I’ve become the coolest thing in the world.”

She says this not arrogantly, but with a sort of delighted wonderment. Ms. Amarantos is 34, the single mother of a five-year-old, and grew up in a hardscrabble neighbourhood of Belem where she sang in church before she discovered tecnobrega. The name translates, literally, as “tacky techno.” The original brega was a twangy country music with lyrics about heartbreak and suffering; the new version was reinvented for a crowd that likes to see the biggest possible sound system set up for dance parties – twang with a synthesizer slapped on top.

“Without being pretentious, tecnobrega doesn’t sound like anything from outside Brazil,” she said, calling it “vibrant and authentic and danceable” and, perhaps most significantly, “born in the periferia.”

“It’s a movement. It’s not only music – it brings with it a lifestyle, a behaviour.”

Her race also makes Ms. Amarantos a new style of superstar: although more than half of Brazilians identify as black or mixed race, success here (in business, politics, arts – anything other than sports) correlates with whiteness. But she believes this, too, is changing.

“People are becoming less hypocritical, they are no longer saying that there is no racism in Brazil. The majority of Brazilians are stating that they are black, for the first time … and this majority of Brazilians want to see this percentage reflected on other things.”

Ms. Amarantos and other tecnobrega artists use an unusual business model, where they give master recordings of their songs to piraters to copy and sell for a couple of bucks. They earn their living selling tickets to shows. When a big record company came calling, she insisted that she still be allowed to give out CDs. “It’s about people having access to my work: People are not going to not hear my songs because they don’t have [five bucks] to buy a CD.” The compromise position is that she gives out CDs with four or five songs in a thin paper cover, while the company markets a slicker package including videos.

Ms. Amarantos’ rapid ascendance caught the eye of Coca-Cola, who tapped her to sing the outrageously ear-wormy song Copa de Tudo Mundo, the company’s theme song for the World Cup. (This was the slot for which K’Naan recorded Waving Flag for the last Cup and made his name outside the hip hop world.) She relishes the idea that she is now known beyond Belem and even beyond Brazil’s borders. It’s high time people knew her Brazil, she says.

“Brazilian people are very faithful. Not only for religious purposes, because we also have an immense religious diversity, but… I think Brazilians believe a lot. Even that the World Cup will work out. If things are still going well for the country, it’s because Brazilian people are very positive. Brazilian people are very joyful – not just because of parties and carnival. We work a lot, we work our asses off. But we like a party in the end.”

Silas Malafaia, pastor

Evangelical pastor Silas Malafaia's weekly television show is broadcast in 200 countries (Lucas Landau)

Silas Malafaia makes no apologies for his Rolex, his private jet, his Mercedes Benz or his condo in Boca Raton. He is just a humble preacher, but Jesus rewards the faithful, as he tells his flock each day. That flock is not small: His Assembly of God-Victory in Christ Church has 40,000. He is the president of an association of 10,000 evangelical Christian pastors. His weekly television show is broadcast in 200 countries, dubbed into a variety of languages. His books, with titles such as Lessons of A Winner, sell so swiftly that his publishing company was worth $25-million in 2012.

Mr. Malafaia makes much of the fact that his supporters come from every level of society (it was a wealthy one who gave him the Benz, for example), but it’s one group in particular who have made Mr. Malafaia one of the most influential people in Brazil. His church (and his products) are most popular with Brazilians from the lower middle class, people whose lives have improved dramatically in the last decade of economic growth and pro-poor social policy. He is a proponent of “prosperity doctrine,” preaching messages such as “God works in rewarding ways.”

“It’s not karma that you’re poor,” Mr. Malafaia explained in a recent conversation at his sprawling publishing company headquarters in a small town outside Rio. “The church pushes people to achieve things.” Church members see a clear correlation between their support for his mission and improvements in their own lives, he added. “People want to own a house. They attribute success to how much they give the church … Your neighbours and colleagues see that your life is better and they ask, ‘why is that?’ And you tell them, ‘Jesus opened the door for me, I got a job.’”

More than a quarter of Brazilians identify as evangelical Christians; the Pentecostal churches are booming even as Catholic faith drops. Mr. Malafaia predicts evangelicals will be a majority in the country by 2020.

He comes from four generations of evangelical pastors, Greek immigrants to Brazil many years back, and Mr. Malafaia, 55, likes to tell the story of how he earned just minimum wage in the early years and how members of his congregation would be surprised to spot him on the bus, on his way to a TV studio to record a show.

As the evangelical churches swell in size, their political clout is growing. Evangelical voters helped force the last presidential election to an unexpected run-off by backing the evangelical candidate Marina Silva, focusing on the issue of abortion. Dilma Rousseff ultimately won the presidency. Although she was widely expected to loosen the extreme strictures on access to abortion here (she is known to be personally pro-choice) she hasn’t touched the issue since she took office. And her party allowed an extremely right-wing evangelical member of Congress, known for invective about gays and lesbians, to be named chairman of the parliament’s human rights commission.

While some pastors have tried to maintain at least an appearance of political neutrality, Mr. Malafaia takes a different view. “Anarchists can have an opinion, Marxists can, homosexuals can, but a pastor cannot?” He responds to that idea with a rude hand gesture (Mr. Malafaia sprinkles his speech – always delivered in an addressing-the-masses volume, even in a quiet conference room – with colourful street slang and profanity, part of his accessible demeanour.)

Ms. Rousseff is up for re-election in October and Mr. Malafaia says he plans to back her conservative opponent and topple her – because she hasn’t done enough to advance his social conservative agenda. “There are 800 laws in Congress that going against everything that is a Christian value – decriminalization of drugs, decriminalization of prostitution, teaching homosexuality to six-year-olds.

“Am I going to have a role in this election? You better believe it.”

Eduardo Paes, mayor

'My life is pretty tough these days. But, I would completely do it again,' says Eduardo Paes, mayor of Rio de Janeiro

Eduardo Paes likes to stand on the second-floor balcony of Rio de Janeiro’s Operations Centre and survey its giant bank of television screens: they flicker with traffic patterns, rainfall forecast, bus line-ups and a thousand other data points streaming in from across his city. Sometimes, he can’t quite resist throwing out his arms as he watches: lord of all he surveys.

Mr. Paes, 44, is mayor of this storied city of 6.3 million souls, and he is overseeing an overhaul that makes it feel as if no corner of Rio is not in the middle of being knocked down or torn up. There is a massive rehabilitation of the dilapidated port in the city centre, new housing developments, museums, retail developments, transit lines, sewage plants and highways. The mayor is up by 4 a.m. each day, according to bleary aides, as he rushes toward the goals of hosting the World Cup final and the 2016 Summer Olympics, and rescuing Rio from its reputation of lost-glamour-gone-to-violent-seed.

“My life is pretty tough these days,” he said in a recent interview, clean-shaven and well-pressed but with somewhat haunted eyes. “But,” he added, “I would completely do it again” – that is, preparing for two mammoth events at once.

Mr. Paes is a lawyer by training, born in privilege and raised in Rio’s most exclusive echelons. He entered politics young and bounced between parties across the political spectrum before getting elected in 2008 to the mayor’s post. The first time he had less than a one-per cent margin over his nearest rival, but when he was re-elected last year, it was with a landslide 65 per cent of votes. Even the people who don’t like the mayor – and many Cariocas, as the city’s residents are known, find him alarmingly arrogant – express grudging admiration for all he is managing to achieve in a city where change usually creeps in like rain forest lichen.

Mr. Paes projects an image of frank and affable capability. But he bristles visibly when his opinions are questioned, and he has a hair-trigger temper. Cariocas gossip over tales of the mayor hurling desktop accessories at staff who bring him news he doesn’t want to hear, and he famously punched the face of a constituent who insulted him in a restaurant last year. Mr. Paes has also pushed back hard against the International Olympic Committee, which has taken to publicly decrying Rio’s lack of preparation for the Games. “I’m not going to build a bunch of white elephants, and I don’t care what the presidents of all those [sports] federations have to say,” he said.

Mr. Paes is focused on public transport and green spaces, and ON trying to bridge the vast socioeconomic gulf that endures here – one in five of the city’s residents lives in favelas, hillside communities that lack basic services and are, in many cases, still controlled by heavily-armed drug gangs. “We don’t hide our problems” like some developed-world cities, he said – in Rio, it’s all on display. But critics who focus on crime or inequality are blind to the changes: “We have made huge progress. There are many parts of the city where rich people wouldn’t go at all five years ago, and now they go happily.”

The mayor is a fierce cheerleader for his city, eating at hole-in-the-wall cafes, and glad-handing the crowds at public housing projects in the morning and black-tie balls in the evening. But many Rio residents are bothered by the influx of private developments (the new port features a Trump tower, for example) and glitzy developments that they say has made the city so expensive they can’t stay here; already, many historic low-income neighbourhoods have been bulldozed. Mr. Paes shrugs them off.

There is frequent speculation that the mayor will be a contender for president in a few years. No question he has his eye on the big picture. “Until now, Brazil is not as good as people thought it was three years ago,” he said, jutting out his chin with trademark ferocity. “But it’s not as bad as people think it is now.”

Romario, soccer star turned politician

Once the world’s top goal scorer, Romario de Souza Faria is a Socialist Party congressman (Ueslei Marcelino /Reuters)

If you follow football you will remember Romario de Souza Faria: the bantam hero of Brazil’s 1994 Cup win, the man who ended a long drought in the quest for the sport’s top title. He was for a time in the 1990s the world’s top goal scorer, a player whose skills were dwarfed only by his ego. “There are many kings in the world, but only one God,” he told reporters after a game where he scored three times – a jab at Pelé, whose nickname is The King. “I am Romario. I am God.”

The exploits of Romario, as he is called by everyone including himself, made for great tales: a boy from a Rio de Janeiro favela, he earned millions of dollars and spent them flashily (arriving for football matches in a helicopter that landed on the pitch); he produced a string of children with various women; he was an unapologetic lone wolf in a team sport, blowing off practice (“you don’t need to practice when you’re the best”) and taking full credit for victories.

Then in 2010 Mr. Faria hung up his cleats and startled Brazilians by embarking on a second career – not as a coach or manager, but as a politician. He ran for Congress representing Rio on behalf of the Socialist Party, and set about trying to fit into the protocol-bound world of parliament. He said that his inspiration was his sixth child, Ivy, who has Downs Syndrome and whose life had opened his eyes to the failure of the Brazilian state to assist children with special needs. In his first year in Congress, he wrote and helped pass two progressive bills on rights and support for people with disabilities. In 2011 a watchdog group called him Brazil’s sixth most effective lawmaker, out of 513. He consistently logs some of the longest hours on the job. Brazilians have gradually become accustomed to seeing the diminutive Mr. Faria in navy wool suits, instead of the yellow jersey.

Last year he came out as a champion of protesters who filled the streets, angry about corruption and the high cost of living. Mr. Faria has made a particular target of government spending on the World Cup, complaining that “the country’s real president, FIFA” is demanding extravagance, money better used for schools and public housing, and will leave Brazil with sacks of profit but a legacy of only debt.

Mr. Faria has also taken on the leadership of football’s governing body in this country, the Brazilian Football Confederation – helping to force the ouster of the previous president for taking bribes, and pillorying the current one for his ties to the country’s former military dictatorship. He is a boastful egomaniac improbably reborn as a populist spokesman and advocate for integrity.

“In my football career, the happiest moment was in 1994, when I won the World Cup. So, after football, you can be sure that today was one of the happiest moments of my life,” he told that watchdog group, Congress in Focus, after his first bill of people with disabilities was passed. “Today I came to the conclusion that I could have gotten here earlier, because people really think of me as a celebrity, an idol, but the most important thing I’ve achieved in these five months was credibility, the confidence people have in me.”