He should have looked like a man who’d won the jackpot. But under his glittery top hat, Jesus Pinto da Luz just looked bemused. The 23-year-old Rio de Janeiro native was standing next to his girlfriend Madonna—at 51, more than twice his age—in the most exclusive VIP box at February’s Rio Carnival, cradling her adopted Malawian daughter Mercy James in his arms. Beside him was the state governor, the city’s mayor, and President Lula’s candidate to succeed him, Dilma Rousseff. Beneath him, photographers and adoring fans.
Perhaps the bounce from nobody to celebrity had suddenly hit home.
Just a little over a year earlier, Jesus was a struggling model living with his grandmother in the nondescript Rio neighborhood of Glória. He went out when he could afford to and ran on the beach. He didn’t even own a car. Then one day, the most famous female pop singer who ever lived took a shine to him, and suddenly his face (and his body) were in nearly every tabloid in the world. That’s the game of celebrity pinball—one whack of the flipper, and you're pinged into the realm of the superstars.
“It’s difficult to meet a young girl who has a mature head. So I dated older women. With more maturity.”
“Many times I asked God why he has given me so much,” Jesus tells The Daily Beast. “Maybe because of something I’m going to do, something I did in a past life, I don’t know. I think you discover this living.” The compact, muscled young man who walks into a Rio disco one hot afternoon is studiously polite, and arrives without security, paparazzi or attitude. We talk in Portuguese. “It would be really easy, with all this attention, to think I was better than someone else,” he says in a heavy Rio accent. “So it’s really good that my friends say, ‘Dude, you are still a cool guy, humble.’ I’m still the same person.”
Which may be, but virtually everything else changed for Jesus in December 2008 at a photo shoot for W magazine at Rio’s plush Hotel Glória. The star of the shoot was Madonna; the photographer, Steven Klein. Look at the photos today, and the chemistry between Jesus and the Material Girl is palpable. In one shot, Jesus' tattoo of his own name dominates the shot as if forecasting his own imminent fame.
Since then, riding rumors of split-ups, adoption, and a Kabbalah ceremony, he’s been Madonna’s boyfriend. “It was a dividing of the waters, with a renowned magazine, a top photographer, and an artist like Madonna,” he says. “It was very influential on my life.”
He wasn’t wide-eyed that day. “I didn’t think, ‘Oh, my life is changing.’ I just did what I had to do. I was more thinking, ‘What can I do to get the next job? What could I evolve?’ I was even more thirsty for new things. I just saw it as a door.”
It is as if he won a reality-TV show. But unlike most reality-show winners, Jesus actually wants to do something with his fame rather than just be famous: He wants to be a star DJ. “I always wanted to play,” he says. He’s already DJing at some of Brazil’s biggest clubs, generating hysteria, resentment, and controversy in equal measures. Now he generates news in Brazil on his own. But he doesn’t mind the paparazzi following him. “I can choose not to go to places that have photographers,” he says.
Before Madonna, his modeling career had consisted of some editorial shoots and one catwalk show. “It was going, more or less,” he says. But since he became Madonna's boyfriend, Jesus' game has been stepped up dramatically. He's done campaigns for Dolce & Gabbana, a cover of Brazilian RG Vogue, and a catwalk show with Gisele Bündchen for beachwear brand Colcci. He wants to do, he says, “a little bit of everything.”
The star of this modern celebrity fable was born January 15, 1987, in a lower-middle-class family in central Rio de Janeiro. His mother, Cristiane, a colorist at a hair salon, was just 15. His father, Luis Heitor, works in admin at a public hospital. He has two younger brothers. “My family is a simple family, on my mother’s side,” he says. “They’re working people. They’re very religious.”
His parents divorced when he was 5 but stayed close friends. At 18, Jesus spent six months learning English in New York. “I went dizzy when I arrived and saw that much energy." Back in Rio, he studied hospitality, promoted events, worked with an uncle in his transport business, and took a six-month acting course at Casa das Artes de Laranjeiras, a drama school. “I did a lot of random things.” His one role was a non-speaking part in an "erotic drama" serial called As Pegadoras ( The Pick-Up Girls).
With his piercing blue eyes and aww-shucks confidence, he was always popular with girls. “When I was younger, I liked to go out with one after the other, but when I got older I needed just one cool girl,” he says. “I always liked a relationship.” He dated one girl of 20, another who was 30-plus. “It’s difficult to meet a young girl who has a mature head. So I dated older women. With more maturity.”
As a Rio native, he saw the other side of life in this socially divided, dangerous city, hearing gunshots when he used to visit a school friend in one of the city's dirt-poor, dangerous "favelas," or shanty towns. “It’s really difficult to handle this reality, because there are opposite worlds, dividing the same space,” he says. This seems to have affected Madonna, who pushed her NGO, Success for Kids, on two recent Brazil visits.
As a teenage raver, Jesus preferred outdoor parties to clubs. He took ecstasy. “I have experimented with drugs, I’m not going to deny it. But it wasn’t something that dazzled me,” he says. Living in New York with Madonna, he took a three-month DJing course, then hung out with her tour DJ Paul Oakenfold, one of electronic music's biggest names, on the European leg of her 2009 tour. Oakenfold, for his part, thinks Jesus can make it as a DJ. “He’s got the right attitude, the right personality, he’s got a good taste in music,” Oakenfold says.
Not everyone agrees. After Jesus played in October at the giant Ceará Music Festival in Northeast Brazil, German DJ Roman Boër, a.k.a. Tocadisco, accused “Madonna’s fuck-toy” of miming his set. “Am I the only one who thinks this is horrible?” Tocadisco posted on Twitter. Brazil’s close-knit DJ world smells a phony as well. Jesus says this is because he uses a computer program popular with top DJs called Ableton to prepare his sets, then switches to CDs when he needs to. “A lot of DJs do this,” he says, and demonstrates a competent DJ mix on the club’s sound system. “I try to handle any criticism, and with negative and positive things, anything that comes to me, I don’t take personally.” It's not always easy—three weeks ago, Jesus reportedly broke down in tears when he was DJing and a clubgoer threw a beer in his face and yelled, "Get out of here, I don't want to see your face here anymore."
He always plays a Madonna track when he DJs. Although she gave him a walk-on part—and a passionate kiss—as a DJ in the video for her hit "Celebration," Madonna has yet to turn up at one of his shows. The Friday night before Carnival, Jesus played the Vivo Rio party with French star Bob Sinclar. His equipment broke down and the dance-floor cleared. Madonna was in her Rio hotel.
The game of celebrity pinball is a random one—the odds are always with the machine, not the player. And Jesus wants his celebrity fable to have a happy ending. “People see me as someone who knows how to take advantage of the opportunities of life,” he observes. “There’s a lot of judgment.”
To this end, he has already released his first track, "We Came From Light," and signed a record contract with Warner Bros. Recent shows in Portugal and France were a success. Brazil has produced world-famous soccer stars and supermodels, but never a superstar DJ. Could Jesus be the first?
“I’m here to try, that’s it,” he says. “If it doesn’t happen for any reason, it’s because it had to be so. I believe this a lot. It’s important to maintain my self-confidence.”
Correction: This article originally misstated the current age of Luz’s mom.
British journalist Dom Phillips moved to Sao Paulo in 2007 to write his book Superstar DJs Here We Go (Random House/Ebury 2009) and works as a correspondent covering news, economics, and celebrity. He writes for The Times, People, Financial Times, Observer, and Grazia.