In Buenos Aires, She
Sifted Trash for Cash;
The Cartonera’s Hands
February 4, 2008

BUENOS AIRES — In 2005, when she had just turned 13, Daniela Cott went to work scavenging trash on the cobbled streets of a prosperous neighborhood. She endured insults from motorists, cuts from broken glass, and hordes of flies.

Today, she is one of Argentina’s most talked-about new fashion models.

Ms. Cott, now 15, recently defeated 1,000 other contestants to earn the right to represent Argentina this spring in the Elite Model Look final, a major competition for young models from around the globe. Elite Model Management is one of the world’s largest modeling agencies, and past pageant participants include Gisele Bündchen and Cindy Crawford.

Daniela Cott has emerged as an emissary for some of the poorest Argentines in circles where they’re seldom seen.

As New York’s Fashion Week moves into high gear this week, Ms. Cott’s story shows how the fashion industry is casting an ever wider net for hot talent. Ms. Cott’s unlikely journey from cartonera, or trash scavenger, to model began one night in mid-2005, when a young woman on her way home noticed her carrying garbage. The woman, a necklace designer named Marina González Winkler, gave the trash picker some clothes, and the two became friends. Ms. González later took photos of Ms. Cott and sent them to a modeling agent.

In Argentina, there’s already talk of a film and book about the miracle makeover. Ms. Cott, 5 feet 8 inches tall with green eyes and a creamy complexion, recently traveled to Spain for magazine and TV features.

But Ms. Cott’s background is a double-edged sword. Being a former cartonera makes her a great rags-to-riches tale. In a photo spread for a local newspaper in August, she was shot in a denim miniskirt in front of a line of grimy-looking scavengers. Yet being a cartonera carries a stigma in Argentina.

In a country that has long identified itself as much with Europe as Latin America, there is deep ambivalence towards the scavengers who take over the streets at night. Scavenging was for many years illegal under a decree issued by a military dictatorship in the 1970s. The law wasn’t overturned until 2002, after a crippling recession had forced thousands of Argentines to pick refuse to survive. The economy is in better shape now, but there are still an estimated 10,000 scavengers who sell their findings to recycling centers.

The Buenos Aires train company recently canceled a special train that carried trash-pickers downtown from their barrios. The company blamed vandalism on the route; scavengers claim discrimination. On Thursday, a judge ordered that the train be reinstated.

Scarred Hands

Ms. Cott made headlines before the Elite competition with the help of her agents, who pitched her Cinderella story to the local press. Television appearances followed. Denise Dumas, a model who hosts a TV fashion and health show, had Ms. Cott as a guest last year. “I saw her in the studio and she was divine, tall with wonderful skin,” she says.

Then Ms. Dumas got closer and saw Ms. Cott’s hands. “There were calluses, cuts, scars, dark blotches and dry patches,” says Ms. Dumas. “That’s when I really began to understand what Daniela had been through.”

Ms. Cott has since undergone extensive dermatological treatment on her hands to help heal the scars of scavenging. She says she wants to use her celebrity to press the government to supply all trash pickers with protective gloves. The young model says she’s not ashamed of having worked as a cartonera, “because that gave me a very strong character and taught me not to be afraid of anything.”

Salvador Jaef, Elite’s president in Argentina and one of the three judges of the November competition, says Ms. Cott’s background didn’t affect his vote one way or another. Her past doesn’t matter because “she’s got attitude and charisma,” says Mr. Jaef, who has since taken over as Ms. Cott’s manager.

[Daniela Cott]
Daniela Cott

Ms. Cott was the fourth of nine children born to a construction worker in a rough neighborhood on the edge of the capital. Her mother, Olga, says she preferred playing soccer on the unpaved streets with her six brothers to playing with dolls.

Earning $100 a Week

About three years ago, Mr. Cott couldn’t find construction work, so he, Mrs. Cott, Daniela, and two of her brothers took to the streets as trash recyclers. Ms. Cott would go to school in the morning, and join her parents and brothers collecting garbage around the well-heeled Palermo neighborhood from about 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. The family earned about $100 a week, selling the trash they had gathered to recycling centers.

One evening in the middle of 2005, Ms. González, the necklace designer, saw Ms. Cott on the street wearing a baseball cap and carrying a couple of trash bags. Noting that Ms. Cott was about her size, the designer offered her some clothes she wasn’t wearing anymore. Ms. Cott gratefully accepted.

The next evening Ms. Cott showed up at Ms. González’s door with a bloody hand she’d cut on a tin can. Ms. González helped bandage the wound, and their friendship was sealed. One day in early 2006, Ms. González shot photos of Ms. Cott on her terrace modeling sportswear she’d given her. ” ‘You weren’t born to be a cartonera,’ ” Ms. Cott recalls her friend saying.

Ms. González took the shots to a powerful modeling agent, Ricardo Piñeiro. The agency gave Ms. Cott a free modeling course, with lessons on applying makeup, walking in high heels and conversing with designers. Ms. Cott gradually stopped working as garbage recycler to focus on her new career.

In 2006, a friend of Ms. González’s who owned a youth-oriented clothing label gave Ms. Cott her first job as a photographic model. Last year, Ms. Cott’s representatives approached another designer, Vanesa López, who was preparing for a fashion show. Ms. López says she pondered how an association with a cartonera would affect the label that bears her name. “There’s a lot of discrimination in Argentina,” Ms. López says.

Ultimately, Ms. López says, “I decided to take a chance and try to turn Cinderella into a princess.” Ms. López said Ms. Cott was a natural on the catwalk and the show got great publicity for her clothing.

That experience gave Ms. Cott courage to enter the Elite competition, in which 1,000 applicants were whittled down to 18 finalists. Ms. Cott was one of the youngest contenders in the finals, which included swimsuit and evening-dress competitions. “I didn’t think I had a chance,” she says.

Ms. Cott still lives at home, and hasn’t earned enough from her modeling to transform her family’s economic circumstances. A couple of her brothers still scavenge. She says she hopes to someday earn enough to buy a new house for her family. In January, she got the biggest payday of her career — about $4,400 and a trip to Spain — for an interview with a TV network there.

Write to Matt Moffett at



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