Martha Rocha, whose second-place finish representing Brazil in the 1954 Miss Universe pageant made her a hero in her home country, in part because of a widely held belief there that she had unfairly lost the crown by a matter of inches — bodily inches — died on July 4 in Niterói, Brazil, across the bay from Rio de Janeiro. She was 87.
Her son Álvaro Piano confirmed her death, in a nursing home, saying the cause was a heart attack following a long bout with emphysema.
Popular opinion in Brazil has long maintained that Ms. Rocha was runner-up because her figure — she was two inches wider around the hips and thighs than the winner, Miss USA — did not conform to a U.S. standard of beauty that prized a less curvy look. The pageant was held in Long Beach, Calif.
Those two inches — whether they were the real reason she lost (Ms. Rocha herself did not believe it) or just an urban legend — became a rallying cry and source of pride in Brazil, where beauty standards for women favored a so-called guitar shape, and where the North American fixation on thinness was frowned upon.
Though Ms. Rocha came in second, her country nevertheless treated her showing as a moral victory. As she arrived home from the United States, tens of thousands thronged the streets of her home city, Salvador, to catch a glimpse of her riding from the airport in a convertible, accompanied by the kind of motorcycle escort reserved for top dignitaries.
“I am immensely happy with the title,” Ms. Rocha told the newspaper Estado de São Paulo at the time. “It wasn’t me who won it but the beauty of the Brazilian woman, which I tried to represent.”
(Today, the Miss Universe organization says on its website that it is a “global, inclusive organization that celebrates women of all cultures and backgrounds.”)
Ms. Rocha was widely considered to be the first Miss Brazil, but that distinction technically belonged to Yolanda Pereira, who won the title in 1930. The national competition was discontinued after only a few years because of a lack of public interest, but it was revived in 1954.
After Ms. Rocha’s death, the author and cultural commentator Arthur Xexéo told GloboNews in Brazil that the continued publicity about her appearance in the Miss Universe pageant had even helped the country get over the suicide of President Getúlio Vargas a month later. (He shot himself in the chest when it seemed inevitable that Brazil’s army was going to remove him from office in the wake of a scandal. His death touched off riots.)
For beleaguered Brazilians, Mr. Xexéo said, suddenly “there was a beautiful woman representing Brazil before the whole world, and that was really something.”
Maria Martha Hacker Rocha was born in Salvador da Bahia, a coastal city about 800 miles northeast of Rio, on Sept. 19, 1932, to Álvaro Pereira Rocha, an engineer and mathematics professor, and Hansa (Hacker) Rocha, a homemaker of German descent who raised the couple’s 11 children.
Martha Rocha was in college when a friend persuaded her to enter a local beauty pageant, and it put her on her trajectory to stardom. She was 21 when she won the title of Miss Brazil, though she had said that she was 18.
After competing in the Miss Universe pageant (which was won by the reigning Miss USA, Miriam Stevenson, a South Carolina college student), Ms. Rocha was flooded with offers for acting roles and advertising work, but her interest was in starting a family, her son said.
In 1956, Ms. Rocha married Álvaro Piano, a banker, in the resort city of Mar del Plata, Argentina. The couple remained in Argentina, living in Buenos Aires, where her husband’s family had settled after fleeing Portugal during World War II. There she gave birth to her sons, Álvaro and Carlos Alberto, before her husband died in a plane crash in 1959.
She returned to Brazil in 1960 and the next year married Ronaldo Xavier de Lima, a businessman. They had a daughter, Claudia, before separating in 1974.
Ms. Rocha was left destitute when, in 1995, she lost all her savings in the collapse of a currency exchange house run by a brother-in-law from her first marriage. She took up painting and for a time sold her canvases and worked to promote the Miss Brazil contest. But her income wasn’t enough to live on, and she eventually had to move in with her younger son.
As her health failed she spent her last years bedridden before entering the nursing home in 2018.
She is survived by her three children, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Mr. Piano said his mother’s runner-up status in the Miss Universe pageant had probably served her better than a first-place finish would have, because it had made her the subject of a discussion that continues in Brazil to this day.
As for Ms. Rocha, she never really believed the story about the extra inches, though she acknowledged that it had burnished her legend.
“It wasn’t by two inches, no,” she once said in a TV interview, “but let’s leave it as if it was.”