Fernanda Rocha may have captivated national audiences when she became the first lesbian cast member of Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Orange County, but her success in the fitness field began long ago. Rocha, who owns The Art of Fitness in Laguna Beach, Calif., came to the U.S. from Brazil when she was only 23, a few dollars and a dream in her pocket. Today she says she’s living the American dream, becoming both a fitness guru and an LGBT rights advocate. In between promoting her apparel line, Jiinga Brasil, and her now famous workout DVD Brazilian Booty (which is, face it, responsible for half the nice badonkadonks in Hollywood), Rocha is joining up with activists like the NoH8 Campaign and It Gets Better. With a slew of new projects, including a new series of workout DVDs, an online fitness boot camp, and a daring new public project called Fernanda’s Food & Fitness Program. For that, Rocha will be working with schoolchildren in her community to experience hands-on activities about nutrition and fitness. She says she’s living loud and proud and one day her “life vision” will be complete when she can marry and start a family. We caught up with the original Brazilian babe to find out about her plans for world domination.
You have a lot of things coming up this year. Where to start?
For the New Year, we need to start talking about New Year’s resolutions right? So we can start by Fernanda’s 2012 Eight Week Body Transformation: its an online program and I have a team working with me, and for anybody that signs up we are going to provide guided training and nutrition, and a meal-plan and exercise plan, and a 24-hour support team throughout these eight weeks. It works together with my own supplement line, so they are going to receive the protein powder, the fat metabolizer, the detox plan—all of this is part of the Eight Week Body Transformation. That is one of the big projects that I am involved in right now.
You’ve already got a clothing line, too, right?
Yes, the King of Brazil is a clothing line that I have had since 2002. It’s fitness wear. I’m coming up with a new collection, a bikini line, very soon. That is very exciting news in my world. I want to blend a little bit of Brazil and United States. I don’t know how it’s going to be, but I love the whole creativity part of it.
Now tell me more about the project you’re doing with kids, that sounds really progressive.
Together with Fitness World we are launching a program in Laguna Beach [Calif.] for kids, it is fitness, food, and fun, and we are getting support of the city. We are going to do a workshop to bring awareness to the kids about staying active.
So you’re going to be going to schools?
No we are basically going to be in community centers and kids are going to be part of the workshops. And since it has the food element together with the fitness and fun, I will work with different restaurants for every workshop. We are going to invite a chef, so every chef is going to do part of the food part of the workshop. My intention was to open this for the underprivileged kids, as well, so we are going to make this a free program to bring a little bit of knowledge and awareness to the young population. There’s high numbers of obesity, here and especially in Brazil as well. So I think this is important for me, I want to be involved in this and help in the community I live in.
Is this an idea that you took to the city or did they come to you?
Well, I always had the desire to give back but I always thought that I had to wait for the right time and then I realized that I am never going to [know] the right time — when it is quiet? When I have more money? So I decided that time is now. The reality is we have to do it now, because this is part of what I want to create for my life. So there was an event in Laguna, and I was talking to a person who works at the Chamber of Commerce, and I was sharing with her what I wanted to do, and she loved it. So we have been preparing for about six months and we finally finalized everything and we are going to open the program in January.
How many workshops will there be?
We are going to start with two workshops a month. And the fun element needs to be incorporated for kids, because it is not about going to the gym or being fit, its about being active, and how being active can really make you feel good. It’s about kids feeling good, which has to do with the type of nutrition that you put in your body as well. That is such an important topic and knowledge that I hope I can help in.
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When you were in Brazil growing up, did you have any idea that you would be where you are today?
I had an idea that I would be doing something with movement — movement, dancing, or sports, because I love to dance, and when I was little I wanted to play soccer. I was very active, and always searching for little things to do. So I always knew that my body would be more of the right side, the creativity part in creating things, the way we connect with the body. With that I decided to get a Kinesiology degree from Brazil, and I started teaching physical education. I went to the gyms and I started creating fitness programs in the gym. I found my world. I said thisis what I want to do. So I started training clients and do personal training, and soon I got in a university…I taught for a couple of years at schools. Being at the gym was my thing; I managed some health clubs, and I said to myself, One day I will have my own little studio, teach classes, create programs, and be involved with movement and feel good about it.
So you came to the U.S. when you were 23 years old. What was the transition like?
Yeah I came by myself. I saved my money back in Brazil, I decided that I wanted to learn more; my number one thing was to learn more about the fitness world. And I always dreamed about the U.S., watching the movies, thinking, Oh, I want to be in Los Angeles. I made one contact and I got my things and just came here knowing no English. I taught myself English. I never went to schools to learn English. I made great contacts in the fitness industries and I knocked on the door of the big clubs and I was like, Wow I can’t believe I’m here. So I asked them if I could share my Brazilian expertise with them and my techniques, and from one health club to another to another, the doors started to open up for me…and my life started to unfold here. I found that it took me a long time to embrace the culture, and a lot of the differences. I miss Brazil a lot and I still do, but this is where I choose my life. I am doing what I want to do, and I have the privilege to stay in touch with my friends and family back in Brazil. I became a U.S. citizen last year, so I have the best of both worlds. I really feel like I’m living the American dream.
Do we view fitness differently here than you do in Brazil?
There are differences, but I cannot generalize, it depends on where you live.
You were Grand Marshal of Chicago’s LGBT Pride parade this year.
Yes, what an experience. There were thousands of people and I was literally overwhelmed but at the same time, I was looking at everyone, and the connection, the way they embraced the idea of being happy and being proud of being yourself — that for me was the main point. It was happy and real experience for me, because I was never around so many [LGBT] people and I didn’t know how they would perceive me. Some of them recognized me from the show, even though that wasn’t the main point, but just the connection of me being a lesbian, and me being out there, and putting a good message about just embracing myself, and being happy. We are not different than anybody. And anytime I have that opportunity to do it, I will do it with an open heart and a smile on my face.
I noticed that you were visible with a couple of causes this year, you posed for the NOH8 campaign, and It Gets Better, and you were there for the Matthew Shepard anniversary memorial. Why is that important to you?
Because I want to be happy 100 percent. I want people to treat me equally and look at me in the same way that they look at my brother, that they cannot see any difference. So for me it’s about us putting together our belief in terms of let’s just be out there, and not look at the differences, just show respect for others. I would like to have the same respect as someone who chooses to have a relationship with a person of the opposite sex. I think the more people see us out there, the more they will see that we are the same, we are human beings, we have the same heart, organs. It will get better.
You mentioned that people do know you for becoming the first lesbian on the Real Housewives of Orange County. What did you get from being on that show?
It was a good learning experience because I was going through a hard time in my life emotionally -- going through a break up --and I had to meet the cast members and people I was connecting with and I had to make choices about not to talk about everything on air. That was very hard for me because of who I was back then, so I grew a lot but I chose to hold back a lot of things that unfortunately, the message that went out there about Fernanda, people didn’t really get to know about who I am, because I chose to not really talk about everything that I was experiencing. But today I am in a totally different phase of my life.
Did it change you in other ways?
In the end, being on the show opened doors for me, to connect with people and get involved in a lot of organizations that really support equality. So for me it was a great experience as well as great exposure, to do what I believe I am meant to do. In terms of business as well, I am still connected in fitness and I got great opportunities through the show, so I see both sides of it, But it was not an easy experience, but on the same note, you might see more of me on TV very soon.
You can’t tell me more? That is such a tease.
No I can’t. But you’ll probably get to see more of the real Fernanda soon [Laughs].
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Who is your fan base at this point? Do you have any hardcore devotees?
For me it’s so general. I have a lot of support from the gay community, a lot clients from the fitness groups so I don’t have a specific group, and I am very open, I try not to stay in one little bubble, for me its all about being loving and caring about everyone. So I think my connections in general, people have been very nice with me, with who I am.
Tamra Barney and Fernanda Rocha for NoH8
Are there other women whose careers you admire?
For me it’s Oprah. Because I totally believe that you don’t have to have money to be happy, you don’t have to have this or have that, you are able to create your life and you can come from nothing, and I see myself going through that, and you have to do it with a lot of faith, a lot faith, determination, dedication, its not easy but its very possible. And I think this is such a powerful message and when I see or read about Oprah and what she does, it touches my heart and I feel that I am doing a lot in my own little world, but going through that path of creating, and believing, and having faith, and finding who you are, come and bring the best of you, and having it come back to you. I am a true believer of that.
It seems like a lot of straight women are attracted to you. Why is that? Do you think they usually understand that for you this isn't just experimentation?
Straight or gay – it doesn’t matter. If there is a connection or attraction and in that moment something happens, whether it’s a kiss or more, they shouldn’t be afraid to acknowledge that. When you dismiss your experience, which may be a lifestyle for someone else, you are disrespecting someone else’s way, choice, community, challenge, family and etc. Take responsibility for your actions. I don’t want anyone to feel shushed, discriminated, or bullied. I’m strong and can handle this, but now I want to take my experiences, knowledge and turn it into a responsibility and be a role model for other people who are confused, questioning, not out, who feel so alone. I want to help people — including our own community — to treat each other equally. Too many games are played and not enough pieces are put together to give us a valuable prop.
Are you still single?
No, I found love. Oh, it’s such an amazing thing. I am truly there — so connected, so in love. And she’s an amazing person. You will see more about her, too.
You’re not giving anything away today.
No all I can tell you is that love is here, and it is for real.