When Ana Carolina Reston arrived for her first foreign fashion shoot, the 8st model was warned she was too fat. Two years later, and two stone lighter, she died from complications arising from anorexia. Tom Phillips reports from Sao Paulo on the tragic waste of a woman whose childhood dreams of being a cover girl came true - but for all the wrong reasons

Jundiai town, Sao Paulo, Brazil. A brown-haired teenage girl walks on to the stage at the local beauty contest. Below, her parents, wedged at the front of a cheering audience, clap enthusiastically as a judge slips a green and white sash over their daughter's head and pronounces her the Queen of Jundiai, 1999. Her mother wasn't surprised: 'The other girls were podgy and had bottoms,' she said later. 'She won because she was slim and elegant.'

It doesn't seem an earth-shattering achievement. But for 13-year-old Ana Carolina Reston Marcan it was one step nearer her dream of becoming a supermodel. It would take Reston (who dropped Marcan from her professional name) seven years to 'arrive', by which time she would be working as far afield as Hong Kong and Japan, for designers as well known as Giorgio Armani and Dior.

But it was on 14 November last year that she finally crossed over from being a successful catwalk model to appearing on the cover of every magazine and newspaper in Brazil, and making headlines around the globe. Not for her modelling, but for her agonising death, attributed to 'complications arising from anorexia'.

In a year in which both 'skinny chic' (wearing oversized clothes on tiny body frames) and the American size 00 (an emaciated UK size two, or a waist the same as a typical seven-year-old's) was the height of fashion in celebrity-land, Reston's demise seems all the more poignant. She was also the second model to die from an eating disorder during 2006. In August, at a fashion show in Uruguay, 22-year-old Luisel Ramos suffered a heart attack thought to be the result of anorexia. Although anorexia isn't the preserve of the fashion industry, it's hardly surprising that Reston's death has shone a spotlight on the way the business treats its models, and more significantly, on how destructive our current perception of female beauty can be.

Reston's short life began in Pitangueiras private hospital in Jundiai on 29 May 1985. She was born into a comfortable, middle-class family; her father, Narciso Marcan, worked for a German multinational while her mother, Miriam Reston, sold jewellery. They were neither desperately poor nor offensively rich and lived in a small but elegant bungalow on the outskirts of town.

From an early age Reston wanted to be a model, partly in order to provide her family with a better life. It's not clear why she felt such responsibility, but in the early Nineties her father was diagnosed with both Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease and was later made redundant. Even before then, though, her mother remembers the young Reston spiriting bras and high heels from her closet and pirouetting around the house in them, asking people to take her photograph. Then one day in 1999, on the school bus home, she spotted a sign announcing a beauty contest for the Queen of Jundiai. She leapt off and signed herself up.

A few weeks later she took her mother on an all expenses-paid luxury trip to Rio - her prize for winning the competition. When they returned, a fashion agent offered to introduce her to Ford, one of Brazil's top modelling agencies, for a fee of ยฃ100. The family accepted.

Reston's career took off almost immediately and it soon became apparent that she had her eye on the big prize - becoming a supermodel, like fellow Brazilian Gisele. Reston's friends thought that for the more glamorous catwalk and editorial modelling she was, at just over 5ft 6in, too short. But she wouldn't be put off; she altered her height on her publicity shots and claimed she was just over 5ft 7in. And she seemed to get away with it. In July 2003, after four successful years at Ford, she signed to Elite, one of the biggest agencies in Brazil, a move which catapulted her from teenage wannabe to serious model.

Still Reston wanted to work abroad, and in January 2004 she finally made her first trip overseas. She was sent to Guangzhou, a Chinese city not far from Hong Kong, for three months. But although no one can pin an exact date on when she began to suffer from anorexia, one former booker, who refuses to be named, believes that it was here things started to unravel for the then 18-year-old. Reston, like so many other teenage models, travelled unaccompanied by either a personal friend or family member, someone who could help her negotiate a way through the lonely castings, where personal criticism came as standard. 'She arrived in China,' explains a booker, 'and the guys looked at her and said, "You're fat." She took this very personally.'

Her unhappiness was evident in the letters she sent home. In one to her mother, Reston describes arriving in 'that big place'. She goes on: 'I [felt] so small, the city so big. I didn't understand anything... It didn't go right. I failed.' Her confidence was being destroyed.

Back in Brazil, Reston's descent into anorexia (which ultimately resulted in her shrinking from 8st to 6st) became all too obvious. When Laura Ancona, a journalist at the Brazilian fashion magazine Quem, befriended Reston towards the end of 2004, she sensed immediately that something was wrong. Reston, she says, only ever drank fruit juice, and after her death was found to have survived on a diet of apples and tomatoes. As Ancona recalls: 'She said, "I can't eat any more." She told me she tried to eat but felt like vomiting. She knew she had a problem, but didn't know what she was suffering from. I think I was the first person to explain it to her - I knew she was anorexic, because someone in my family had suffered in the same way.'

According to Ancona, Reston's condition was common knowledge. 'Everyone knew she was ill,' she says. 'The other girls, the agencies, everyone. Don't believe it when they say they didn't.' Reston's aunt, Mirtes Reston, who plans to present a petition to the government demanding steps to monitor the modelling industry, is more direct. 'These girls are white slaves,' she says. 'We want models to have rights. At the moment they are given no pension, no support... They just take the person away from their family and abandon them far away.'

In his private clinic in Jardins, a leafy, upmarket neighbourhood of Sao Paulo, psychologist Dr Marco Antonio De Tommaso, who voluntarily runs a fortnightly drop-in clinic at two of the city's largest modelling agencies, Elite and L'Equipe, is preparing some notes on eating disorders. Tommaso has spent 11 years working with models and given consultations to nearly 2,000 of them, including some of the country's most famous faces. He also treated Reston.

Tommaso's take on the fashion industry, and what he calls the 'dictatorship of beauty', is bleak. He regards Reston's experience as typical, citing in particular the way in which 'new faces' are parachuted into the most demanding and adult of worlds when they are unable to cope. 'They experience lots of changes all at the same time,' says Tommaso. 'They move city, they move state, they start living alone, and the work is very demanding. Everything happens very quickly, and it is all so unpredictable.'

There are no official studies to prove the link between the fashion industry and eating disorders, but many experts point to a clear correlation between the two. In a letter from 40 doctors at the Eating Disorders Service and Research Unit at King's College London to the British Fashion Council last October, Professor Janet Treasure wrote: 'There is no doubt there is cause and effect here. The fashion industry showcases models with extreme body shapes, and this is undoubtedly one of the factors leading to young girls developing disorders.'

This is borne out by Tommaso's experience. 'If someone is just a tiny bit bigger than the industry demands,' he says, 'they are treated as if they were morbidly obese. This encourages a pattern of beauty that is absolutely unreal.' Such pressures, he continues, lead many such women to build up what he calls 'an arsenal of anorexia': special diets, prescription and illegal drugs, starving themselves. He remembers one young model even using pills for fighting intestinal worms in order to lose weight. Journalist Laura Ancona is not surprised: 'I've lost count of how many times I've seen models vomiting in the toilets [at fashion events], or sniffing cocaine, or 13-year-old girls fainting because they're not eating properly.'

Anorexia is obviously not an illness exclusive to the fashion industry, or Brazil. According to the Norwich-based Eating Disorders Association, between one and two per cent of young adult women worldwide suffer from the eating disorder and most, like Reston, are 15-25 years old. It kills somewhere between 13 and 20 per cent of its victims. It's not known exactly what causes anorexia, but Tommaso asserts that, for young models at least, professional demands can be a 'very strong factor'.

There are other pressures, too. As Tommaso points out: 'Often, low-income families begin to see their offspring as the chicken that lays gold eggs and expect them to support the entire household. The models, in turn, begin to push themselves harder and harder, placing greater demands on their bodies in the hope they will earn more money.'

Certainly Reston faced problems at home. The family's life savings had been stolen in 2002 and because they only had her sick father's pension of around ยฃ250 a month to live on, Miriam Reston looked increasingly to her daughter's income. 'She was my crutch,' she explains, sitting in the breakfast room of her sister's pousada, or guesthouse. By 2004, the 18-year-old Reston was supporting her entire family. And despite her experiences in China, she continued to dream of travelling the world modelling, in order to earn more money to help her mother build a new house.

In August 2005 Reston called her employers at the Elite fashion agency and told them she was leaving - she had received an offer from an agent to work in Mexico. They urged her to stay, arguing that the Mexican modelling market required voluptuous girls, whereas Reston was now an increasingly skinny model. 'She wasn't listening to anyone any more,' says her former booker. In Mexico things went from bad to worse. On her second day there Reston emailed home that she was sharing an apartment with 17 other models and was very unhappy. Other Brazilian models who bumped into an increasingly miserable-looking Reston at castings began to worry about her emotional state. One of them, Cynthia, left a note for her: 'Girlie, we're very worried about you. Please come out with us or stay at home and eat something - eat whatever you want, OK?'

Eventually, Reston became so unhappy that Lica Kohlrausch, the owner of L'Equipe, was persuaded by some of Reston's concerned friends and colleagues to pay for her to fly back to Brazil. 'We brought Ana back after she did some work for Giorgio Armani and a representative rang me to say she was too thin,' Kohlrausch told the press after Reston's death. 'It worried me and I acted immediately, but I didn't see any physical signs of anorexia when she came back.' On her return, Reston went to work in Japan for three months. When she came home again, in late 2005, she was barely recognisable - gaunt and colourless. As Miriam Reston recalls, 'I looked at her and said, "My daughter, what have they done to you?" I wish these people could see what they have done to her. She didn't deserve this.'

Now seriously worried about her health, Reston's family sent her to stay with an uncle on the Sao Paulo coast. He, too, knew that something was very wrong. On a note dated 19 January 2006, he set out a daily routine for Reston to follow as part of her recuperation. It read: 1 Wake up, pray. 2 Strong, positive thoughts. 3 Pray. 4 Always feed yourself. 5 Pray.

Despite the family's intervention, Reston continued eating less and less, and work opportunities began to ebb away. By the middle of last year, her career as a model had virtually ground to a halt. Instead, to try and make ends meet, she was handing out fliers advertising nightclubs in Sao Paulo, earning just over ยฃ10 a night. But there was some comfort - she fell in love with a 19-year-old model from Sao Paulo, called Bruno Setti. 'I didn't know what love was until you kissed me,' she wrote to him, just over a month before her death. 'Thank you for giving me the hugs that make me secure and the conversations that comfort me.'

On Friday 29 September, Dr Tommaso sat waiting in a room at L'Equipe, with a list of six models he was due to see that afternoon. Reston was booked in for her second appointment. But as the minutes ticked by, Tommaso got the feeling it would be another no-show.

'I thought it was a shame,' he sighs. 'The agency contacted her and she said she'd forgotten. Maybe it was true, maybe it was the anorexia. We can't be sure.' In Jundiai, meanwhile, Reston complained to her mother that members of the agency were pestering her to see a doctor. 'She told me they were going mad [saying she was ill],' recalls her mother. 'Everyone was telling her she was ill... But, like all these girls, she denied it was a problem.'

But her mother was pretty sure by then that Reston's health problems needed to be addressed sooner rather than later. And then suddenly, it was too late. At home on Sunday 22 October, Reston began to complain of a pain in her kidneys. Miriam Reston didn't know it, but for the last couple of months her daughter had been taking a cocktail of potent prescription drugs, for pain relief and slimming.

Reston was admitted to the Samaritano Hospital in Sao Paulo and two days later, on 25 October, she was moved to the Hospital Municipal dos Servidores Publicos, where almost immediately she was admitted to the intensive care unit, where she spent her last 21 days. Her demise was agonising, a plastic tube inserted down her throat, unable to tell anyone how she felt, although the tears in her eyes must have made that pretty obvious. Patches of her once long brown hair had fallen out, too. Her death certificate, for which relatives paid around 50p, cites her time of death as 7.10am and lists the cause of death as 'multiple organ failure, septicaemia, urinary infection'. Coldly it adds: 'Leaves no children. Leaves no property. Leaves no will.'

Within hours of her death Ana Carolina Reston Marcan was famous across the world. Her death made her a martyr in Brazil - her image was splashed across the front pages of virtually every newspaper and magazine, and across the international media. Jundiai's teenage beauty queen had become the emaciated model who had starved herself to death. Debate raged. There was an outpouring of emotion from other anorexic girls who saw in Reston a piece of themselves; and, simultaneously, a bitter rebuke from pro-anorexia communities, whose members see anorexia as a lifestyle choice. Reston's boyfriend requested her page on the popular Brazilian blog site Orkut be deleted after her death because it was targeted by anorexia supporters posting offensive comments.

Critics of the fashion industry, on the other hand, held her up as an example of how it was destroying the lives of young, would-be models, and in the weeks that followed, the deaths of two further Brazilian girls in similar circumstances, one a fashion student, brought further calls for the regulation of this notoriously mysterious business.

Already, changes seem to be taking place. Following Uruguayan model Luisel Ramos's death, models with a body mass index (BMI) of less than 18 - classified as underweight by the World Health Organisation (between 18.5 and 25 is considered healthy) - were banned in September from Madrid Fashion Week. In the wake of Reston's death, Brazilian models now require medical certificates in order to take part in catwalk events. The Italian fashion organisation Camera Della Moda Italiana is also considering introducing measures to prevent any catwalk models at risk appearing at Milan Fashion Week in February. More recently, the British Fashion Council, which organises London Fashion Week, has prepared similar guidelines that it will eventually send to all designers and modelling agencies.

It is late afternoon and in the cobbled centre of Pirapora do Bom Jesus, Miriam Reston Marcan pulls up the shutters of her new jewellery shop - recently named 'Ana Carolina Metals' - and goes inside. Weeping, she picks up a letter written by her daughter shortly before her death, but which was never sent. '"If I could, I'd like to go back to being four, clinging on to you as if I were still in your womb, so that nobody could harm me,"' it reads, in curly, teenage handwriting. '"But God wanted my life to change."' Reston sighs. 'I didn't know what my daughter had could kill, but I knew it had to be treated. But my daughter rejected me, she said she was OK.'

She stares up at a portrait of Ana hung at the back of the shop - part of an advertising campaign which has now become a sort of shrine to her deceased daughter. 'Do you know what I think at night time?' she asks. 'I think that she's in the ground and the ants are eating her. I don't know how I'm supposed to survive now, without my right arm.'