WHEN soccer legend Pele passed away last week following a hard-fought battle with colon cancer, fans around the world mourned the man known simply as “O Rei” – the King.
His outrageous skills on the pitch, rags-to-riches life story, and record of three World Cup titles with Brazil mean Edson Arantes do Nascimento will always have a special place in millions of people’s hearts.
Pele (left) and photographer Selma Fonseca dated during the 1990sCredit: Courtesy Selma Fonseca
Pele recently passed away on December 29 at the age of 82Credit: Getty – Contributor
But for Brazilian-born celebrity photographer and writer Selma Fonseca, 56, the pain of Pelé’s death aged 82 was much more personal than that.
Selma saw another side to Pele when they dated in the 1990s – the lothario who went on to marry three times and earn a reputation for breaking women’s hearts.
Telling her story for the first time ever in an exclusive interview with The U.S. Sun, she looked back at the rollercoaster romance full of crazy highs and desperately bitter lows she went through with him.
It all began when she was just 23, living in New York as an illegal immigrant, brokenhearted from a breakup, and needing to find somewhere new to live.
She explained: “My best friend was a Brazilian girl who worked as Pele’s secretary and her father was his business partner at the Cosmos soccer team in the US.”
“She was also seeking accommodation because she didn’t like the long commute she had to make from the suburbs every day,” Fonseca continued.
“So she asked Pele if we could both stay at his apartment in Manhattan which was empty since he lived mostly in Brazil and traveled a lot.”
“He agreed and it was great, he was kind enough not to charge rent and we were living in a luxurious apartment building next to Bloomingdales.”
“Of course, there were some rules. We could use the entire apartment but should never enter his bedroom – a rule which would later prove interesting.”
“We lived there for four months and I remember one time I was watching television in the living room, and above the sofa, there was an original Andy Warhol portrait painting of Pele with a ball on his head.”
“It filled the entire wall and must have been worth millions of dollars.”
“I always had a feeling that the painting was watching me, like Pele himself was in the room with me.”
When the soccer icon, then 49, announced he would be returning to New York and needed his apartment back, Selma found a modest studio to rent on the city’s East Side and moved out.
But the day Pele got back, Selma was at his office visiting her friend.
“I was standing by her desk when he came out and asked her to book him a dentist appointment,” Selma said.
“As he looked at me with those piercing eyes, I attempted to play it cool but inside I was full of nerves.”
Pele won three World Cups with Brazil in 1958, 1962, and 1970Credit: AFP
“Pele was considered a living god for us Brazilians so I was star-struck.”
“After being introduced, I found him to be very charismatic and charming, and he was certainly not shy about being flirtatious. I felt we immediately had a connection.”
“Despite his status, he was not pretentious at all and made me feel very comfortable by telling jokes.”
Over the next week Selma would swing by Pele’s office to see her friend but with each passing day, she noticed he was flirting with her more and more.
Then out of the blue Pele invited her to join him and a small group of friends for his birthday party at a restaurant in the city.
Setting the scene, she explained: “He sat at the head of the table and asked me to sit close to him.”
“I could feel the sexual tension building between us just from the way he caressed my hand or gave me a kiss on the cheek.”
A few weeks later, Pele invited Selma to join him for dinner again, this time at the celebrity hot spot, Mr. Chow.
Fonseca (pictured) explained that Pele was kind and generous in their relationshipCredit: Courtesy Selma Fonseca
When she arrived for the date, she was surprised to find he had brought his daughter Kely and son, Edinho.
While they enjoyed themselves together, Selma was again left stunned when the late actor and comic genius Robin Williams approached the table and introduced himself to Pele.
She said: “Pele introduced me to Robin saying ‘This is my girlfriend Selma’.
“It caught me completely off guard, and for a moment I thought he was joking.”
“Then I remembered all the sweet things he had been telling me when we were together, the way he had been drawing me in little by little, and I realized it was genuine.”
“He really wanted me to be his girlfriend.”
The pair went on to Regine’s nightclub on Park Avenue together, where they sipped champagne and Pelé showed off his legendary footwork on the dance floor.
With the night winding down, they were picked up by Pele’s chauffeur and taken back to his apartment.
Pele allegedly wanted to marry Fonseca at the timeCredit: Getty – Contributor
Selma said: “As he led the way through the lobby, I noticed the guard at the front desk recognized me from the months I had lived there and gave me a smirk.”
“When we got up to the apartment he took me straight to his previously forbidden bedroom and I finally got to see what was inside.”
“A water bed was in the middle on a raised platform and I had to go up four steps to reach it.”
“We had sex for hours, I don’t even remember falling asleep. It felt like a dream.”
The following day Pele surprised Selma by visiting her studio with flowers, a bottle of whiskey, and a bottle of wine, and told her he wanted her to travel the world with him.
But since she was living in the United States illegally, it would have meant giving up on everything she had built and she felt that they were in very different places in their lives.
Selma says she was also concerned about the racial prejudices that she and Pele faced.
Things then took an even heavier twist when, six months into the relationship, Selma found out she was pregnant but tragically lost the baby in a miscarriage.
Pele had three wives during his life, including Rosemeri dos Reis Cholbi, Assíria Nascimento, and Marcia AokiCredit: Getty – Contributor
She told The U.S. Sun: “There were a lot of negative reactions because he was black, some people were very racist about it.”
“That’s why I didn’t tell anyone, not even my family when I got pregnant. I’ve never spoken about it until now, I’ve never told my family.”
“Now he is not here I feel like I can finally tell the truth.”
“When I told Pele I was pregnant he was really happy, super excited, and making plans.”
“He wanted to get married and for me to go with him to Europe and Brazil but I couldn’t get out of the country because I was here illegally and I didn’t want to move back to Brazil.”
“I didn’t really want to get married because he was much older than me and because of the racism thing, that makes you think about things too.”
“When I lost the baby he was away and he said we would figure it out when he got back but I saw it as a sign God was sending me not to marry him.”
“A year later married his second wife, so clearly he wanted to get married.”
Fonseca (pictured) said she tried to visit Pele near the end of his life but was unable to at the alleged request of AokiCredit: Getty
After they split, Selma stayed in touch with Pele and even saw him again when she was finally able to travel to Brazil after marrying an American and obtaining a green card.
She says she tried to visit him in recent years but was blocked by his third wife Marcia Aoki, who she says claimed he was too ill to receive visitors.
“I was devastated when I found out he was gone but he had such a beautiful life,” she explained.
“He was a really kind man who had time for anyone who asked him for a picture or an autograph.”
“He told me he never forgot where he came from.”
“He grew up as poor as you can imagine but never forgot to be generous and nice.”
For her part, Selma went on to become a society photographer, taking pictures of celebrity parties in New York, Hollywood, on the Cote d’Azur, and the Caribbean.
In January she will be publishing a coffee table book titled Partying With Selma: Hollywood’s Brightest Night with her pictures of celebs at the Vanity Fair Oscars party over the years.