She began her career at 16, as a model for the haute-couture house Casa Canadá. She was soon invited to Carlos Machado’s swinging theater and became known as the star of the Night and Day nightclub in Rio de Janeiro. Her cinema debut was in 1959, as a singer, satirizing Brigitte Bardot in the film O Homem do Sputnik. In the same year, she releases her first album, OOOOOO! Norma, sounding very close to Bossa Nova, with an international repertoire, three Tom Jobim songs and one by João Gilberto. In 1961, Anselmo Duarte hires her to play a prostitute in the film O pagador de promessas. The film that finally made her name was Os Cafajestes (1962), by Ruy Guerra. A Cinema Novo classic, starring Hugo Carvana and Jece Valadão, this movie caused a scandal by exhibiting the first frontal nude in the history of Brazilian cinema. After filming Os cafajestes, she goes to Cannes, where the film O pagador de promessas received the Palme d’Or. From Cannes, she went to Italy, where she met producer Dino di Laurentis and acted alongside Alberto Sordi, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Renato Salvatore, Catherine Deneuve and Enrico Maria Salerno.

Norma is the widow of the Italian actor Gabrielle Tinti. Their wedding was held inside the Vera Cruz studio, in São Paulo, as both of them had a packed schedule.

In 1965, she participated in the album Meia noite em Copacabana, sharing with Dick Farney the tracks Vou por aí (Baden Powell and Aloysio de Oliveira) and Você (Roberto Menescal and Ronaldo Bôscoli). This last song is played on radio stations as a permanent symbol of the history of Brazilian popular music (MPB). One of this recording’s distinguishing marks is the irreverent laugh at the end of the song.

She performed several shows alongside the Bossa Nova gang (Tom Jobim, João Gilberto, Vinicius de Moraes and Roberto Menescal, among others), being one of the first singers to record new Tom Jobim compositions. In 1965, in Hollywood, she acted in Boris Segal’s film Cat burglar (Paramount/NBC), recording the songs Água de beber and Garota de Ipanema, both by Tom Jobim and Vinícius de Moraes, for its soundtrack.

In the 1960s, she was hired by TV Globo to head the program Shell em show maior, alongside Chico Buarque.

In 1977, she released the album Norma canta mulheres, with songs by Dona Ivone Lara, Luli and Lucina, Marlui Miranda, Dolores Duran, Chiquinha Gonzaga, Rosinha de Valença, Glória Gadelha, Rita Lee, Joyce and Maysa, as well as her partnership with Glória Gadelha, Em nome do amor.
From then on, she began increasingly to prioritize her acting and filmmaking career, appearing sporadically as a singer.
She launched herself as a film director in 1979, with the short film Barco de Iansã, about a candomblé party at the Casa de Exu spiritual center; Maria Gladys, a Brazilian actress, about the actress’s life and daily life; Maria da Penha (1980), about the need to build crèches for abandoned children; Eternamente Pagú (1987), which tells the story of the Modernists’ muse and her political militancy, a great box office hit. In 1995/96 she directed O Guarani, adapted from the work by José Alencar and, in 2005, Infinitamente Guiomar Novaes and Magda Tagliaferro – o mundo dentro de um piano. After 20 years of being away from the stage, Norma Bengell returned in 2007 with the play O relato íntimo de Madame Shakespeare.

The next year, she played the brothel-keeper Madame Clessy in the play O vestido de noiva, by Nelson Rodrigues, directed by Rodolfo García Vásquez, with the Os Satyros theater company, a performance which was highly praised.

Since 2008, she has played Deise Coturno on the weekly program Toma lá dá cá on TV Globo.