In Rio, Carmen Miranda's Still Hard to Top

By Michael Astor
Associated Press
Thursday, December 1, 2005

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Long before supermodel Gisele Bundchen exploded onto the fashion world, the original Brazilian bombshell had already detonated: Carmen Miranda.

Now, on the 50th anniversary of her death, the Modern Art Museum is hosting "Carmen Miranda Forever," an exhibition honoring the Hollywood star who introduced Brazil and outrageous, fruit-laden turbans to moviegoers everywhere.

"Brazil has a very short memory. We don't have a culture of making myths eternal," said Kitty Monte Alto, vice president of CMG Worldwide, the company that licenses Miranda's image and conceived the show. "I don't want to ask a child or teenager who Carmen Miranda was and have them say they don't know."

The exhibition that opened Wednesday is billed as the largest ever dedicated to the star. It features over 700 items, including clothing, jewels, old records, magazines and pictures.

It chronicles Miranda's early years in Brazil during the 1920s and 1930s, when she was the country's most popular singer and the star of 10 films, all but one of which have been lost. It also follows Miranda's career in the United States, from Broadway to Hollywood, where she quickly became a star.

"She was the most famous Brazilian woman of the 20th century and she was the first Brazilian woman famous outside Brazil," said Ruy Castro, whose 500-page biography of the star came out Wednesday.

He said that while most Brazilians recognize Miranda with her trademark fruit headdress, few today really know who she was. Few Brazilians know that Miranda was Portuguese, and came to Brazil when she was 10 months old. Nor do many remember the hundreds of records she cut during the 1920s and '30s.

"We want to restore the image of Carmen, who has had an incredible impact on Brazil," said Fabiano Canosa, the exhibit's curator.

He said her widespread appeal also helped the rise of entertainment media in Brazil.

"She got her start in records and the radio just when both mediums were just starting here in Brazil, and she had four or five dozen major hits," Canosa said.

Yet Miranda's biggest impact may have been on the world of fashion, he said. Macy's department store in New York dedicated its windows to the "Carmen Miranda Look" in 1943, and even today Brazilian designers devote entire collections to her memory.

The new exhibition includes several dresses that Miranda wore, with life-sized mannequins reminding visitors that Brazil's biggest star stood a mere five feet tall, hence her Brazilian nickname, "the notable little one."

Other dresses have been re-created from pictures, and there is also a section in which several local designers contributed outfits inspired by Miranda.

Perhaps the greatest testament to her success is a large black-and-white photo near the back of the exhibit, which shows a hearse carrying her body through a crowd of more than 500,000 mourners in Rio in 1955, following her death from a heart attack at age 46.

But Canosa said that devotion pales compared with her success in the United States, where she starred in films including "Copacabana" and "That Night in Rio."

"In America she always had a much bigger following. You can still find her records there today," he said.

Organizers said they are discussing plans to bring the exhibit to the United States and Europe.

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