• Film

Carmen Miranda: Queen of Queers

There are famous people, stars, icons. But once in a lifetime, a person leaves behind a historical trail where the person herself and the legacy she built are one. Carmen Miranda is one of those.

There are three elements in the work she left behind: her voice, her presence — and something extra, a star quality capable of enchanting people of all kinds.

Decades of queer fans from a variety of countries, cities and ages have emblazoned her name on their hearts.

Who was this tiny woman from an equally tiny village in the north of Portugal, and how was she capable of reigning from 1939 to 1955, from the Americas to Europe, and beyond, enthralling her audiences?

Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha was the older daughter of a barber and a seamstress. In 1909, when she was still a baby, the Miranda family emigrated to Brazil, settling in the heart of the country’s then-capital, Rio de Janeiro.

Two key elements that molded her career came from the local ambiance: the street music everywhere, thanks to the roaming bohemian musicians that filled with bars and brothels; and the new domestic object: the radio.

In 1930, Miranda was already passionate about music, singing at first for her family and neighbors, and soon on the city’s most popular radio station. Weeks later, she got a contract with a rival radio station. Two years later, she had contracted not with just another radio station but with Brazil’s most popular record company.

From there on, she went from the streets of Rio de Janeiro to performing in musical shows in the city’s best theaters and starring in Brazilian movies.

In 1959, Miranda was in New York, on Broadway. The show was “The Streets of Paris” and her part was small, but one year later she was on the big screen, part of the roster of 20th Century Fox.

The velocity with which Miranda became an international icon had to do with a bit of luck – but most of the material that created this unique star came from Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha’s talent.

Her voice, looks and clothing were all her own creations: maintaining her metallic tone, keeping her Portuguese accent over the US English, and building a persona with clothes and movement that echoed the style of the local fruit and sweet vendors.

Miranda was so unique in her decade of glory that a big sector of the conservative upper class of Brazil turned against her, calling her “vulgar” and “a caricature.”


“People laughed at me,” says the historian Martha Gil-Montero, a Miranda biographer. “I began researching her life from the position of those who rejected her. I felt that Miranda’s career ridiculed South Americans — ephemeral in a word, but the more I learned about her, the more I realized this simply wasn’t true. It became very difficult to convince publishers and editors that they should take on Brazilian Bombshell because for them Carmen was not serious or interesting.”

Miranda, however, held the power: multitudes of queer fans see in Carmen the possibility of recreating themselves. Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha was a little girl from a Portuguese village. Carmen Miranda wore complex silks and paillettes, picking up details from Brazilian costumes as a reference to both the real and the fantastic — the bold red on the lips, the dramatic eyes as a counter, all became a living mask. She showed that a person can be someone else, but also a bit of themself, created by a dreaming star.

Exhausted by intense work on all fronts — films, recording, travel, and theater and TV  events — Miranda died on August 5, 1955, at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas, of a heart attack. She was found around 10 am, alone, in the hallway between her bathroom and bedroom. She had a small mirror in her hand.

Her body was flown down to Rio de Janeiro and was surrounded by half a million mourners at her funeral. She was laid to rest in the heart of Rio de Janeiro, the São João Batista Cemetery.

Her dresses, shoes and other personal effects can be seen at the Carmen Miranda Museum, not far from São João Batista, and across the Guanabara Bay and the Sugar Loaf.

During the Carnaval, usually in February or early March, dozens of attendees dance dressed as Miranda, no matter their gender.

The opening event of the celebrations is the Carmen Miranda Ball.




Miranda was introduced to records and radio through a musician, Josué de Barros, who used to play at their house, which was also an inn. At a time when waltzes and romantic songs were in vogue, Carmen embraced samba, the African-based music that was the heart of Brazil. Her first record,  the samba “Não Vá Sumbora” recorded by Brunswick Records in 1929, was well received. One year later the deliciously danceable “Taí” sold 35,000 records. She would go on with non-stop hits, from sambas and marchas — the rhythmic, easy songs that became both a local and international hits, both in Portuguese and English — hits like “Rebola a Bola,” “Mamãe Eu Quero,” “Chiquita Banana,”  “Camisa Listrada,” “A Weekend in Havana,” “Chica Chica Boom Chic” (played in The Shape of Water)  and many more.

Miranda didn’t compose songs. However she had a perfect ear for new themes and rhythms, which she enriched with her musicians, especially her faithful band, the Bando da Lua (their leader, Aloysio de Oliveira, had composed and played scores, and can be heard as the voice of several  characters in Disney animated movies).


From Hello Hello Carnaval! in 1936, the Brazilian musical comedy that launched Miranda to larger arenas, to 1953’s Scared Stiff, a comedy centered on then-superstars Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Miranda had a varied career. She also played herself in a variety of episodes from shows like Texaco Star Theater (1949-1952), Colgate Comedy Hour (1951-1952) and All-Star Revue (1951-1953).

Movies with a thin storyline cast Carmen as a hot visitor/a friend/an actress or singer, with names that made sure the audience knew she was Latina. Music was a necessary element, with musical pieces and popular actors — Cesar Romero, Betty Grable, Don Ameche, Groucho Marx.

Down Argentine Way in 1940, with Miranda, Ameche, and the Nicholas Brothers, introduced her to US and international audiences, after two successful Brazilian musical pictures, Banana da Terra and Laranja da China.

The combination of animation and live action, however, created  some sweet and short pictures. Aquarela do Brasil (Watercolor of Brazil, 1942) is probably the most loved encounter between Donald Duck, Zé Carioca and Miranda, all dancing and singing on the streets of Rio, thanks to the Disney artists and the voices of Miranda and Aloysio de Oliveira.