Being Fabulous Isn't Easy
Rosa Magalhaes' creative designs have put her at the top of Rio's Carnaval, which for all its glitter and frills is still a macho world.
By Henry Chu
Times Staff Writer
RIO DE JANEIRO — Juggling a Coke and a cigarette in one hand and a cookie
and a phone in the other, Rosa Magalhaes contemplates her artistic creations
they go on display in a few days' time.
Motorized floats almost four stories high tower over her diminutive
figure. Fresh paint or sequins sparkle from every surface: a giant witch's
head here, some shockingly
orange lilies there. Together they add up to a slightly surreal visual fantasia, a Disney-esque world gone a touch mad.
If all goes according to plan, the floats will glide through the Sambodrome
stadium in the heart of Rio on Monday, escorted by 3,500 tireless drummers
costumed dancers united by a single goal: to wow spectators and judges at this year's Carnaval in hopes of winning another title for their samba club, Imperatriz
Magalhaes is Imperatriz's carnavalesca, the brains behind the brilliance,
the artistic director who conceives every last fabulous detail of the parade,
from its story line
down to the lavish feathered headdresses worn by samba dancers sporting little else.
It takes a singular person to do what she does, and Magalhaes is certainly
singular, and not merely for her whimsical choice of hair color, which
changes every year.
(Right now it's scarlet.) At 57, she is the only woman to have won the Carnaval championship on her own — not just once, but five times in the last 10 years.
Her success in Latin America's most famous, most spectacular public
event puts her in a pantheon of Carnaval planners whose names are better
known in Brazil than
those of many of its political leaders. Only one other carnavalesco, the revered Joaosinho Trinta, owns more titles. Her achievements would be remarkable for anyone,
but are even more so for a working female working in a male-dominated field — and society.
"She is the master of good taste," says Milton Cunha, the carnavalesco for Sao Clemente, another top-tier samba school, or club. "Her work is impeccable, marvelous."
Millions are expected to watch this year's Carnaval competition on TV
or — if they can afford tickets — from the stands as Rio's top 14 samba
clubs take turns
performing and preening in the Oscar Niemeyer-designed Sambodrome on Sunday and Monday nights. Getting through seven clubs a night, each with several floats and
3,500 to 5,000 singers, dancers and musicians, takes hours, from 9 p.m. until 5 a.m.
But no one minds, because in Brazil, Carnaval is when you forget time,
when the rules and rigors of regular life are suspended — a brief period
when this country's rich
and poor, beautiful and ugly mix in a national outpouring of joy and abandon. What began centuries ago as a celebration on the eve of Lent, the 40 days of fasting and
introspection before Easter, has evolved into today's weeklong extravaganza.
Samba, both the music and the impossibly energetic dance, is the lifeblood
of the festivities, and a Carnaval victory is the highest honor a samba
school can aspire to.
The samba clubs are the community groups, mostly based in Rio's slums, that shaped Carnaval into its present form over the last century. Despite the recent
participation of foreigners and the advent of commercial sponsorship, the schools remain traditional focal points of their communities, and hundreds of residents pull
together — some paid, most not — every year to put on their parade, the clubs' raison d'etre.
The schools spend months choosing their theme song, refining their choreography
and toiling in the barracao, the big warehouse where floats are built,
stitched and reputations made. As Carnaval closes in, feverish workers sleep in the barracao and take all their meals in the canteen, and their bosses, the
carnavalescos, often do likewise.
Although two other samba clubs, Mangueira and defending champion Beija-Flor,
are the favorites going into this year's competition, Imperatriz is considered
contender. It still sits atop the official rankings of the organization that oversees the Carnaval competition, the Independent League of Samba Schools, on the strength of
an impressive hat trick of wins — all under Magalhaes' direction — in 1999, 2000 and 2001.
Her fans and critics agree that Magalhaes goes in for a highly ornamented,
almost baroque style of decoration, with an emphasis on technical and visual
bowls over judges but sometimes leaves the public cold. She specializes in historical themes for her parades, preferring a somewhat intellectual approach — not
surprising, perhaps, for a Rio native who speaks at least three languages: Portuguese, French and English, which she refines by watching HBO. She grew up the
daughter of two well-heeled Brazilian writers, neither of whom approved of her line of work.
"He never wanted me to [do] Carnaval," Magalhaes says of her father. "He always said, 'I'll pay you double' " to do something else.
Her mother was just as tough. A joint win in 1982 by Magalhaes and her
co-carnavalesca at the time, Licia Lacerda — the first time the title didn't
go to a man —
wasn't enough. Not until 1994, when Magalhaes landed the first of her five solo championships, did a grudging acceptance of her career set in from her widowed
"My mother said, 'Finally!' " Magalhaes recalls with her raspy smoker's chortle.
She fell into the Carnaval business almost by accident, accepting an
invitation in 1971 to substitute for a young woman in the costume-design
section of the venerable
Salgueiro club. Unlike the small army that constitutes the dressmaking departments of samba schools today, then Salgueiro had only six people, including Magalhaes,
making the accessories, overseen by the celebrated Trinta.
She watched the parade from the grandstand for the first time that year
— and was hooked by the spectacle, the cheering and cheerful chaos. She
spent a few years
studying costume design at a university and several years apprenticing at various samba clubs until her big break in 1981, when Magalhaes and Lacerda were named
co-carnavalescas of Imperio Serrano.
By that point, a generation of women had slowly begun ascending the
ladder in the Carnaval world, but successful high-ranking women were still
about as plentiful as
empty spaces on Ipanema beach during summer.
"In general, Carnaval was always a macho affair. Men always predominated,"
Ricardo Cravo Albin, a former Carnaval judge and critic, says of the annual
whose roots in Brazil stretch back hundreds of years to wild, mostly male street revels.
As the festival evolved and became more disciplined, women's roles increased, but mainly as singers or dancers, with progressively less clothing.
In 1935, the wife of a samba school director disguised herself as a
man in order to join the testosterone-charged bateria, the marching percussionists
who provide the
pulse of a samba and create its signature moving wall of sound. But when the deception was discovered a few years later, says Carnaval historian Hiram Araujo, a
judge knocked points off the school's score to remind women of their proper place.
"Women were always relegated to a secondary plane," Albin says. "All the administration of Carnaval was always male."
At the Imperio Serrano school, Magalhaes and Lacerda had to fight the
school's directors for creative control, especially over a title for their
entry. The directors thought
the women's idea for a long, onomatopoeic title evoking the sound of drums was preposterous.
But the pair prevailed, and the samba "Bum Bum Paticumbum Prugurundum"
became an instant classic among Rio's residents, who rocked to it in the
Magalhaes and Lacerda won the grand prize.
Then they were dismissed.
To this day, Magalhaes does not know why, although she suspects that
being a strong-willed, opinionated woman may have been a factor. Revenge,
more than a dozen
years later, was sweeter for the wait: Working for Imperatriz, she earned her second solo title in 1995 using a theme — a story line involving camels — that Imperio
Serrano had rejected when she proposed it to them in the early '80s.
"I guess they didn't like to win, because they haven't won since," she says acerbically.
Brazil remains a country drenched in machismo, and Carnaval falls prey to the same sexist attitudes that have kept women out of power in other spheres of life.
"A samba school is a complicated milieu. There's always a little prejudice
that women are pretty for displaying as a symbol of beauty," says Marcia
co-carnavalesca, with her husband, of Salgueiro — the only other woman to lead one of this year's top 14 clubs. "There's a certain resistance [to women] in the work
market in general where control and management are concerned."
Observers say times are changing. They cite the presence of many openly
gay carnavalescos as evidence of diminishing machismo. As an older generation
Carnaval leaders and workers retires, younger people with less conservative attitudes are taking over.
But Cunha, the openly gay carnavalesco for Sao Clemente, describes Carnaval
— for all its frills and flounces, fun and fabulousness — as still a "macho
it comes to giving orders or making decisions, men, whatever their sexual orientation, automatically command greater respect.
And in discussions about exciting young carnavalescos poised to become
the new leaders of the pack, the names that come up most often — Cunha,
Alexandre Louzada — all belong to men.
Magalhaes says every Carnaval leaves her exhausted from pouring in so much "patience, hard work and more patience — and a lot of sweat."
Her preparations begin at least six months beforehand, when she sits
in the spacious library of her Copacabana apartment mulling over possibilities
for the samba
school's crucial story line, which the parade will illustrate. She immerses herself in reference books and maps.
This year, Magalhaes is pulling out the stops for a parade honoring
brazilwood, the coveted red-hued wood that gave the country its name and
Magalhaes an obvious
choice of hair color. During the colonial era, brazilwood became a prime export of the city of Cabo Frio, Imperatriz's sponsor for Carnaval 2004.
Late Monday, close to midnight, Imperatriz's seven floats and 30 wings
of marchers will have exactly 80 minutes to perform beneath the lights
of the Sambodrome,
before judges who award points for such elements as bateria, story line, samba and costumes.
It's nerve-racking, but the resourceful Magalhaes has a secret for coping with the stress.
"You have a tranquilizer," she said. "Then you stay calm."