Carmen Miranda was a funky singer known for her jiggling bosoms, fruit-basket hairpieces and platform shoes. She was, in the words of Charles Treves, organizer of the Carmen Miranda exhibit at the Houston International Festival, "Technicolor in the age of Technicolor," a "mix of Brazilian culture with American vision" and the nation's first "pop artist," who became the highest-paid woman in the United States in 1946. In fact, a reignited passion for all things Carmen has reached such a fever pitch that Treves plans to relaunch the long dead Carmen Miranda fan club here at the festival, fueled in large part by the fact that -- well, there's just no other way to put this -- she's a real hit with the gays.
"Carmen Miranda is a gay icon," says Alan Davidson, the organizer of the recent Carmen Miranda look-alike contest at Rich's who is known to many by the name of his female alter ego, Appassionetta Clymaxx. "Every gay man who's ever done drag has had a basket of fruit on his head at one point." So why the appeal? "She was the classic Hollywood icon: She was beautiful, she was foreign, she was funny, she wore great outfits.Gay men just seem to resonate with that."
Of course, the hats have something to do with it. One contestant at Rich's had such a huge headpiece that some were concerned there wouldn't be enough room on the stage. The winner of the contest will perform at the International Festival's Carmen Miranda Cabaret with the "official" Carmen look-alike who is flying up from Brazil with a three-piece samba band. "That's really the big news.They have an official Carmen Miranda look-alike, who is a man, and somebody they bill as her sister -- I don't know what that means," Davidson says.
But aside from appearing in the Cabaret and winning a trip to Rio de Janeiro, the winning Carmen double won't be considered "official." "I think we only have one 'official,' " Davidson says. "I would hate to see a catfight on stage although it might make great media." But the show promises to be a lot of fun anyway. "It's more tongue-in-cheek and campy than it is, as we say, reverential."
The concept for the Cabaret came about when Davidson was talking with the event's promoter, Kathi Austin, who wanted to reach out to the gay community and make its members feel welcome at the festival. "We just sort of bounced one idea off the other, and the next thing we knew, we had drag queens swinging from the rafters."
But Carmen's real connection to the festival is her native Brazil, the featured country at this year's festival. The Brazilians' adoration of Carmen has led to a Carmen Miranda museum in Rio, though ironically Carmen was not always appreciated in her homeland. At the height of her popularity, she was condemned for being too "Americanized" and for creating the stereotype of all Brazilian women being dim-witted tramps. But Treves thinks it's unfair to expect one person to represent an entire country. "Do you think Pelé creates a fair portrayal of Brazil? A country's a country.But she portrays a lot of Brazil, of its heritage.She brought the sounds and costumes of Brazil to these shores."
In addition to the Cabaret, Treves will supply a Carmen Miranda exhibit inside the main Houston Public Library branch with records, Broadway playbills, memorabilia and pictures of some of the many Carmen impersonators, known as "Carmen Copies," including Bob Hope and Mickey Rooney. A Carmen booth will also be outside hawking everything from postcards to refrigerator magnets.
As to the reason for Carmen's lasting popularity, Treves does have a theory: "The music. The gaiety. The samba!"
The festival promises to provide all three.