Sign up for podcast updates and more!
Carmen Miranda lived her life to a beat that was all her own. The incredible singer, dancer and all around entertainer brought her colorful and creative spirit to audiences on the stage and screen for decades, becoming one of the highest paid women in the United States after emigrating there in the 1940’s. Her star rose and fell and rose again but above it all, she was Carmen!
Get to know Storm Large, the narrator for our incredible, colorful episode about Carmen Miranda! Storm (yup, that’s her real name!) is a singer, actor, activist, playwright AND author. In this interview she takes us through her journey as an artist and tell us how we can start writing our own songs.
STORM LARGE Once upon a time, there was a tiny girl who would reach new heights, dancing with a tower of fruit piled high on her head. Her name was Maria.
LARGE In 1909, Maria’s father, José, moved their family from Portugal to Brazil where he opened a barber shop. Maria’s mother worked in a bustling boarding house. With six siblings running around, their little apartment on a narrow, cobblestone street in Rio de Janeiro was always filled with laughter and chatter—and music.
Even when there wasn’t very much money, there was always music in the Miranda household.
José loved opera. His favorite was called Carmen, which was about a rebellious young woman from a poor neighborhood. José saw a spark of that strong-willed character in his music-loving daughter.
He had no idea that Maria would one day use the name Carmen to defy his wishes and follow her dreams onto the stage.
LARGE I’m Storm Large. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy-tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
This week: Carmen Miranda.
<END THEME MUSIC>
LARGE Carmen’s childhood was filled with school, and chores, and her large Catholic family. But everything changed when Carmen was in her teen years. Her family had struggled with money for a long time. Finally at 14, Carmen had to leave school and begin working. She worked in a hat shop where she decorated windows and sold neckties to help make ends meet.
Then, her older sister, Olinda, became ill and was sent far away to Portugal to receive treatments for tuberculosis.
It was a frightening time. Carmen didn’t know if she’d ever see her sister again. But she kept her spirits up by singing while she sewed, embroidered, and designed hats. She also sang in the boardinghouse, where she served food to boisterous crowds of hungry workers. It was exhausting. She carried heavy trays of food through jostling crowds all clamoring for attention. But little Carmen, who was barely five feet tall, commanded more attention than anyone with her bright personality and warm, engaging voice.
LARGE One day, a composer and guitar player named Josué de Barros noticed the unstoppable girl as she sang her way from table to table, charming her customers. Josué thought Carmen’s gifts for music and movement might make her a natural with samba, the rhythmic music and dance of his home state of Bahia, Brazil.
Carmen loved everything about samba. The passion and excitement, the quick footwork, the drama of the costumes and…the performance. The more she learned from her new friend Josué, the more Carmen knew she belonged on stage.
Josué arranged a performance and Carmen just knew that soon – she would be a star. But there was one big problem. Carmen’s strict, Catholic father forbade it. It was one thing to enjoy the music of opera in his own home, but the very idea of a woman performing on stage was scandalous to him. And his own daughter? Absolutely not!
Carmen wouldn’t be stopped. Her star power was way too bright to be extinguished that easily. She began to rehearse in secret,knowing that if she used her real name, Maria, her father would surely find out. Instead, she decided to adopt the name of that fiery, rebellious opera character, Carmen.
LARGE Carmen Miranda was a hit in the nightclubs of Rio. Samba music had been popular among poorer people for decades, brought to Brazil by the Atlantic slave trade. It wasn’t performed in elite nightclubs, but a new president elected in 1930, encouraged new attitudes about music and culture. Carmen was the perfect ambassador for samba.
Her first hit went on to sell an unheard of 35,000 copies that year. Carmen was described by the newspaper as “the greatest singer in the city.”
Nowhere was the samba beat louder than the streets of Rio during Carnival, an annual celebration of Brazilian culture, with parades, floats, and balls. Carmen Miranda was right in the middle of it all. Her star power soon led her to appear in films that celebrated Brazilian music, dance, and the culture of Carnival.
LARGE As Carmen toured Brazil, promoting her films and music she was struck by the style of the Afro-Brazilian street vendors in the state of Bahia – where her mentor Josue came from. These women sold food on the side of the road, wearing loose fitting blouses trimmed with lace, colorful hooped skirts, beaded jewelry, turbans, and a pano da costa – which is a striped cloth worn over their shoulders or around their waist. Many carried trays of fruit on their heads.
In her next film, Banana da Terra, Carmen designed costumes inspired by these street vendors. Piles of chunky beads; ruffly sleeves; frilly, beaded skirts; and towering fruits atop a turban on her head. She also had special platform sandals made, to add several inches to her tiny frame.
Audiences were shocked that a massive radio and film star would choose to dress like a street vendor. Others were offended that Carmen, a white European woman from Portugal, would create her signature style from the clothes of poor Afro-Brazilian women. Carmen felt she was honoring the Bahianas and bringing their style to more people. It wasn’t the first time Carmen would create controversy.
In 1939 Carmen was offered a spot in a Broadway musical called The Streets of Paris. Just before Carmen set sail for New York City, she addressed her thousands of fans. “…In New York,” she told them, “I’m going to show them the rhythm of Brazilian music, the music of our land. …always remember me, and I will never forget you.”
LARGE Carmen was thirty years old when she arrived in New York City. It was packed with visitors from all over the globe, there for the 1939 World’s Fair. Soon they were packing the Broadway theater where Carmen electrified the stage in her first U.S production.
The show was a smash hit! Carmen was the talk of the town.
Carmen’s star didn’t only shine on Broadway. Her style took New York fashion by storm. Soon she was the spokesperson for lines of jewelry and turbans. Blouses and platform shoes were suddenly being stocked in all the biggest Manhattan department stores.
Her first American film role was in the 1940 20th Century Fox film Down Argentine Way. Carmen didn’t have a speaking part, but audiences were dazzled by her splashy musical numbers, and , even though her agent took a big chunk, Carmen was able to send $40,000 dollars back home to her family in Brazil.
LARGE As much as she loved the bright lights of Broadway and the sparkle of Hollywood, Carmen missed her homeland. She longed to be among her people, to speak Portuguese with her family, to sing samba where it was familiar. But she never imagined the reception she would get when she went home.
The first time Carmen returned to a Rio stage after a year abroad, she greeted the audience in English. They were stunned. Then, instead of singing her classic hits, she sang South American Way, from her first Hollywood film. When she finished, she was greeted with stony silence and even a couple of boos.
Carmen raced to her dressing room in tears. What had happened? She was a Brazilian in her heart. She had spent the first twenty years of her life there, learning to sing and dance. But the critics? They said she had “become Americanized.”
LARGE Distraught, Carmen cancelled the rest of her tour. Part of her wanted to flee to Hollywood and never return. Didn’t her Brazilian fans see that she’d brought their music, their dance, their fashions to an American audience? Shouldn’t that make them proud? The rejection was especially painful for Carmen because she had spent her early career convincing audiences she was Brazilian enough. Now she was too American?
But despite the rejection, Carmen wouldn’t give up on her Brazilian audience. Before she left Brazil she performed a special song. It was called, They Say I Came Back Americanized. She poked fun at herself and her Hollywood films. She insisted on her love for all things Brazil. This time, the audience loved her. The critics said, “The star of yesterday shone with a brightness that exceeded all expectations.”
LARGE That star continued to rise as Carmen returned to America. World War II was underway and President Roosevelt urged Hollywood to make films promoting the idea of friendly international relations. Carmen’s zany Latina bombshell image was a perfect match.
Her next film was a splashy Technicolor spectacle called That Night in Rio where Carmen had her first speaking role. Then came The Gang’s All Here, which featured Carmen and sixty showgirls dancing with massive bananas.
In 1945, Carmen was the highest paid woman in the United States. She was the first Latin American star to immortalize her handprints in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater. She bought a house in Beverly Hills and brought her family from Brazil to live with her. She seemed unstoppable.
LARGE But the end of World War II changed everything. Instead of making fun, splashy films focused on the wider world, Hollywood made quieter films focused on the American experience. Or at least, the experience of white America.
Carmen’s next few films got disappointing reviews. It was a blow. But in some ways, it was an opportunity. Carmen had been tired of always playing the ditsy Latina with broken English. Maybe the changes in Hollywood would mean new opportunities.
LARGE On her next film, Carmen met aspiring producer David Sebastian and fell in love. At age 38, she got married. However, when she was unable to have a child, her marriage changed, and everything became overwhelming.
Not only was her career in jeopardy, she also couldn’t have the family she wanted. Carmen fell into a deep depression. The treatments that her doctors prescribed muddled her brain and caused her to forget song lyrics on the rare occasion that she tried to perform. At age 45, Carmen, once so bold and vibrant, was withering away. Her sister Aurora decided something had to be done. There was only one thing that she knew would save her sister: returning to Brazil.
Carmen wasn’t sure. Depression was a bigger obstacle than she had ever faced before. Depression tells lies to your brain. It told Carmen that nothing mattered. That she didn’t matter. It told her she’d never hear the samba beat again.
But staying in LA was too painful. She let Aurora take her to Rio.
LARGE Nothing changed overnight. But slowly, with time, the familiar sights of Rio, the Brazilian food, the Portuguese language all around her—these things worked together on Carmen’s broken spirit. She had needed the love of this place that had made her who she was. She emerged from her depression and began to perform again.
She knew the words and she felt the beat.
Later, she would return to the United States and continue to represent Brazil in Hollywood. Carmen was Portuguese and Brazilian and American; a singer, a fashion icon, and an actor; she was all of these things at once.
But through it all, she was always Carmen.