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“The Brazilian Bombshell” Carmen Miranda & Her Life with and without the Fruit Hat

First Posted: Jan 09, 2014 01:14 PM EST
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"The Brazilian Bombshell" to some and "The Chiquita Banana Girl" to others, Carmen Miranda (born Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha) was a bonafide star to all who knew her name. Frequently clad in exotic costumes and hats made of fruit, the Portuguese-Brazilian singer and actress rose to fame in Brazil before she became an international film and stage star.

Miranda and her family settled in Rio de Janero, Brazil after they moved from Marco de Canavezes, Portugal. She attended school until she left to work at a local store, where she often sang. She was discovered, and hired to work as a singer at a popular radio station. Her career at the station made her a local sensation, and it led to her receiving a record deal; earning her national fame in Brazil by the age of 19. Her film debut was in the Brazilian documentary A Voz do Carnaval (1933); and her first feature film debut was two years later in Alô, Alô, Brasil. Estudantes (1935) was the film that laminated Miranda in the hearts of Brazilian, audiences in the lead role of Mimi.

The Brazilian beauty churned out a series of musical hits in Brazil before she departed to meet hungry New York City audiences. She immediately took to the Broadway stage, becoming a hit despite the fact that she didn't speak English. Her inability to speak English would unfortunately earn her the image of "foreign bimbo," and the construction of her trademark "fruit dancer" persona would become an image that she would later come to resent.

Notwithstanding, her growing popularity earned her appearances in film after film, and she worked alongside stars like Betty Grable, Cesar Romero, Rita Moreno and Don Ameche. She became so admired that many Americans adopted her style of dress, and a cartoonized version of her, complete with her trademark fruit hat and her wide grin, was developed. Her trans-continental appeal kept her in films on fairly annual basis, barring a few gaps in her work timeline. She also made appearances on the fairly new form of media television.

Throughout her career Miranda faced skepticism and stereotyping, however. She was often reduced by Brazil's white elite due to her Afro-Brazilian background, and was continually obliged to prove her Brazilian identity. She was attacked by the press, who critiqued her image; one Brazilian publication even stated that she was "an affront to their cultural heritage." The elite would continue to bash her for being too "Americanized," particularly once she dyed her hair blond for films. The U.S. government also wronged Miranda, using her image during World War II as part of the Good Neighbor Policy (the United States' gesture toward Latin America, requesting reciprocal trade -- reasserting their influence in Latin America). She would also later realize that she was used as a cheap commodity for American consumption, who fed off the idea that Latin American women were "loud, sassy, and over-sexualized."

Miranda also struggled in her personal life; she suffered through an abusive marriage with producer David Sebastian and disabling drug abuse issues for many years. She collapsed from exhaustion and damage done by drugs, and was sent back to Brazil under doctor's orders. She returned to the States after recovery, but died of a heart attack at 46 years old, just hours after appearing on the Jimmy Durante Show. Her body was returned to her adopted country, Brazil, upon her wishes. More than 60,000 people attended her ceremony and more than 500,000 individuals escorted her body to its resting place.

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