Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha Born: February 9, 1909 (Marco de Canaveses, Portugal) Died: August 5, 1955 (Beverly Hills, California)
Carmen Miranda, nicknamed the “Brazilian Bombshell,” was in fact born in Portugal. Though she only spent the first year of her life in Portugal, and never returned, she nonetheless kept her Portuguese nationality and never became a citizen of her new home, Brazil. Miranda began working at a young age. She quit school at the age of 15 and began working at local clothing stores. Miranda had a talent and passion for singing, and at age 19 when a composer named Josue de Barros was staying at her family home, she got a chance to record her first album. Only a year later, in 1930, she released a song titled “Tai, Eu fiz Tudo Pra Você Gostar,” (I did everything to make you happy) and it became an instant hit. She became a household name in Brazil and the song “cemented her status as the premiere interpreter of the increasingly popular samba genre.”1
Over the next decade, Miranda continued to grow in popularity. She also made the transition into the world of acting, but she never left her music behind. She continued to perform on Brazillian radio but along with that, she starred in a series of Chanchadas.2 Chanchadas were Brazillian sound films dedicated to highlighting aspects of Brazillian culture. In 1939, her acting career struck gold when she caught the eye of Broadway producer Lee Shubert while performing in the musical Banana da Terra (which, coincidentally enough, is the musical that gave her that iconic “Baiana” image). Shubert was so impressed that he offered Miranda and her band a three-year contract in New York. That same year Miranda starred in The Streets of Paris, alongside Abbott and Costello. Her part consisted of only four words, in a language she didn’t really understand, but once again, she was an overnight sensation. Within 12 hours of her American debut, magazines like Vogue, Esquire, and Life, had her pictures all over their covers. Her appearance on Broadway also led to her career in Hollywood, and she signed a movie contract with 20th Century Fox. Miranda made her Hollywood debut in the musical Down Argentine Way, directed by Lee Cummings, in the year 1940. For five years she enjoyed success in the spotlight but after the ending of World War II, she found that the people were no longer interested in her character type, and her career began to decline.
The year of 1947 was not a good one for Miranda. After her original image fell out of style in Hollywood, she tried to reinvent herself in the comedy Copacabana, alongside Groucho Marx. Unfortunately, the film had a lukewarm reception and Miranda’s acting career began to fade. Miranda threw herself into work as a touring singer and performer. The pressure of her personal life and took a toll on her, and in the early 1950s she underwent treatment for drug addiction. Miranda starred in one last film, called Scared Stiff, before returning to her home in Brazil for a tour 1954. The tour, however, was not successful. In 1955, not long after filming a segment on the Jimmy Durante Show, Miranda died of a heart attack in her home, she was 46.
The flashy, “exotic” look of Carmen Miranda, was wildly popular up in the United States. The United Fruit Company was so inspired by her image that they designed a mascot based on Miranda. They named the mascot Senorita Chiquita Banana. Miranda also became a symbol of close diplomatic ties between Brazil and the United States. Unfortunately, whatever praise she received in the U.S was not matched in the Latin American countries she was supposed to be representing. Many saw the roles she portrayed as offensive, particularly as a result of her famous wardrobe, which over the years became increasingly over the top. Her outfit, fruit hat included, was originally based on the “poor afro-descendants of the northeastern state of Bahia,” and many did not take too kindly to the fact that a white woman was wearing their dress.3 Rather, they saw it as an act of mockery and appropriation. The backlash was so bad that Miranda went into self-exile for 14 years before returning to Brazil. To this day many Latin Americans have mixed feelings about Carmen Miranda and whether or not the legacy she left behind was a positive one.
Bloom, Stephan G. “After 30 Years, Carmen Miranda Still a Bombshell” The Edmonton Journal, August 26, 1984.
Vargas, Andrew S. “Stereotype or Samba Pioneer? A Look Back at the Controversial Legacy of Carmen Miranda” REMEZCLA, December 9, 2016. https://remezcla.com/film/tbt-carmen-miranda-brazil-actress-singer/.
1 Vargas, “Stereotype or Samba”
2 Vargas, “Stereotype or Samba”
3 Vargas, “Stereotype or Samba”