COVER STORY : Xuxa’s Very Big Neighborhood : Brazil’s glittery godmother of children’s TV has conquered Latin America, invaded Europe and set her sights on the U.S. market
A giant spaceship, Xuxa’s navio espacial , descends from the ceiling of a huge sound stage billowing the steam of melting dry ice. When it lands on the stage, a door bearing a pair of giant lips, a la Mick Jagger without the menace, opens, and she descends into a huge studio playground filled with colorful chutes and ladders, giant candy canes, huge lollipops and a gaggle of excited and dancing children.
A sort of nice, godmotherly Madonna dressed in knee-high boots, short sequined skirt and glittery blouse, open more often than not along the midriff, she steps down to the stage past an honor guard of teen-age Paquitas, a squad of equally blond, equally leggy back-up singers dressed like drum majorettes.
Jumping up and down, the studio audience chants her name:
Xu, Xu, Xu . . . Xa, Xa, Xa.
Many of the chanting fans are parents.
With the Paquitas struggling to keep the zealous children from tackling her, Xuxa spreads her arms, greets her baixinhos or “shorties” and sings:
“Have you brushed your teeth . . .?”
“Have you eaten your breakfast . . .?”
The camera zooms in for a close-up of her face.
Shutting her sky-blue eyes and putting a finger gently to her lips, she blows a kiss to all her viewers. Then the Paquitas bring her a breakfast of fruit, juice and yogurt. Eating delicately, she reminds the children about the benefits of a good diet.
Who in the world is this Xuxa?
For those Americans who don’t know the answer already, Xuxa’s the biggest Brazilian cultural export since bossa nova.
Famous, sexy, charismatic and very, very blond, 29-year-old Maria da Graca Meneghel, or Xuxa (pronounced shoo - sha ), is the reigning queen of Latin American children’s television. She is part Pee-wee Herman and part Madonna. She is an ex-Ford Agency model who is probably better known to most Latin American pre-adolescents than Michael Jackson. She is a multicultural, multimedia phenomenon who is deathly afraid of being kidnaped but sparks riots whenever she is seen here. She is a crossover star who regularly leads the Brazilian movie box office, the TV ratings and the pop music charts.
And now she wants to conquer the rest of the planet.
“I feel that I can bring my message to the whole world,” she said in an interview at her heavily guarded home near the beach here, “not only to the children of America. I want to bring it to Germany and Japan, too. I feel I have something important to bring them.”
Xuxa, who grew up in a broken home and took up modeling at 16 to help support her mother and four brothers and sisters, now regularly jets between Rio, Buenos Aires, Barcelona and New York the way most people drive around town. In the last decade, she has been linked romantically with ex-soccer great Pele, Argentine President Carlos Menem and John F. Kennedy Jr.
She is one of the richest people in show business. According to Forbes magazine, in 1991 Xuxa was the world’s 37th-highest-paid entertainer and the first Latin American to crack the magazine’s Top 40. Last year, Xuxa earned an estimated $19 million from her shows, records and product licensing agreements, just behind techno-thriller author Tom Clancy and just ahead of actor Mel Gibson.
She started on TV in 1982 with Brazil’s No. 2 network and four years later jumped to the giant Globo network--the centerpiece of a media company that includes magazines, newspapers and records.
And she may be the hardest-working TV star anywhere. She is already working regularly on two continents and is aiming for a third.
On Wednesday and Thursday, Xuxa tapes three Portuguese shows a day at Globo network’s studio in Rio. On Saturday and Sunday, she tapes five Spanish shows a day in Buenos Aires. When she is not taping in South America, she is probably in Barcelona taping her new European show, “Xuxa Park.” In between, she still manages live performances and personal appearances.
“I like my work, but all my work is like a conquest,” she says. “Children are the most important thing in the world, but a new child is born every day and there is no guarantee that they will automatically like me.”
More than 20 million Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking children watch “The Xuxa Show” in 16 countries every day. In the last six years, she has sold more than 15 million records and 35 million comic books. More than 2 million Spanish-speaking U.S. children already watch Xuxa on Saturday and Sunday mornings on Los Angeles’ KMEX-TV, Channel 34, and other Univision network TV stations.
Now she wants to take on the rest of North America. She has bought a New York co-op and a vacation home in the Hamptons on Long Island and expects to break into the U.S. record market with her first English-language album this summer. She says she will launch an English-language TV show next year.
“I’ve been a success in the Third World but I want to know the First World,” she says. “I’m not learning languages to do shows but to bring my message to all children. I speak the language of love. All children can understand my language.”
If Xuxa succeeds in translating herself into English, it could transform her already impressive accomplishments into a huge, cross-cultural entertainment and marketing juggernaut and add a new exotic name to the lists of dents in parental pocketbooks.
In Latin America, however, there are no doubts. In Brazil, where she achieved her first great success, 5 million viewers tune in as the Xuxa machine cranks up every morning at about 7:30, Monday to Saturday.
For the next 4 3/4 hours, Xuxa presides over a hectic but supersweet mix of cartoons, musical acts, games, small talk, anti-drug messages, earnest environmentalism, hygiene tips and above all lots of abracos e beijinhos : “hugs and kisses.”
As she walks among the children, who dance and play on the slides and ladders, she regularly reapplies her lipstick so that she can leave a fresh little kiss on every cheek she meets.
“I love my shorties,” says Xuxa, “and I speak directly to them. Above all, I try to give them what they want. I’m not some kind of lady who dresses up with a long nose or makeup or pretends to be Little Red Riding Hood. They know that sort of thing is false. Xuxa is always Xuxa.
“Most importantly, the kids run my show. Compared to most of the shows they are used to, my show is very uncontrolled and emotional. The shorties are free to be themselves, to dance and sing.”
Homero Icaza Sanchez, a Brazilian TV and public opinion analyst, agrees. “She isn’t old Auntie,” he says. “The way she speaks with children is direct and intimate, she speaks their language. This has made her the biggest children’s phenomenon in Latin American history.”
Almost every day the children bring her gifts, sometimes drawings and homemade tributes, sometimes expensive clothes and even pets. One fan recently gave her a pure-bred Yorkshire terrier.
Xuxa is generous in return. Many of the competitors in the show’s organized games--boys against girls obstacle races or musical chairs, blindfolded pudding-eating contests for parents--win fistfuls of cruzeiros, the local currency.
But what they want most of all is Xuxa. They strain to touch her, line up to be kissed. Outside the studio, Xuxa experiences the same adulation. If she appears on a street anywhere in Brazil or Latin America, she is instantly mobbed. In Sao Paulo recently, deserted streets turned into scenes of pandemonium as her tour bus tried to make its way to a hotel.
Success has taken its toll. She says it’s been five years since she walked outside her house alone. She never goes anywhere without a team of heavily armed, pistol-packing bodyguards and never sleeps in the same residence for more than two nights in a row. Brazil’s rising level of violence has even led to speculation that she may move permanently to Argentina.
Xuxamania is something that English-speaking Americans probably haven’t experienced since the pop culture reigns of Elvis Presley or the Beatles. The Globo network’s various other media interests keep her on the cover of national magazines and in newspapers.
In Argentina, her show draws audiences double those of the most popular regularly scheduled program. Her biggest musical hit, “Ilarie,” has become a stadium anthem for Argentine soccer fans.
She already has a gold record in Mexico, where her TV show won’t premiere until later this year.
She is also Brazil’s most popular movie star. Her first feature release drew more than 5 million paying customers (a mega-hit by the standards of Brazilian cinema) and her current feature has drawn well over 3.5 million.
Her live shows regularly draw upward of 40,000 children to stadiums from Sao Paulo to Santiago.
One in seven Puerto Ricans wears Xuxa sandals, and her Xuxa doll outsells Barbie there. Mainland U.S. children--mostly in Southern California and South Florida--have snapped up more than 1 million pairs of Xuxa sandals and 600,000 copies of her latest record.
And there are Xuxa comic books, bubble gum, candies, dolls, clothing . . . the fans will buy just about anything that has her name or picture on it. Product-marketing brought Xuxa $5.2 million in 1991 alone, Forbes estimated.
A company that signs Xuxa up, and signs away 10% of sales, can expect to see an almost instant sales increase of 40%. She has deals with the South American arms of such multinationals as Nestle, Avon and Warner-Lambert.
But the show itself is Xuxa’s main promotional vehicle, and advertisers--many of them hawking Xuxa products--snap up spots during the ample breaks. According to Sanchez, the key to her reach was the decision to keep syndication rights low, about $3,000 an hour in Venezuela and as low as $300 an hour in poor markets such as Ecuador.
Sanchez has little doubt Xuxa can make her charisma and marketing techniques work in the United States. “The language of children knows no borders,” he says. “She’s conquered Brazil and is consolidating in Latin America. She should do well in the United States, even with some of the problems that have been raised there.”
Some Americans disagree. Some critics have attacked Xuxa for being too commercial. She has also been called immoral and a danger to children.
Other Americans have asked why Xuxa and all her Paquitas are white and blond. Brazil is nearly 50% nonwhite. But even among the country’s whites--most of Portuguese or Italian descent--her Northern Italian-Austrian-German looks are highly unusual.
It’s hard not to see this as part of Brazil’s deep but “gentle” segregation. Yet, like most things in Brazil, race doesn’t fit into typical American categories. Xuxa first achieved national fame as the girlfriend of Pele, Brazil’s most famous black person, and lived with him for six years.
The woman considered by many to be the brains (some would say Svengali) behind Xuxa’s rise to the top--her producer, director and personal manager Marlene Mattos--is of mixed race and has strong native-Indian features.
“Some people say that I shouldn’t do a show because I am blond,” Xuxa says. “But Brazil is a country of mixed races. You can be blond, brunette, mulatto; you can be anything.”
As for American concerns about her “provocative” clothing, Xuxa bluntly asks whether she might be more acceptable to Americans if she was ugly.
“I think Americans show a bit of false morality on this,” she says. “I don’t see anyone complaining about Wonder Woman.
“I am not sexual with the children. I am sensual and loving and don’t believe it is a wrong to dress beautifully. Children like that. Americans have lots of perfection but very little emotion. A perfect mechanism loses its spirit. I think Americans could use some more emotion.”
Xuxa’s answer to accusations of excessive commercialism is equally direct. “The purchase of my products creates jobs, and Latin America needs jobs more than anything else,” she says. “Walt Disney did the same thing with Mickey Mouse.”
But her biggest sins in the eyes of her detractors were posing for nude photos as a young model and her appearance, at age 18, in a Brazilian soft-core film called “Love Strange Love.” The film shows her seducing a 12-year-old boy.
“I’m sure you heard of my film,” she says, bringing up the subject of the movie herself. “People say I have done bad things, but the dirty thoughts are not in the minds of the children; they are not in my mind. They are in the minds of adults. I did the film a long time ago, and I don’t do that sort of thing anymore. I was very young.”
In Brazil, where the government once printed her picture on the cover of an edition of the constitution, audiences have been forgiving. The idea that she should be banned from children’s television for her past actions is largely considered absurd. Nude photos are considered a fact of life for young Brazilian models, and the pressure to do them is intense. Many of the country’s more serious stars have appeared in similar films.
Dick Block, a Santa Monica-based TV consultant who specializes in screening syndicated shows for U.S. stations, believes Xuxa could overcome her critics if she shows sensitivity to American issues.
“I don’t see anything wrong with her hugging and clothing. In fact, I think we could probably use a little more of it here, especially if she helps children distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate affection,” he says. “The Victorian standards have shown themselves to be counterproductive, and I think she could become popular with the cosmopolitan populations in the East and West.
“As for her film, I agree with Liz Taylor: ‘Success is the best deodorant.’ Talent will out. The children’s TV market is growing ,and there should be a lot of interest.”
Many Brazilian parents also wonder what all the fuss is about. When told that some American parents think Xuxa is “dirty,” Thais Brito, 39, a poor, black mother of six, echoed the comments of many Brazilian parents: “What? She’s a good lady. Xuxa is against drugs, warns the children against smoking and to eat the right foods and get vaccinations. She’s also beautiful and my children like her music.”
Xuxa is also respected, even by many who dislike her show, for the work she has done with Brazilian street children. Xuxa is one of the only important Brazilians to publicly speak out about the crisis among the country’s youth.
Last fall, her campaign against poverty and violence reached new levels after police killed two Sao Paulo teen-agers in what was described as an attempt to kidnap her.
Soon after the incident, a young homeless black girl miraculously survived a bullet wound to the head. Six of the girl’s friends, ages 9 to 17, weren’t so lucky; their bodies were found in a ditch near a suburban shantytown. The assailants belonged to a gang of hit men who killed children-for-hire in an attempt to clean up the streets.
Xuxa was the first important figure to rush to the girl’s aid, an act that may have saved the teen-ager from revenge attacks. The girl was able to identify her assailants.
Xuxa also invited the girl to live in her house and suggested becoming her legal guardian. The girl thanked Xuxa, but refused, saying what she really wanted was real parents. Xuxa, however, pays for the food, clothing, shelter and education for 250 other poor children.
Despite all the good works and climate of tolerance, not all Brazilian parents are thrilled with Xuxa. In particular, many are fed up with their children’s constant demand for Xuxa products and the wish of some very young children to dress in Xuxa-inspired short skirts and knee-high boots. Still, blame here tends to get placed on indulgent parents.
“Yes, many parents are responsible for the Xuxa excesses,” said Rio de Janeiro psychologist Regina Newlands Trotto, 40. “I can’t really say if Xuxa is a good or a bad thing, but I am concerned about the strong primitive reactions she inspires. Normal children will grow out of it, but weak ones can become obsessed. On the other hand, many children are lonely and she is a part-time mother for many of them.”
But what do the kids think? Five girls, ages 12 to 14, sit in the living room of a suburban high-rise apartment. All are certified Xuxa fanatics. Spread out before them is a pile of Xuxa records, tapes and books. One, Juliana Franca, 12, proudly says her room is a “shrine to her TV godmother.”
“Xuxa’s fantastic, I watch her show whenever I can. Every Saturday during school and every day during holidays. She’s very nice, and I cut out everything about her in the papers. I even took her modeling class.”
“A lot of people like Xuxa but won’t admit it,” says Floppy Cortines, 13. “She sings songs about what drugs do to you and teaches us about the environment. I have all her records.”
When asked what they want to be when they grow up, the girls respond one by one: “computer analyst, like my dad;” . . . “electrical engineer;” . . . “chemical engineer;” . . . “lawyer or doctor;” . . . “veterinarian.”
Floppy’s father, Alberto, a travel agent, listens to the Xuxa chatter and sighs: “No, I don’t like Xuxa, but there’s not much I can do about it. If I resist too much, it will just get worse. It’s a phase, I suspect . . . I hope they’ll grow out of it.”