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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The world’s next big drag queen is Brazilian

Brazilian drag queen Pabllo Vittar prepares backstage before starting her concert in her hometown, São Luís, Maranhão state, Brazil, on June 8, 2024. Vittar’s latest album covers popular music from Brazil’s north and northeast, where she grew up. She is working on an album that mixes in English and Spanish. (Victor Moriyama/The New York Times)

By Jack Nicas

Sao Paulo’s main avenue was packed in June with thousands of people draped in the yellow and green of the Brazilian flag and captivated by a commanding figure atop a tractor-trailer rigged with speakers.

From above, the scene could have maybe passed for one of the many political rallies held in the same spot by former President Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian far-right leader who has infamously declared that he could never love a gay son.

(Though, to be fair, the enormous rainbow flag would be a giveaway.)

It was, in fact, one of the world’s largest Pride parades, and the person atop the sound truck was Phabullo Rodrigues da Silva, 30, the gay son of a working-class single mother in Brazil’s north.

Yet everyone in the crowd knew him as Pabllo Vittar, a 6-foot, 2-inch drag queen in a glittering cutoff Brazilian soccer jersey and shredded jean shorts — one of the biggest pop stars in this nation of 203 million.

“It’s so beautiful to see you in yellow and green!” Pabllo Vittar shouted to those in the crowd, many wearing fishnet and G-strings. She had called on the revelers to wear Brazil’s national colors to reclaim the Brazilian flag from Bolsonaro’s right-wing movement. “Let’s dance!”

RuPaul may still be the queen of queens, but the heir to the global crown has arrived.

Over the past seven years, Pabllo Vittar has become, by some measures, the world’s most successful drag queen. She has six studio albums (one gold, one platinum and two double platinum), her own fashion release with Adidas, a global ad campaign with Calvin Klein and 1.8 billion streams of her songs.

She has toured the United States and Europe; taken the stage at Lollapalooza and Coachella; performed alongside Madonna at Madonna’s biggest concert; and sang at the United Nations for Queen Elizabeth’s birthday.

Pabllo Vittar calls RuPaul, 63, the American drag queen pioneer, an inspiration, though they have never met. And RuPaul has shot down any talk of competition. “I LOVE & SUPPORT @PablloVittar,” RuPaul wrote on Twitter, the platform now known as X, in 2022. “Shame on you catty Twitter trolls trying to create a rivalry.”

By the metric of the modern internet, however, it is hard to argue with the idea that Pabllo Vittar has begun to surpass her childhood idol. Across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and YouTube, Pabllo Vittar has a combined 36 million followers, three times that of RuPaul.

In the process, Pabllo Vittar has come to represent Brazil’s LGBTQ+ paradox.

In addition to being home to a crew of breakout drag stars, Brazil has adopted some of the world’s most expansive gay rights. Gay couples can marry and adopt children; transgender people can legally choose their gender; homophobic slurs are a crime; and so-called conversion therapy, which seeks to make gay people straight, is banned.

Yet for years Brazil has also ranked among the deadliest countries for gay and transgender people. Since 2008, more than 1,840 transgender people have been killed in Brazil, more than double the next deadliest country, Mexico, according to tracking by Transgender Europe, an advocacy group. Brazil has led the rankings every year since tracking began.

“We never know when it will be my friend, when it will be my family, when it will be me,” Pabllo Vittar said in an interview. “This is the biggest goal of my career: To make it so younger people don’t feel this fear when they go out.”

Pabllo Vittar has emerged as one of Brazil’s loudest gay voices against a right-wing movement in the country, led by conservative Christian groups, that has made a heterosexual vision of gender, sex and marriage a central part of its political strategy.

To Pabllo Vittar’s gay and transgender fans, she has been a powerful inspiration.

“She gives us such a sense of security,” said João Rabelo, 28, a publicist from the northern Brazilian city where Pabllo Vittar was born. “Today I can walk in the street with my boyfriend relaxed and not fear death.”

While the public largely sees Pabllo Vittar dressed as a woman, the star lives life as a man. Gender “is a societal construct,” Rodrigues da Silva (the star’s real name) said. “What’s most important is how we feel inside. I feel like a boy, and when Pabllo Vittar arrives, it doesn’t make me a woman.”

On pronouns, she is indifferent — when out of drag. “If I’m in drag, use the feminine, for the love of God,” she said.

Rodrigues da Silva was born in Maranhao, Brazil’s poorest state, to a single mother who worked as a nurse technician. By age 5, he was seeking the stage, starting with the choir at church. “I just wanted to sing,” he said, “and I wanted people to see me sing.”

He said he was mocked by classmates for being effeminate but his mother always supported him. By his teenage years, he was singing on YouTube and in bars. Then, at a Halloween party at a gay club on his 18th birthday, he tried drag.

“I had never experienced such a powerful sensation of freedom — to be able to express what was going on inside my head,” he said.

At the same time, a video of him singing a Whitney Houston song was going viral. The club’s owner, Yan Hayashi, and a music producer, Rodrigo Gorky, quickly saw the potential and began managing Rodrigues da Silva as Pabllo Vittar. (The name was in homage to a drag queen Rodrigues da Silva knew earlier.)

Pabllo Vittar quickly landed a gig fronting a band on a late-night variety show. Then she began releasing music, and by 2017, she had Brazil’s No. 1 song.

Pabllo Vittar has since become one of Brazil’s most dependable draws, with a high-pitched voice, elaborate dance routines and a high energy show. She has also gained a moderate international following, mostly among the LGBTQ+ community, but is now working on an album that mixes in English and Spanish.

After sitting for an interview as Rodrigues da Silva, she emerged as Pabllo Vittar hours later at a charity concert in her native state of Maranhao. The transformation typically takes three hours. (Like an athlete collecting free sneakers, she has amassed a collection of 200 wigs donated from a London wig maker.)

She wore a tight top that imitated the state flag, a blonde wig, white boots, a tiny skirt and a G-string. Waiting to take the stage with her cadre of male dancers in the Brazilian heat, her hair stylist used a fan to cool her butt.

“My favorite place in the world,” she said. Then she strutted onstage and the crowd erupted.

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