So now that I’ve explained the preparation behind my Muse position, let’s get to the juicy details of my recent trip back down the Samba avenida!
A few days after arriving in Rio, despite the fact that I hadn’t been officially announced as a Muse, I made the long, arduous journey from the Zona Sul (south zone) out to Madureira, one of Rio’s most famous Samba suburbs in the Zona Norte (north zone) to meet the President of Imperio Serrano and attend their street rehearsal.
In order for me to get there, I had the choice to take the metro to the very end of the line, change to the train line, catch it almost to the end of its line, then walk to the school’s headquarters through some not entirely safe streets. Or I could pay a fortune in an Uber and get stuck in bottleneck traffic. Both journeys take between 1.5 – 2 hours each way, and I would have to go at least twice a week in the months leading up to Carnival in order to build up my street stamina/resistance and practise with the bateria (drum squad).
On my very first night, fighting the debilitating exhaustion of jetlag, I decided not to brave public transport and just take an Uber.
For people who have never travelled to a developing country before, going from the glamorous, cool, leafy beach suburb of Ipanema to the dusty, dirty and breathtakingly hot streets of Madureira is like arriving on Mars. For a start, the roads are full of potholes, and as soon as there’s a storm (which happens often in the summer), they easily flood. Everywhere you look, slums, graffiti and the cruel reality of a city that has grown far too quickly in numbers and not caught up in infrastructure or health/education/employment opportunities surround you.
My heart always hurts when I return here, and a sombre, heavy feeling overcomes me as I’m blatantly reminded of the truly privileged life I lead back home.
Arriving that first night at Imperio, I was both excited and anxious.
Will the community welcome me? Will the President approve of me? Will I be made to show my Samba skills and sing the school’s enredo (theme song), which I was still trying to get my tongue around, in front of everyone?
Despite going over a million different scenarios in my mind of things that could possibly go wrong, the one thing I hadn’t prepared for was the very frosty reception from some of the other Australian dancers who would also be parading with the school.
After going inside to meet with the President, where I received a big hug and a genuinely warm welcome, I came back outside for the street rehearsal and overheard an Aussie dancer say to one of my dancers, “We didn’t realise YOU were associated with OUR school!”
No one owns a school. The school belongs to the community, passistas will often dance with multiple schools and the harsh truth is that the majority of Rio’s Samba schools only welcome foreigners as they desperately need their business.
I felt like I was back in primary school all over again. Why do women have to continue to try to divide and conquer? Aren’t we all just guests (and gringas) here? Shouldn’t we be banding together to support each other and show the local community our mutual love of Samba?
I won’t lie that there was a moment I wanted to say some very unladylike things, but I remembered how I’d been brought up, took a deep breath and strutted on by.
This was only the beginning of what was to become yet another ‘Musa’ rollercoaster ride, taking me high and low, spinning me around and spitting me out at the other end.
The only bonus was that I was expecting all of it this time around.
After my first night at Imperio, the cat was out of the bag in the local community that I was going to be Muse, but I still hadn’t officially announced my position through the Brazilian media or online to my networks.
The reason was that I was waiting for a very special opportunity to share my news with the world.
When my Brazilian publicist had called me the week before, she hinted that I should wait until I arrived in Rio before sharing my news, as she had some exciting surprises for me once I arrived.
Not every dancer has a publicist, but I had decided that it was a worthwhile investment for my career, and thanks to my Carnival guardian angel, Quiteria Chagas, I happened to now have one of the best in the industry.
“Amiga, you must call Gisele – she is a true professional and will make sure your unique story gets out to the Brazilian people, as we need some positive news about how our culture is being spread around the world by wonderful artists like yourself!”
The moment I met Gisele, I knew we’d be a great team. She listened intently as I told her my enormous journey from a naive 21 year old embarking on my first trip to Rio until now, at 37 years old, when I was about to debut as the first Australian Muse in Rio’s top division of Carnival.
“Mishel, firstly, I am so impressed with your language skills. I wasn’t sure if you’d be able to handle interviews in Portuguese, but now that we’ve met and you’ve told me your story in such detail, I’m confident that we can get you maximum exposure via magazine, radio and TV interviews because you sound just like a Carioca!”
I was so happy to hear that, as it was one of my main concerns. Even though I’d been in contact with Brazilian Portuguese for the past 16 years and my conversational and comprehension skills were quite fluent, I told Gisele that I was aware that my formal Portuguese was not up to scratch – I struggled with advanced grammatical concepts and more distinguished vocabulary.
“Oh don’t be silly my love! You speak better Portuguese than most Brazilians!”
With that, she picked up her phone and started leaving a bunch of voice messages with her various media contacts, confirming that SIM (Yes!), the Aussie Musa had arrived, and CLARO (Of course!), she was available for interviews.
“Are you ready minha Musa (my Muse)?”
“Ready for what?”
“Well, now that you’ve landed, it’s going to be a wild ride ahead! First, we need new images of you. All of your previous ones are beautiful, but we need something less ‘Carnival’ and more ‘runway fashion glamour’. So, what clothes did you bring with you?”
“Ummm…not clothes appropriate for a fashion shoot!
“Well then, I know just who to call”.
I’d already spent a fortune over the years on professional images, and to be honest, was really over photo shoots! The time spent on hair, make up, choosing the outfits and matching accessories, the awkward poses during the shoots that left your body aching for days, the temperamental weather conditions and uncomfortable costumes, the crowds gathering around to watch on and interrupt you for selfies, and then the lengthy editing and self-critiquing process afterwards.
“Gisele, can’t we just use some of the images I already have? I really can’t afford to do another shoot, and quite frankly, couldn’t be bothered.”
She looked at me in shock.
“Darling, if you want to be taken seriously by serious media here in Brazil, you need some seriously stunning images!”
This Muse business was all so very serious!
“Ok then, but please let it be an afternoon shoot as I can’t bear sunrise ones.”
“Oh you are such a diva already! You and Andre will work together perfectly!”
Enter Andre, the kitschiest, loudest, most flamboyant fashion stylist in Rio. Arriving with a treasure trove of luggage, he began pulling glittery things out of multiple suitcases and throwing them about the room.
“Darling! Tell me your vision, tell me your dream! Let me transform you!”
I watched on in wonder as he pulled out ball gowns, cocktail dresses, carnival headpieces, stiletto platforms, bodysuits, bikinis, corsets, knee-high boots, crowns and endless amounts of jewellery! It was like watching Mary Poppins dig into her bottomless handbag!
Suddenly, in that moment, I became a giddy little girl again and forgot all about my lack of interest in doing yet another photoshoot.
“Andre, where have you been all my life? I need you full-time as my stylist!”
“Oh darling, you couldn’t afford me! But just for today, we are going to make you look and feel like the true Queen you are!”
God I love gay men!
A blissful afternoon was then spent on the spectacular beaches of Barra da Tijuca in Rio and, despite getting covered in sand, drenched in seawater, almost run over by cars and bombarded by teenage instagrammers, I didn’t mind one bit. I don’t think I’ll EVER do another photoshoot without a team of hair/make up artists, a stylist, wardrobe assistant and of course someone to make me fresh caipirinhas all afternoon! I’m ruined for life!
As we wrapped up the shoot, my publicist seemed anxious.
“Is everything ok Gisele?”
“Sim amor. I just need to get the images from the photographer straight away. I don’t want to miss this opportunity.”
“I can’t tell you or promise anything. All I can say is that I’m giving this all I’ve got because I know you deserve it!”
I had no idea what she was talking about, until I woke up the next morning to find myself on the cover of Brazilian Vogue.