For anyone who has ever dreamed of dancing in Rio Carnival, the images of spectacular costumes, magnificent floats, vibrant live drumming and bronzed Brazilian bodies generally come to mind….however the reality behind the scenes is unfortunately a totally different world.
The Sambadrome is located in Cidade Nova, a dingy suburb just outside Rio’s CBD, and is fringed with slums. During the day, it’s a bustling traffic zone and is actually used as a thoroughfare for traffic entering the city’s centre.
However at night, its back streets are rife with seedy characters, prostitution and drug dealing.
Sorry to burst your bubble, but I wish someone had told me about this before I encountered it first hand – complete with the stench of urine, the piles of garbage and the feral dogs – as I made my way to my atelier’s ‘headquarters’ (basically a sweat shop full of gay men working 24/7 in horrible conditions of 40C heat, no air conditioning, eating and sleeping on site and surrounded by divas with hot glue guns!).
Although I had received a sketch of my costume before I arrived, I had to attend a number of fittings to make sure nothing was going to fly off in the middle of dancing, or fall apart as soon as I stepped onto the avenue.
I also knew from past experience not to expect it to look anything like in the sketch, and not to demand too much of the atelier, otherwise I would end up looking like the gnarly Evil Witch from Snow White rather than a sexy Maleficent-esque creature as intended.
After the initial fitting, where I was presented with a slashed black leather catwoman suit and spiky devil horns (which the atelier, mind you, was very proud of), I left in despair.
I hadn’t travelled 36 hours from the complete opposite side of the world to look like a Warner Brothers movie character.
I had paid through the teeth for this costume, and although it had to be in line with the Samba school’s enredo (theme), I still wanted to be able to wear it again for shows once I came back home.
After trying my best not to offend my atelier (who at the time was in charge of 5000+ costumes for the entire school), I asked if we could possibly rework the costume to suit my figure a bit more.
He looked at me with utter disdain. (Perhaps he was still mad that I didn’t end up wearing the dress he designed especially for me for the technical rehearsal?)
Mas porque senhora? Voce nao esta satisfeita DE NOVO com meu trabalho? But why Miss? Aren’t you satisfied AGAIN with my work?
Yep, that would be it.
I had to choose my words very carefully.
I quietly explained that I thought his work was magnificent (flattery always helps in these situations) and as I wasn’t Brazilian, I needed some extra help in the boobs and bum department.
He stared at me blankly for a moment and then burst into laughter.
Everyone in the room suddenly stopped what they were doing and descended upon me.
Oh yes, I can see what you mean. You really have no boobies!
Oh darling, we simply must do something about that booty!
Oh dear, we definitely need to exaggerate those hips and draw in that waist!
Suddenly I had my team of fairy godmothers.
When I returned the following week, my bodysuit had been bedazzled like the Milky Way, and my headpiece’s frame was surprisingly light and comfortable (not usual at all for headpieces, which generally crush your skull and make you want to rip them off after a minute).
All that remained was my back piece, comprised of a staggering 1000 pheasant feathers (all individually attached and decorated with diamantes), a welded metal frame, and my platform heels.
I had painfully decided to part with even more of my hard-earned cash for a pair of $750 couture gladiator boots (by far the most expensive pair of heels I will ever own) from a famous Carnival shoemaker, as the most important part of my costume was actually my heels.
If I wasn’t comfortable and confident in them, I could fall over in the middle of the avenue in a pile of feathers in front of hundreds of thousands of spectators, which would then be broadcast to hundreds of millions of TV viewers.
Don’t laugh, it has happened, and trust me – it is not a pretty sight.
As the parade date drew closer, I still hadn’t heard from my atelier or my shoe lady.
I tried not to worry, as by now I was accustomed to ‘Brazilian time’ and was sure that the head designer of the school wouldn’t leave the very important Muse costumes to the last minute.
Note: There are generally only 2-4 Muses per school, and their outfits are the most extravagant of all of the school’s costumes – sometimes even more so than the Queen’s herself – and most Muses have sugar daddies to fund their Swarovski crystal-encrusted masterpieces, some of which cost upwards of R150,000 (around AU$50,000).
Besides, all I could think about was keeping up with my grueling fitness regime and training as hard as I could before D-Day.
The day before the parade finally arrived and my designer heels still hadn’t been delivered. I started to panic. What if they don’t arrive in time for me to rehearse in them? I needed to practise with them outside on the asphalt and wear them in so that they didn’t give me enormous blisters and cut off my circulation during the parade.
I also needed to practice in them whilst wearing my 15-kilo back piece, to make sure I wasn’t going to totally lose my balance and topple over sideways. But that also hadn’t arrived yet.
I called the shoemaker and no one answered. I called the atelier and no one answered. I tried again. And again. And again. Nothing.
Suddenly all of my worst fears started to come to the surface. I bet they’ve taken my money and run! All the while pretending to be nice to me and in the end, screwing me over! Typical of this Carnival industry – everyone is out to get you and of course, I’m the foreign fool who’s an easy target.
I have always been too trusting, and this has gotten me into some awkward situations in the past in Brazil, but I thought that after 9 trips and 15 years of coming back and forth to Rio, I would have learnt my lessons and become a bit more street smart.
So, as I tend to do when completely overwhelmed, I decided to take matters into my own hands.
Firstly I jumped on the metro and headed straight into Saara, an enormous market district in the centre of the city where street hawkers peddle cheap wares from all over the world. It is a complete rabbit warren to navigate and, to make matters worse, it started to bucket down with rain as an afternoon storm arrived, sending mountains of garbage washing down the sidewalks and causing everyone to jump under the limited covered areas.
Great, so not only am I having a fit of anxiety, but I’m about to have a panic attack brought on by major claustrophobia in the middle of downtown Rio.
As I push and shove my way past people, lifting my skirt up to wade through the river of water and debris, I finally catch a glimpse of my shoe lady’s building. Upon entering the lobby, the doorman cheerfully informs me that the elevator isn’t working due to all of the rain and I will need to make my way upstairs on foot.
My shoe lady is on the 11th floor.
I stand for a moment, contemplating whether to kill him. Luckily for him, he seems like a sweet old man and I’m on a serious mission to get my shoes and do not want to end up in a Rio prison.
When I finally reach the top and enter the boudoir-like waiting room, I look like a drowned rat and am totally out of breath.
I almost frighten the poor assistant to death as I drop like a big wet fish onto the beautiful red velvet sofa, gasping for air and pleading for water.
At that very moment, the door to the fitting room swings open and my all-time Rio Carnival idol steps out in a pair of magnificent glittery red platform heels, looking every bit the Queen she is. She takes one look at me and gasps, and just as I’m about to warn her about the puddle of water on the floor in front of her (that perhaps was caused by me?!), she goes flying past me and lands in a big heap on her best ASSet.
Before she can do anything, I grab my things and run straight into the dressing room, slamming the door behind me. I look up. The shoe designer is glaring at me.
Ummm…hello…I’m Mishel…I’m just here to pick up my….
Yes, I know who you are, and what do you think you are doing in my office looking like this! What an embarrassment! And look what you did to my poor Queen! She could have a broken a leg the day before Carnival! Get out!
But Senhora, I am here to pick up my…
Someone already came to collect your shoes! Now get out!
She shoves me out the door and practically pushes me down the stairs.
I am in utter shock.
Not because I paid a fortune for those heels and she just treated me like total riff-raff, but because I have absolutely no idea who picked up my shoes.
As I make my way back to my hotel, the tears start to fall as I beat myself up over and over again about being such a pushover.
Why do I continue to do this to myself? Why do I put myself in these situations and trust these people? Why am I even here, in a country and culture that are not mine, trying to be something that I’m clearly not?
I go to my room and fall into bed.
Just as I start to accept the fact that I’ve yet again been swindled, my phone rings.
Senhora, a package has arrived for you!
I bolt downstairs, not even caring to change out of my pyjamas, and race up to the startled receptionist.
Sure enough, there is a package waiting for me with a note attached.
We couldn’t let you make your debut on the avenue tomorrow without feeling like a total princess!
We hope you don’t mind that we took the liberty to pick up your shoes and add our special touch to them.
Get get em girl!
Your fairy Samba godmothers.
I rip open the package and to my absolute delight, my originally plain black gladiator heels have been magically transformed into spectacular ‘glass slippers’, adorned with stunning, glittering jewels and gems!
Once again, thank god for creative gay men!
Now, time to find out about my back piece…..
Have you read the other blogs in this series?