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...a sweatshop of moxie

Monday, April 11, 2005


Haven't you ever wondered about the life of transsexuals?

I have, ever since I saw them pullulating the night-time streets of Copacabana, back when my parents took me in the late 80's. I was 13, and yet I knew enough to say, "Whoa, that's messed up".

It all came to a head one day when my dad had gone to give a lecture at the local Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), and my mother and I decided to go to the famed beaches instead. After all, at the time, neither she nor I spoke Portuguese, and Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia is dull enough without having to guess what he's saying to boot.

So we took our buckets, spades and towels, and sauntered out for some fun in the sun...but not before being cautioned by the Meridien Hotel porter (using hand gestures) to take off the gold jewelry we were wearing, lest we -- vigourous slice across the throat with sound effects -- meet an untimely death from thuggish street urchins, the pair of us. We took them off.

We were in heaven, especially mum, since they say "A German's second homeland (Heimat) is the Sun". Me, my second homeland is the library, but back then, I looked cute with a peeled nose.

I went into the water, came back out, made my sandcastles, and rubbed suntan lotion. That took about 15 minutes, and then I was bored out of my mind. So I decided since I was in Copacabana, why not look around the beach and soak in the people too? As my mother cooked on high flame, I did. I sauntered up to the ice cream vendor, got my Brazilian cornetto, and walked up to the high wall of Posto 3.

That's when I saw her.

A statue in gold high-heeled shoes, and daring "fio dental" (dental floss) sparkly bikini -- with hair teased to within an inch of its life, swaying with such an exaggerated gait that I thought she was doing it on purpose. Wow. Women didn't look like that on Bournemouth pier, I remember thinking.

And you know how it is, when others are in the know, and you're not, you are suddenly aware of whispers behind you, and though you don't know the full story, you get a kernel of knowledge when you overhear a word or two? I was suddenly aware of two words being whispered by the sunbathers around me, "Roberta Close".

(Only then I didn't know how to spell it, since in Carioca Portuguese it sounds like Hoh-bechhhh-tah Cloh-sey)

And being a sage teenager, I knew enough not to go back with my newfound knowledge and ask mum who or what that was. I instinctively knew it belonged firmly in the realm of old Penthouses found behind the fridge.

Years later, when I returned to Rio de Janeiro, I was taken by friends to a then infamous variety show called, "Os Leopardos da Noite", in the seedy alleyway of Galeria Alaska.

Basically, Os Leopardos was a drag show without the drag queens -- unlike what I presume most drag shows in Britain or the UK contain, they are not full of female impersonators, content to rasp out three Judy Garlands, one Barbra Streisand, and a Liza or two. They were stunning young men in various stages of undress, but unlike Crazy Horse Saloon, one immediately realised the target audience was not supposed to be people like me. Female. But as I left, who should I bump into but my old beach pal, Roberta Close!

She hadn't changed in 5 or so years at all. She was the same exaggerated bit of fluff I remembered, with hair now gasping for air in the stratosphere.

It was then my friends told me who and more importantly what she was. Born Luiz Roberto Gambine Moreira, she first became a transvestite, being elected Miss Gay Brazil, and later, had the operation, transforming herself into a mainstream model, television personality and underworld icon.

My mother once observed that Brazilian society veers from the kind of tongue-to-the-side-of-their-mouth hypermachismo enjoyed by Italian males, to the kind of female narcissist world of France, where women still enjoy looking good, not only for the pleasure of men, but in fact, for their own pleasure primarily.

Actually, few other cultures could have spawned such a widely-accepted, and indeed, lionised creature as Roberta Close in Brazil. But just as many have tried to explain this phenomenon, few have really grasped the reasons behind her existence.

It's more than prettiness, it's about fantasy -- one where a facsimile of a woman is often superficially better than the real thing itself.

The Least X-Rated photo I could find

And in a world where circuses and carnivals are losing their appeal, there's still room for, as I observed wisely as an adolescent, really messed up clowns.


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