Icon: We Still Have Bananas

It's easy to slight Carmen Miranda. She stood 1.52 meters, shorter than most of today's sixth graders. She spoke halting English, wore preposterous get-ups and starred in no less preposterous films. Even in Brazil, the country she made famous, her legacy has always been sweet and sour. Many of her compatriots never forgave her for the pastiche of mischief and malaprops that became not only Miranda's trademark Hollywood act but also synonymous with Latin America itself. So when a handful of devotees in Rio de Janeiro prepared last August to mark the 50th anniversary of her death with a gala commemoration--including a new biography, a musical, fashion shows and a museum exhibit--Miranda's followers held their breath. Would anyone care?

Silly question. Forget the girl from Ipanema and uber-model Gisele Bundchen. The original "Brazilian bombshell" is back, from the museum halls to the catwalks of Rio. The fashionable clothing label Salinas kicked off the revival last June at Rio's annual Fashion Week, putting its models in Miranda-inspired swimsuits and marching them through a gantlet of 50 tons of bananas. Rio's Museum of Modern Art (MAM) has opened a major retrospective, "Carmen Miranda Forever" (through Jan. 22), with clips from her Hollywood hits and mounds of eyepopping bijouterie, sequined stage gowns and her patented tutti-frutti turbans. A new generation of Brazilians is discovering the legend its grandparents took for granted. "We tend to forget," says author Ruy Castro, whose biography "Carmen" (Companhia das Letras) was published last month, "but no Brazilian woman has ever been as popular as Carmen Miranda--in Brazil or anywhere."

The Miranda revival comes at a moment when enterprising Brazilian scholars and writers are rescuing all manner of native historical figures from the dustbin. "Brazilians are beginning to develop a healthy new relationship with their heroes," says anthropologist Roberto DaMatta. "We're starting to ask: who were the real people behind the myths?" Castro, a tireless biographer, has led the way. His 600-page "Carmen" tracks Miranda's rise from infancy in Portugal to a Rio haberdashery to glory in Hollywood, and on through her losing battle with drugs and booze. But the book is just the beginning; the MAM exhibit will go on to So Paulo, Lisbon, Madrid and Los Angeles, with a smaller version set to sail with the Queen Mary 2 for this summer's cruise season. Major studios in Brazil and the United States are talking about shooting separate feature films, while Brazil's giant TV Globo is planning a miniseries for 2008. Even the normally bespoke Brazilian jeweler H. Stern is honoring Miranda with a new collection featuring rococo bracelets and oversize colored gemstone rings. Why all the fuss? Says Kitty Monte Alto of CMG Worldwide, which licenses Miranda's image and sponsored the MAM exhibit: "There's a little Carmen in all of us."

To an outsider, a Miranda revival would seem long overdue. Hired practically off the casino stage in Rio in the late 1930s by New York theater mogul Lee Shubert, she brought a welcome splash of glitz and exotica to Depression-era Broadway. Then she moved on to Hollywood, where she made 14 films in as many years. By 1944, she had become the highest-paid actress in Tinseltown. Along the way she created her own brand of comic elegance that made her as much a muse for haute couture as for drag queens. And Miranda did for the banana and the pineapple what Disney did for the duck and the mouse--turning them into universal symbols of kitsch and camp that leavened the spirit of a whole generation of moviegoers.

Not all Brazilians were amused. The same outlandishness that made her a hoot in the United States left many Brazilians cold--especially the politicians of the day, says Castro, who were in thrall to Hitler's Germany and indignant that their country's biggest idol had been "lost" to the Yankees. Even today Miranda is at times more coveted than loved. Rio is home to the official Carmen Miranda museum, but the squat concrete bunker, tucked in the scrub between two city thoroughfares, is chronically starved for funds. "Carmen deserves better," says curator Cesar Balbi with a sigh. Finally, it seems, that is something on which all of Brazil can agree.