Millions of Brazilians grew up watching her on television. Her shows sold out Latin America’s biggest stadiums. She had hit movies and songs, her own dolls and her own amusement park.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Maria da Graça Xuxa Meneghel, known universally as Xuxa (pronounced SHOO-shah), was Brazil’s biggest television star. Generations of children spent mornings watching her play, sing and dance for hours on her wildly popular variety show.
“I was a doll, a babysitter, a friend to these children,” Xuxa, 60, said in a wide-ranging interview. “A Barbie of that time.”
“She came with a pink car,” she added. “I came with a pink spaceship.”
Like the famous doll, Xuxa, too, is thin, blond, blue-eyed and white. On her children’s show, she often wore short skirts and thigh-high boots as she stepped out of a spaceship stamped with giant red lips. And like Barbie, she became an idol to her fans, who grew up wanting to be just like Xuxa and her all-white cast of teenage dancers, the “Paquitas.”
But now Brazil is in the midst of its own real-life Barbie reckoning of sorts — and Xuxa is at the center of it, thanks in part to a new documentary series about her that has become a national sensation and renewed questions over diversity, beauty standards and sexualization in her show.
Many, including Xuxa herself, are questioning whether the narrow ideal she represented was always a positive force in a country with a majority Black population and where a national debate is brewing over what is considered beautiful and who has been erased from popular culture.
“I didn’t see it as wrong back then. Today, we know it’s wrong,” Xuxa said of the beauty standard she portrayed to Brazil’s youth.
During her reign, which coincided with Brazil’s economic expansion, plastic surgery rates skyrocketed to the highest in the world, with many going under the knife while still in their teens. But Brazil and its cultural gatekeepers are embracing new definitions of beauty that celebrate natural curls, curvaceous bodies and darker skin tones.
The lack of Black faces on Xuxa’s shows “inflicted deep wounds for many women in Brazil,” said Luiza Brasil, who wrote a book about racism in Brazilian culture, fashion and beauty.
In the series, Xuxa largely blamed her show’s problems on her longtime boss, and the culture of the time. But in her interview with The New York Times, she assumed more responsibility and lamented the mark it may have left on young viewers who don’t look like her. “God, what trauma I put in the heads of some children,” she said.
“I wasn’t the one who made the call,” she added. “But I endorsed it. I signed off on it.”
‘Everyone was mesmerized by her’
When the 23-year-old Xuxa got her own national children’s show in 1986, airing six mornings a week, she became an instant smash hit. Her show brought some 200 children together into a colorful, frenzied set that featured musical acts, competitions and human-sized mascots like a mosquito named Dengue.
The TV “was a magic little box,” Xuxa said. “I was part of that magic.”
As the star of Brazil’s largest TV network, Globo, she became one of the country’s best-known faces, nicknamed “The Queen of the Little Ones.”
“There were a lot of people watching the same thing,” said Clarice Greco, a professor at Paulista University who studies Brazilian pop culture. “Xuxa turned into a franchise.”
She expanded into music and film, selling more than 26 million records and nearly 30 million movie tickets, smashing Brazilian box-office records. And children clamored to buy Xuxa comic books, outfits and dolls, which bore a striking resemblance to another plastic blonde.
“Everyone was mesmerized by her,” said Ana Paula Guimarães, who beat out thousands of other girls to become a Paquita.
After conquering Brazil, Xuxa learned Spanish and began recording shows in Buenos Aires and Barcelona. By the early 1990s, tens of millions of children watched her shows in Portuguese and Spanish. A French newspaper listed her as one of the world’s most influential women, alongside Margaret Thatcher. And she had a string of famous love interests, including Pelé and John F. Kennedy Jr.
In 1993, Xuxa tried a show in English to capture the U.S. market, but she said her struggles with the language and her intense schedule led the show to flop.
‘White, blond, tall, long legs’
While much of her audience was Black and Latino, Xuxa was a descendant of Italian, Polish and German immigrants, resembling the princesses and dolls flooding popular culture in the 1980s.
“Here I came — white, blond, tall, long legs,” she said. “I think that’s probably why it worked really, really well.”
Not everyone was a fan. Some complained Xuxa was too sexualized to be a role model for children. Before children’s television, she had posed for Playboy. And academics and Black activists were already questioning her show’s lack of diversity once it became a hit, including in a 1990 New York Times article.
In recent years, the internet has dissected Xuxa’s worst moments, like saying her viewers preferred blond Paquitas, wearing an Indigenous headdress and telling a girl that she lost a contest on her show because she “ate too many fries.”
Xuxa said she regrets such comments, but added that the larger problem was the standards of the time. “In the 1980s, you couldn’t find a soap opera where the maid wasn’t Black,” she said.
“It’s not the fault of the Xuxa show,” she added. “What’s at fault is everything that was passed on to us as normal.”
Xuxa said she was also subject to cruel beauty ideals. “Ever since I was a little girl, I was seen as a piece of meat,” she said. She was told to lose weight, forced to get plastic surgery and barred from cutting her hair. “A doll has to have long hair,” she remembers being told.
When she became a mother, she cut her hair in protest. “Now I don’t want to be a doll anymore,” she said, sporting the platinum pixie cut she has had for years.
Xuxa never saw herself as a feminist, but she became a symbol of female empowerment anyway. On her show, which was run by a woman, she told girls they could achieve anything. And she ran a multimillion-dollar empire while raising a daughter as a single mother. “I never thought about marrying, never looked for my Ken,” she said.
For Xuxa, the parallels to Barbie don’t end there. “We were two winners, two victorious women at a time when only men could do anything,” she said. “I think that’s more than being a feminist.”
‘I had to go through all this’
When Xuxa shot to fame, she became an accidental activist.
She loved animals, so she spoke up about animal rights on her show. She learned sign language, so she could communicate with deaf viewers. And clad in costumes evoking drag culture, she became an idol in the L.G.B.T.Q. community.
Now, after decades in the spotlight, she said she better understands the sway she holds and is trying to push for progress in representation, racism and beauty standards.
“I started off standing up for causes without necessarily knowing they were causes,” she said. “Now I really want to.”
Last week, at a televised charity event, Xuxa stepped onto a brightly lit stage with her two blond successors in Brazilian children’s television. The three women belted out songs that they had taught to millions growing up. Behind them, about a dozen Black dancers swirled and leaped in step.
The performance appeared to be a display of racial inclusion. But online, the backlash was swift, with many interpreting the reunion as a celebration of the white washing of Brazilian pop culture.
“These women are still praised as the ideal,” said Ms. Brasil, who is Black. “And we are still on the margins, far from this blond, white, almost childlike beauty that has hurt us and plagued us for so long.”
In recent years, Brazilian television has made strides toward more diversity. The starring roles in all three of Brazil’s leading soap operas are filled by Black actors, and more news and politics programs are hosted by Black presenters.
Xuxa said the debate about her impact has taught her a lot about herself and society. “We only learn to get things right when we see we’re on the wrong path,” she said. “So I think I had to go through all this to get here.”
Jack Nicas contributed reporting from Rio de Janeiro.