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COVER STORY : Xuxa's Very Big Neighborhood : Brazil's glittery godmother of children's TV has conquered Latin America, invaded Europe and set her sights on the U.S. market

April 19, 1992|JEB BLOUNT | Jeb Blount is a free-lance writer based in Rio de Janeiro. and

RIO DE JANEIRO — A giant spaceship, Xuxa's navio espacial , descends from the ceiling of a huge sound stage billowing the steam of melting dry ice. When it lands on the stage, a door bearing a pair of giant lips, a la Mick Jagger without the menace, opens, and she descends into a huge studio playground filled with colorful chutes and ladders, giant candy canes, huge lollipops and a gaggle of excited and dancing children.

A sort of nice, godmotherly Madonna dressed in knee-high boots, short sequined skirt and glittery blouse, open more often than not along the midriff, she steps down to the stage past an honor guard of teen-age Paquitas, a squad of equally blond, equally leggy back-up singers dressed like drum majorettes.

Jumping up and down, the studio audience chants her name:

Xu, Xu, Xu . . . Xa, Xa, Xa.

Many of the chanting fans are parents.

With the Paquitas struggling to keep the zealous children from tackling her, Xuxa spreads her arms, greets her baixinhos or "shorties" and sings:

"Have you brushed your teeth . . .?"

"Have you eaten your breakfast . . .?"

The camera zooms in for a close-up of her face.

Shutting her sky-blue eyes and putting a finger gently to her lips, she blows a kiss to all her viewers. Then the Paquitas bring her a breakfast of fruit, juice and yogurt. Eating delicately, she reminds the children about the benefits of a good diet.

Who in the world is this Xuxa?

For those Americans who don't know the answer already, Xuxa's the biggest Brazilian cultural export since bossa nova.

Famous, sexy, charismatic and very, very blond, 29-year-old Maria da Graca Meneghel, or Xuxa (pronounced shoo - sha ), is the reigning queen of Latin American children's television. She is part Pee-wee Herman and part Madonna. She is an ex-Ford Agency model who is probably better known to most Latin American pre-adolescents than Michael Jackson. She is a multicultural, multimedia phenomenon who is deathly afraid of being kidnaped but sparks riots whenever she is seen here. She is a crossover star who regularly leads the Brazilian movie box office, the TV ratings and the pop music charts.

And now she wants to conquer the rest of the planet.

"I feel that I can bring my message to the whole world," she said in an interview at her heavily guarded home near the beach here, "not only to the children of America. I want to bring it to Germany and Japan, too. I feel I have something important to bring them."

Xuxa, who grew up in a broken home and took up modeling at 16 to help support her mother and four brothers and sisters, now regularly jets between Rio, Buenos Aires, Barcelona and New York the way most people drive around town. In the last decade, she has been linked romantically with ex-soccer great Pele, Argentine President Carlos Menem and John F. Kennedy Jr.

She is one of the richest people in show business. According to Forbes magazine, in 1991 Xuxa was the world's 37th-highest-paid entertainer and the first Latin American to crack the magazine's Top 40. Last year, Xuxa earned an estimated $19 million from her shows, records and product licensing agreements, just behind techno-thriller author Tom Clancy and just ahead of actor Mel Gibson.

She started on TV in 1982 with Brazil's No. 2 network and four years later jumped to the giant Globo network--the centerpiece of a media company that includes magazines, newspapers and records.

And she may be the hardest-working TV star anywhere. She is already working regularly on two continents and is aiming for a third.

On Wednesday and Thursday, Xuxa tapes three Portuguese shows a day at Globo network's studio in Rio. On Saturday and Sunday, she tapes five Spanish shows a day in Buenos Aires. When she is not taping in South America, she is probably in Barcelona taping her new European show, "Xuxa Park." In between, she still manages live performances and personal appearances.

"I like my work, but all my work is like a conquest," she says. "Children are the most important thing in the world, but a new child is born every day and there is no guarantee that they will automatically like me."

More than 20 million Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking children watch "The Xuxa Show" in 16 countries every day. In the last six years, she has sold more than 15 million records and 35 million comic books. More than 2 million Spanish-speaking U.S. children already watch Xuxa on Saturday and Sunday mornings on Los Angeles' KMEX-TV, Channel 34, and other Univision network TV stations.

Now she wants to take on the rest of North America. She has bought a New York co-op and a vacation home in the Hamptons on Long Island and expects to break into the U.S. record market with her first English-language album this summer. She says she will launch an English-language TV show next year.

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