RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Isabella Magacho is a 32-year-old police detective who wants to be queen.
On weekdays she investigates homicides, but in her free time she hones her skills as a samba dancer. She's hoping for the chance to become the reigning female monarch of this city’s raucous Carnival celebration.
Chosen months in advance, the king and queen each win an $11,000 cash prize and the honor of embodying the spirit of Carnival at ceremonies before and during the celebration.
“Being a police officer is my profession,” Magacho said. “But Carnival is my passion.”
Magacho and the other 20 candidates typify the curvy, samba-stepping women that Rio’s hedonistic street party is famous for. Enthusiasts here say Carnival wouldn’t be Carnival without these beauties, who often parade in little more than feathered headgear and a few strategically placed jewels.
But, because the parades largely consist of volunteers with day jobs, baring so much skin can sometimes cause conflicts at work.
“I couldn’t — nor would I want to — wear an indecent costume while representing the police force,” said Priscilla de Oliveira, a major in the Brazil’s military police who marched in the main Carnival parade last year.
De Olivera, who serves in a unit that specializes in patrolling Rio’s slums, decided to play it safe. She wore a close-fitting stylized police uniform and bared almost no skin in the parade.
This year, military police top brass made tabloid headlines when they announced they were lifting the ban on off-duty female officers wearing bikinis in Carnival parades. But, when the shift was announced in September, Col. Carlos Eduardo Pereira Milagres told reporters officers were still discouraged from wearing anything too “vulgar.”
“Use common sense and don’t damage the image of the police department,” he said. “There are bikinis and there are bikinis.”
Magacho, who won third place in the Carnival queen contest, said letting Brazilian women be police means accepting that, off duty, many will proudly wear the garment women here helped make famous. “When I go to the beach, I don’t wear long pants,” she said. “I wear a bikini like everyone else.”
And other Carnival lovers say that, for some, dressing on the wild side is one of the key pleasures of the celebration.
“You have some women who just want to take advantage of these four days to break out of convention,” said Alessandre Reis, a costume maker responsible for some of the get-ups, skimpy and not, that make it into the main parade. “You find lawyers, and down on the street they’re wearing really short dresses, the shortest possible.”
While Reis said “you couldn’t have Carnival” without the beautiful women on parade, they’re hardly the biggest part of the show staged each year by the city’s samba schools.
More like production companies than schools, the groups spend all year preparing armies of dancers and musicians to compete in the organized portion of Carnival, staged annually in Rio’s Sambadrome. The facility is a broad avenue flanked by stadium seats where schools parade alongside giant floats and judges pick the group whose steps, costumes and music are deemed that year’s best.
“You sweat, you want to cry, you want to laugh, to jump — there are so many emotions,” said Val Carvalho, a leader at Portela, one of the city’s oldest samba schools, “It’s a great opera in the open air.”
And the performance wouldn’t exist without the thousands of volunteers, male and female, who don costumes and take part. “Teachers, doctors, you find everyone, all professions, even trash collectors,” Reis said. “He comes behind in his city uniform, sweeping, dancing the samba, cleaning and it calls the whole world’s attention to what he does. The uniform becomes a costume, it’s all decorated, and he makes a show for the whole world.”