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The biggest pop stars in the world cultivate an image, and the image is what fans buy into—what brings them to tears, what provides them ecstatic release. But the person inside the pop star is rarely an exact replica of the armor she wears. Anitta, the most globally influential Brazilian pop star since Astrud Gilberto sang “The Girl From Ipanema,” is shrewdly aware of this. (Her own nod to Gilberto’s classic, “Girl From Rio,” went viral on TikTok.)
When I meet Anitta, she’s fresh off a 10-hour flight from her hometown of Rio de Janeiro. She’s running on negligible sleep after a jam-packed few days at Carnaval do Rio. Attending Carnaval as both performer and celebrant, Anitta documented a 26-hour stretch of the trip via Instagram for her 64 million followers: posing on a step-and-repeat at 7:00 a.m., twerking on a parade float by 9:00 a.m., dancing and doing the limbo poolside at 2:00 p.m., performing at a concert 12 hours later, in bed by the crack of dawn.
Yet when she emerges from the depths of an apartment in New York—a luxury condo overlooking Central Park that belongs to a fashion-editor friend—she seems rested. She is wearing a white T-shirt and cargo jeans. Her elegant tattooed fingers are tipped with a silver foil manicure. A brown hair elastic encircles her wrist. It’s a disarmingly normal accessory for a pop star staying in a glitzy apartment, but it’s one, I discover, that is more Larissa de Macedo Machado (Anitta’s birth name) than her superstar alter ego.
At 30, Anitta has been cultivating her persona and her career for more than a decade, singing in Portuguese, Spanish, and English. (She also speaks Italian and French.) Her fifth album, Versions of Me, was released last year and spawned a handful of hits spanning pop, reggaeton, hip-hop, and funk carioca—the percussive electronic dance music that emerged from Rio’s impoverished favelas in the 1980s—including the massive single “Envolver” and collaborations with Cardi B and Saweetie. RuPaul’s drag queens lip-synched to her cheeky electro-pop banger “Boys Don’t Cry.” In June 2022, Madame Tussauds crafted a wax figure of her likeness, wearing a sparkly thong and crop top reading “Garota do Rio” (Girl From Rio), for its museum in New York. Its facial contours are precise enough that it did not become a meme—the ultimate respect.
Before anyone [else], I go there: ‘Oh, I had sex. I did this. I did that.’ The real me? I don’t have sex for months and I don't care.
Anitta embodies a new kind of global pop star—one whose geographic specificity is not an impediment but part of her appeal. In the U.S., this means that the Anglo pop mainstream has finally, belatedly embraced music in languages that aren’t English. But even within that rubric, Anitta stands alone: Not only did she intentionally create her pop-star persona as a safeguard against personal trauma and then mold her massive career to the point that she can influence presidential elections, she’s willing to talk about it all, openly, with seemingly no misgivings. In that sense, she’s a real unicorn among celebrities, who can seem more concerned about brand safety than fan connection.
There is a lot of Anitta in Larissa and a lot of Larissa in Anitta, and the way she navigates and toggles between those two personas—at once purposefully and fluidly—says a lot about the nature of pop stardom in 2023. Anitta is audacious and feminist, carefree and the life of the party. Larissa is those things too, but with a firm grasp on the kinds of machinations necessary to maintain the version of herself that captivates audiences the world over and is plastered on posters and billboards. She knows that the music she loves making needs to be put out into the world by someone we can project our hopes and dreams onto, who can be braver than we think we are. She knows this because she used to be like that too, watching celebrities on television with her mother and brother Renan in Honório Gurgel, a favela in the north of Rio.
“I dance, ass to the sky, and it sells more,” she tells me. “People love to complain: ‘Oh, this person’s so vulgar.’ But that’s what they like. Besides everything, I’m also a businesswoman. I’m an artist. I know how to get onstage and make everyone jump, make everyone do what I want. I know it sells.” Anitta mentions that she has told some media that she learned to speak five languages by dating men from far-flung locations. In reality, though, she has hired language tutors to travel with her, helping her multitask her way to various levels of fluency while she’s in hair and makeup.“[People] don’t have the courage to say what they want,” she explains. “They want to laugh and talk about the girl who said, ‘Oh, I learned to speak with boyfriends.’ If you put that in a quote, a million clicks. If you put ‘Oh, she put different teachers in the dressing room so she could learn while she was getting glam,’ nobody’s going to fucking click on that.”
Anitta thrusts a wineglass in my face. Its contents are a sludgy shade of khaki. She tells me to sniff it: a fresh blend of barley grass, spirulina, and other ingredients that she claims, almost sheepishly, are “heart healthy.” The result smells like mulched dirt: “It’s like a horse came and took a shit on it.” Larissa nods and grins, satisfied, before Anitta pounds it down like a tequila shooter.
More than other pop stars, perhaps, Larissa wears Anitta as a defense and can point to the exact moment of her creation. In an episode of Anitta: Made in Honório, one of two Netflix series documenting her life, she shares that when she was 14 or 15, she was sexually assaulted by an abusive boyfriend. “I transformed what happened then into something that helped me come out on top, in a better place,” she says to the camera in Portuguese, through sobs. “For all of you asking yourselves how Anitta was born, that’s how. She was born out of my desire and need to be a brave woman. One who no one could ever harm, who no one could ever bring to tears, whose feelings no one could ever hurt, who could find a way out of any situation … that’s how I created that character.”
Anitta says she initially talked about the assault because a Brazilian journalist had heard about it from someone she had told and was alluding to it on Twitter. “I felt so mad that this guy felt that he knew something about me that could hurt me,” she says, so instead she put it out there herself. “I don’t like when people try to threaten me or say, ‘Oh, I know this and that about you.’ Oh really? Go there. Say it. If I don’t say it before you, I really don’t care.” She also remembered how hearing other women speak about their own abuse made her feel less isolated and thought she could return the favor. “It was like when I created my character, Anitta, I just wanted this woman that nobody could fuck with. Because in the moment, you still blame yourself; you think that if you behaved differently, that wouldn’t happen to you.”
“I got big enough for people to pay attention to what I’m doing, so it’s a good moment to drop this album [that’s] finally something I think, ‘Okay, that is me.’ Now that I got this attention, I can really be myself.”
The public consumption of Anitta’s fearlessness has mostly focused on her sexuality—that she’s bisexual, that she talks about dating around and having open relationships, which are often hush-hush topics in conservative Brazilian society. She says Larissa’s reality doesn’t necessarily square with Anitta’s, and the character still acts as a kind of a shield. “I was like, if I have this behavior, nobody will ever fuck with me. Before anyone [else], I go there: ‘Oh, I had sex. I did this. I did that.’ The real me? I don’t have sex for months and I don’t care. But Anitta would never. She fucks every day.”
Honório, the favela where she grew up, is about a 45-minute drive from Ipanema and the Atlantic Ocean. She never saw the famed beaches until she became a singer and had a little money. “People would say it’s the ghetto here, it’s like the hood,” she says. “I used to say, ‘When I’m old, I’m going to get rich. We’re going to have a pool. We’re all going to be at the pool.’ Everyone was like, okay. They didn’t want to disappoint me, but they knew that was not even close to being real. … But I was so sure. I could tell.”
When Anitta was seven, she began singing at church with her grandfather, who played the piano, but she left after her favorite priest was ousted for honoring “the Black culture and the Black religion” on Black Consciousness Day in a mass about Zumbi, the revered freedom fighter who led the resistance to slavery by the Portuguese in the 1600s. “I got really frustrated,” she says, “and I didn’t want to come back to church.” She turned instead to her father’s religion, Candomblé, which is practiced widely among Afro-Brazilians and has been marginalized in the majority–Roman Catholic country. Because Candomblé involves some Yoruba elements, including orishas, “people are very prejudiced,” she says. “When it comes from the poor communities, people see it as a bad thing. When it comes from Black people, when it comes from Indians, when it comes from Asians, all the people who suffer racism, I think those religions suffer more.”
Her experience growing up in a favela has directly influenced this trajectory, starting with her very art form. In Brazil, funk carioca has been denigrated historically and performers even criminalized, ostensibly because of lyrics about sex and drugs but also because of who makes it: impoverished Black Brazilians. “If you are born in a place where all you have access to is guns, crime, drugs, sex—that’s what you’re going to write about,” she says, leaning forward. “We cannot sing about the beautiful paradise in Rio if we are not even getting close [enough] to see that. … I’m not saying, ‘Oh, it’s so good to commit a crime.’ No. I’m just saying you gave zero opportunities for these people to choose other stuff.”
As Anitta has become more influential, her sense of justice has become more acute. ( “I don’t care about controversies,” she says as we discuss our mutual disbelief in heaven and hell. “It’s whatever.”) She credits at least part of this to her fans on social media who “forced” her to say something about the 2018 election of president Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right extremist. Anitta initially bristled at the online campaign—it was “very aggressive,” she says, and she felt “really abused”—but decided she needed to educate herself about political issues in order to speak with authority. “When we are born into the type of reality that I was in my country, we don’t get the motivation to understand politics,” she explains. “So we vote not knowing shit about it, not knowing whatever the fuck we are doing. And that’s what [politicians] want, because then it’s easier to play with us.”
Eager to share what she learned about the political system, she began hosting a series of “classes” on Instagram Live in 2020 with her longtime friend Gabriela Prioli, a high-profile criminal lawyer and TV presenter who had taught her the basics of the political process. In July of 2022, before Brazil’s presidential election, Anitta tweeted her endorsement for Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—a former president (he served from 2003 to 2010) whose platform hinged on issues like fighting environmental crime in the Amazon and women’s reproductive choice, both important to Anitta—and encouraged her young fans to go out and vote. (The voting age in Brazil is 16.)
“Besides everything, I’m also a businesswoman. I’m an artist. I know how to get onstage and make everyone jump, make everyone do what I want.”
That October, Lula beat Bolsonaro, a win widely viewed as a retort against creeping authoritarianism. “I see Anitta’s movement of calling these young people to exercise their citizenship as very important,” says Prioli via email. “In this young woman, I see perseverance and persistence that I have rarely witnessed in my life. She is a person who works tirelessly, who is a visionary, who sees beyond the usual, and who thinks beyond herself. She thinks about spreading the image of a powerful Brazil. And she thinks about spreading the image of a woman who does not bow down and who has had to be very strong not to do so.”
The weight that Anitta has assumed is both substantial and unusual. Within Brazil, she represents a tension between a more progressive, open-minded future and an autocratic culture of denigration. Outside of it, she is viewed as a de facto ambassador for the entire country. This does exhaust her sometimes; in 2022, she was forced to take time off after health scares that included having surgery to treat endometriosis and a flare-up of the Epstein-Barr virus. “I couldn’t get up to the second floor of my house,” she says. “I was so sick, and I saw how much I was not taking care of myself. I was just working, working, working, working, because it takes so much effort to do what I’m doing right now. There’s a reason why it’s been so many decades since a Brazilian person has done what I’m doing here now.”
“I dance, ass to the sky, and it sells more. People love to complain: ‘Oh, this person’s so vulgar.’ But that’s what they like."
Now, Anitta’s career has reached a new, satisfying precipice. Having spent her teenhood singing at funk parties in the favelas, Anitta has strategically calculated her pop turn to achieve crossover success, and as she prepares her sixth album, she’s planning to take her sound back home. The new music she’s working on, she says, is more oriented toward funk carioca, with the sound she had at the beginning of her career. She’s working on a new song—a lusty duet—with Sam Smith. “Anitta’s energy is amazing,” says Smith. “We connected immediately, and it just made the collaboration feel so special that there was genuine friendship there.”
Smith also praises her “clear vision,” a succinct way of describing a musician who is an exacting businesswoman navigating an industry that isn’t always so kind to Latinas.
In April, after a series of Instagram and Twitter posts complaining about her contract, Anitta and her U.S. label, Warner, mutually parted ways. She announced that she had signed with Universal’s Republic Records just three weeks after confirming the split. Anitta has said that Warner was initially resistant to releasing “Envolver” as a single; she pushed back, and it became her biggest song yet. “I want to build a whole strategy because I don’t want to leave that in my label’s hands,” she says of her next album. “All the others I was leaving at their hands. That’s why it didn’t go that well. Crazy. But this I want to go massive. So I’m going to do it myself.”
“I got big enough for people to pay attention to what I’m doing, so it’s a good moment for me to drop this album [that’s] finally something I believe and something I think, ‘Okay, that is me,’ ” she says. “Now that I got this attention, I can really be myself.”
Contemplating an even longer view of her future, Anitta envisions a world where music might eventually become a side hustle. She has spent part of the year in Madrid filming a new role in the beloved Spanish drama Élite, and more roles seem likely. She has a handful of business ventures in Brazil, including an alcoholic beverage inspired by funk carioca, and she was briefly a board member of Brazil’s largest digital bank. Soon, she hopes to start marketing her most notorious product, an intimate cologne called Puzzy, in the United States. “It’s really good,” she says, insisting it’s for not just sex but exercise too. “You remove the panties and it just smells so good until the end of the day. It’s not just because I’m selling it. I mean, I’m selling it because I got addicted.” She gets up to fetch a sample and hands me a shrink-wrapped navy-blue box with a grin. When I test it later, my pee smells like vanilla and amber—a lasting memory of the complicated myth that is Anitta.
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2023 issue of Harper's Bazaar.
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