Carmen Miranda was born Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha in Várzea da Ovelha e Aliviada, a village in the northern Portuguese municipality of Marco de Canaveses. She was the second daughter of José Maria Pinto da Cunha (17 February 1887 – 21 June 1938) and Maria Emília Miranda (10 March 1886 – Rio de Janeiro, 9 November 1971). In 1909 when she was ten months old, her father emigrated alone to Brazil and settled in Rio de Janeiro, where he opened a barber shop. Her mother followed in 1910 with their daughters Olinda and Maria do Carmo. Maria do Carmo, later Carmen, never returned to Portugal, but retained her Portuguese nationality. In Brazil, her parents had four more children: Amaro (1911), Cecília (1913), Aurora (1915–2005) and Óscar (1916).
She was christened Carmen by her father because of his love for the opera comique, and also after Bizet's masterpiece Carmen. This passion for opera influenced his children, and Miranda's love for singing and dancing at an early age. She went to school at the Convent of Saint Therese of Lisieux. Her father did not approve of her plans to enter show business. However, her mother supported her and was beaten when her husband discovered Miranda had auditioned for a radio show. She had previously sung at parties and festivals in Rio. Her older sister Olinda contractedtuberculosis and was sent to Portugal for treatment. Miranda went to work in a tie shop at age 14 to help pay her sister's medical bills. She next worked in a boutique, where she learned to make hats and opened her own hat business which became profitable.
Miranda was discovered when she was first introduced to composer Josué de Barros, who went on to promote and record her first album with Brunswick, a German recording company in 1929. In 1930, she was known to be Brazil's gem singer, and in 1933 went on to sign a two-year contract with Rádio Mayrink Veiga, becoming the first contract singer in the radio industry history of Brazil. In 1934, she was invited as a guest performer in Radio Belgrano in Buenos Aires. Ultimately, Miranda signed a recording contract with RCA Records. She pursued a career as a samba singer for ten years before she was invited to New York City to perform in a show on Broadway.
As with other popular singers of the era, Miranda made her screen debut in the Brazilian documentary A Voz Do Carnaval (1933). Two years later, she appeared in her first feature film entitled Alô, Alô Brasil. But it was the 1935 film Estudantes that seemed to solidify her in the minds of the movie-going public. In the 1936 movie Alô Alô Carnaval, she performed the famous song "Cantoras do Rádio" with her sister Aurora, for the first time.
American stage and films
After seeing one of her performances in Rio, theatre owner Lee Shubert signed Miranda and her band, the Bando da Lua, to a contract. In 1939 Miranda sailed from Brazil aboard the ocean liner SS Uruguay, arriving in New York on May 18. She made her US stage debut on July 16, 1939 in Streets of Paris, opposite Abbott and Costello. Although her part was small (she only spoke four words), Miranda received good reviews and became a media sensation. Her fame grew quickly, having formally been presented to President Franklin D. Roosevelt at a White House banquet shortly after arrival. She was encouraged by the United States government as part of President Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy, designed to strengthen links with Latin America and Europe; it was believed that in delivering content like hers, the policy would be better received by the American public.
In 1940, 20th Century Fox signed her to a contract for a one-time appearance in Down Argentine Way. She received good reviews for her performance prompting Fox to sign her to a long-term film contract.
While Miranda's popularity in the United States continued to rise, she began to lose favor with some Brazilians. On July 10, 1940, she returned to Brazil where she was welcomed by cheering fans. Soon after her arrival, however, the Brazilian press began criticizing Miranda for giving in to American commercialism and projecting a negative image of Brazil. Members of the upper class felt her image was "too black" and she was criticized in one Brazilian newspaper for "singing bad-tasting black sambas". Other Brazilians criticized her for playing up the stereotype of a "Latina bimbo" after her first interview upon arriving in the United States. In an interview with the New York World-Telegram, Miranda discussed her then limited knowledge of the English language stating, "I say money, money, money. I say twenty words in English. I say money, money, money and I say hot dog!".
On July 15, she appeared at a charity concert organized by Brazilian First Lady Darci Vargas. The concert was attended by members of Brazil's high society. She greeted the audience in English but was met with silence. When Miranda began singing a song from one of her club acts, "The South American Way", the audience began to boo her. She attempted to finish her act but gave up and left the stage after the audience continued to boo. The incident deeply hurt Miranda and she later cried in her dressing room. The following day, the Brazilian pressed criticized her for being "too Americanized".
Weeks later, Miranda responded to the criticism with the Portuguese language song "Disseram que Voltei Americanizada" (or "They Say I've Come Back Americanized"). Another song, "Bananas Is My Business," was based on a line in one of her movies and directly addressed her image. She was greatly upset by the criticism and did not return to Brazil again for fourteen years.
Upon returning to the United States, Miranda kept up her film career in Hollywood while also appearing on Broadway and performing in clubs and restaurants. In 1941, she shared the screen with Alice Faye and Don Ameche in That Night in Rio. Later that same year, she teamed up with Alice Faye again in Week-End in Havana. Miranda was now earning $5,000 a week. On March 23, 1941, she became one of the first Latinas to leave her hand and footprints in the sidewalk of the Grauman's Chinese Theater.
In 1943, she appeared in one of her more notable films The Gang's All Here. The following year, Miranda made a cameo appearance in Four Jills in a Jeep. By 1945, she had become Hollywood's highest-paid entertainer and top female tax payer in the United States, earning more than $200,000 that year ($2.2 million in 2010 adjusted for inflation).
After World War II ended in 1945, the American public's tastes began to change and musicals began to fall out of favor. Hollywood studio heads and producers also felt that the novelty of Miranda's "Brazilian bombshell" image had worn thin. As a result, Miranda's career declined. She made one last film for Fox, Doll Face (1945), before her contract was terminated in January 1946.
She later signed a contract with Universal but at the time, Universal was undergoing a merger with another studio. Due to a change in management, no films for Miranda were planned. Eager to break away from her well established image, Miranda attempted to branch out with different roles. In 1946, she portrayed an Irish American character in If I'm Lucky. The following year, she played dual roles opposite Groucho Marx in Copacabana for United Artists. While the films were modest hits, film critics and the American public did not accept Miranda's new image.
Though her film career was faltering, Miranda music career remained solid and she was still a popular attraction at nightclubs. From 1948 to 1950, Miranda teamed with The Andrews Sisters to produce and record three Decca singles. Their first collaboration was on radio in 1945 when Miranda guested on ABC's The Andrews Sisters Show. The first single, "Cuanto La Gusta", was the most popular (a best-selling record and a number-twelve Billboard hit). "The Wedding Samba" (#23) followed in 1950.
In 1948, she co-starred opposite Wallace Beery and Jane Powell in A Date with Judy, and Nancy Goes to Rio in 1950 for MGM. She made her final film appearance in the 1953 film Scared Stiffwith Martin and Lewis for Paramount.
Following the release of Scared Stiff in April 1953, she embarked on a four-month European tour. After collapsing from exhaustion during a club performance in Ohio in October 1953, dates for her future tour were canceled. On the suggestion of her doctor, Miranda returned to Brazil to rest. Miranda was still hurt over the criticism she received there in 1940, but was happy when she received a warm reception upon her return. She remained in Brazil until April 1955.
On 17 March 1947, Miranda married American movie producer David Alfred Sebastian. In 1948 she became pregnant, but suffered a miscarriage. The marriage was reportedly rocky and her family claims that Sebastian was abusive. In September 1949, the couple announced their separation, but they later reconciled.
In her later years, in addition to her already heavy smoking and alcohol consumption, Miranda began taking amphetamines and barbiturates, all of which took a toll on her health.
On 4 August 1955, Miranda was taping a segment for the NBC variety series The Jimmy Durante Show. According to Durante, Miranda had complained of feeling unwell before taping. Durante offered to get Miranda a replacement but she declined. After completing a song and dance number, "Jackson, Miranda, and Gomez", with Durante, she fell to one knee. Durante later said of the incident, "...I thought she had slipped. She got up and said she was outa [sic] breath. I tells her I'll take her lines. But she goes ahead with 'em. We finished work about 11 o'clock and she seemed happy."
At around 4 a.m. on 5 August 1955, Miranda suffered a second, fatal heart attack at her home in Beverly Hills. The Jimmy Durante Show episode in which Miranda appeared was aired two months after her death. A clip of the episode was also included in the A&E Network's Biography episode about Miranda.
Funeral and burial
In accordance with her wishes, Miranda's body was flown back to Rio de Janeiro where the Brazilian government declared a period of national mourning. 60,000 people attended her mourning ceremony at the Rio town hall, and more than half a million Brazilians escorted the funeral cortège to her resting place.
Miranda is buried in the Cemitério São João Batista in Rio de Janeiro.
For her contribution to the motion picture industry, Carmen Miranda has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6262 Hollywood Boulevard.