Teenage Diva Superstar


By Michael Joseph Gross

I am sitting in a 17-year-old lesbian's bedroom in Buenos Aires, in a neighborhood called San Crist'bal, where there is graffiti on the fronts of most houses and the windows are blocked with rusting iron bars. The walls and ceiling of the room are bright orange, the trim is green, and a beat-up old TV and stereo, neither much bigger than a loaf of bread, stand next to a 15-foot wraparound white Naugahyde restaurant booth (rescued from a salvage yard). My translator, a few stuffed animals (gorilla, dog, bear), and I sit beneath a painting of a giant pair of lips. It's a motley concoction of junk, sanctified by its owner's affection and arranged so comfortably that friends want to hang out there all the time.

Pointing to one corner of the room, where a double bed is made with faded Mickey Mouse sheets, Agustina Vivero says, 'My friends sleep there and on the floor,' which is tiled with terra cotta.

How many friends usually sleep over?

'Like, sometimes one or sometimes 20,' she says, pushing a wisp of black mullet back from her eyes.

A hand puppet of a googly eyed bird sits on a post that rises from the center of the hacked-off segment of wooden circular staircase that connects the room's first floor to its second: a platform jerry-rigged from used lumber, where Agustina sleeps and works at her desk, cluttered with a candy-apple red computer and other equipment. Touching the machine, she says, 'Some DJs had this, and I wanted one, so when I started to make money, I made it my first real investment.' She calls it 'the laptop of the people.'
The investment's yield, so far, has been considerable. Agustina, better known as Cumbio (a riff on cumbia, a relentlessly boppy Colombian style of pop music that she loves) is the country's most popular photo blogger, or 'flogger,' with a profile on FotoLog.com that, she says, has been viewed more than 40 million times in the past year. Her popularity has spawned a small merchandising empire, which she explains with the help of a box full of shiny objects bearing her name or image: 'Nail polish. Perfume. Sunglasses.' (The sunglasses, in acid colors, have horizontal plastic stripes across the lenses, so when you look through them it's as if you're peeking through a window blind.) 'Purses. And my book.'

That book would be Yo Cumbio, her best-selling autobiography. In it, she tells the story of her precipitous rise to fame. One day last year she invited some friends to her house. They took pictures of themselves goofing off (Cumbio also loves to pose for pictures making out with her girlfriend) and posted them to a photo blog. 'Facebook asks your religion, your eye color, your relationship status,' she explains, 'We don't ask any of those things. We floggers just accept people as they are. We say, 'Show yourself.' And we accept you.' The photos showed such a good, welcoming time that, before long, the kids' get-togethers grew so large they had to start meeting at Abasto shopping mall, in a run-down neighborhood of Buenos Aires. On the Web, pictures of the gathering -- young men and women with bedhead hairdos and brightly colored V-neck T-shirts -- attracted an ever-growing following; within a month, one of these gatherings drew 2,000 people. The floggers were banned from the mall, which led to a scuffle outside with a moodier group of emo kids -- and afterward, Cumbio was interviewed on TV as the spokesperson for the floggers. Soon talk shows booked her as a guest. Nike signed her to an endorsement deal and then so did Grupo Clar'n, an Argentine media conglomerate that's like Fox, The New York Times, and AOL wrapped into one. Before long, she was making as much money for a one-hour appearance at a nightclub as her father, a plumber, makes in two full days of work. In a matter of months, Cumbio went from a reserved nobody, adrift in the sea of adolescence, to a spokesperson for a movement.

Cumbio may become Argentina's best-known gay icon since Eva Per'n. With no apparent guile, the teenager cheerfully describes a common thread between their experiences: 'I wrote in my book about a day when I felt like Eva Per'n. She went out on a balcony and she would say hello with a kiss. I did the same thing at the mall one day on the escalator, blowing kisses to all.

'When I would go out in public, girls would cry, so I would kiss them,' Cumbio says, with a small mischievous smile that makes her lip ring catch the light, 'and boys would hate me, because I kissed the girls.'

In the Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Per'n's story is satisfyingly enshrined at the Museo Evita. Per'n was a prototypical 20th-century diva, an exemplar of that class of women that many gay men love because we identify with the story they tell about their lives. Divas like Per'n embody a dramatically sequential experience of history: a lowly beginning -- analogous to life in the closet -- followed by a flowering that involves a renunciation of the past (coming out).