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Teenage Diva Superstar


I am sitting in a 17-year-old lesbians bedroom in Buenos Aires, in a neighborhood called San Cristbal, 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. Its a motley concoction of junk, sanctified by its owners 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 rooms 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 investments 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 countrys most popular photo blogger, or flogger, with a profile on 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 its as if youre 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 dont 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 Clarn, an Argentine media conglomerate thats 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 Argentinas best-known gay icon since Eva Pern. 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 Pern. 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. I

n the Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Perns story is satisfyingly enshrined at the Museo Evita. Pern 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 Pern 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).

The first room of the Museo Evita invites you to a dazzling grave dance. A bizarre, thumping disco/tango remix fills a large dark space enclosed by three walls covered floor to ceiling with mirrors; a projector fills the fourth wall with old newsreel footage of Evitas funeral, where the mountains of flowers were so big, they make Princess Dianas funeral look like a babys birthday party. (Eight people were crushed to death in the throng of mourners outside the Casa Rosada, the Argentine presidential residence, in the hours following Evitas death.) The rooms only light is the reflection from the newsreel, except -- in the back left corner -- for one slender spotlight shining down on a Lucite box in which rests a silver death mask of the old girl.

The exhibit labels border on grandiose, yet even if you know the dark underside of the Perns reign, its hard not to be moved by the depiction of Evitas work to advance the causes of labor, womens suffrage, health care, and especially her advocacy for children, such as the program that arranged for kids from Argentinas countryside to visit the ocean.

When you see old movie reels of hundreds of young people arriving on the beach for the first time and racing toward the surf, youre humbled by the immensity of what this woman did with her life -- and confounded by how much generosity can issue from such extreme exertion of ego.

This is the divas story: I was one thing, and then I became another. Characters like Eva Pern have served a vital function for gay men, allowing harmless enjoyment of some of our grandest impulses -- as a form of imaginative, playful revenge on an unsympathetic world. In the museum, I wondered how much longer we will look to figures like Evita for this vicarious satisfaction. Today we live much of our lives on Facebook, Twitter, Manhunt, and other sites that offer more direct, if tawdrier, means of feeding our appetite for attention. As Evita created her own mythology by manipulating crowds, we use the Internet to spin ourselves cocoons of self-importance. Sometimes it seems that the Web is gradually making divas of us all.

Cumbio offers a third way. Shes using the Web as a means of creation, not a mode of escape. Despite living in a Catholic household in a rough neighborhood, she is not waiting for a chance to leave home in order to become herself. Through casual snapshots, Cumbio narrates her life in a way that does something more than glorify herself.

Cumbios mall flash mobs have engendered real-world connections. When she describes this past year of her life, she says, I traveled from Tierra del Fuego to Chaco, and I met children from all over. The fame was strange for me, as for the whole country. It went beyond the Internet. All these kids who only connected online were now connecting in person. Kids who did not have friends at school were now finding friends. Many of those friends are now her friends. While we talk, at least half a dozen kids drift in and out of her bedroom. This is my friend Leche, she says. She is the girl who has the most beautiful body -- which makes Leche smile demurelyand the ugliest face -- which makes Leche unleash her overbite in a grin as big as a garbage truck.

Cumbio explains, Kids sleep at my house when they have no place to go. Sometimes it is hard for me to know how to respond to people because every once in a while one gets fucked by a friend. But you cannot worry about that too much. Some people come to you because they want a hamburger. Some because they want to laugh and take a picture. Some people come to you and cry.

She takes a bite from a sandwich and ambles down the dirty hallway toward the front door of the house. Then, raising her eyebrows quizzically, she holds out her sandwich toward me.

She says, Im the mommiest person in the world.

As a cab lets us out on the sidewalk outside Abasto mall, a beefy cop in a paddy wagon yells, Yo, Cumbio! The whole plaza reorients itself the minute she arrives, every face turning toward her, but Cumbios charisma is different from the usual connotations of that word. She is not incandescent, but reflective. She is like a camera, bringing people into focus. Street kids come running up to her with filthy hands outstretched -- chunks of dirt under their fingernails and in the lines of their palms -- and she holds their hands and talks to them.

I wonder if this is what its like to see a living saint -- before her memory is canonized, distorted by sentimental exaggeration -- or a diva, before she is crowned with expectations. Instead of passing into the realm of myth, like Evita and her ilk, maybe the next generations heroes, people like Cumbio, will be so well documented by the Web that theyll remain more like real people, even as their fame increases, and we will learn to admire them in a way that enlarges and does not diminish us. As Cumbio ascends the outdoor escalator to the mall, I wonder if some day, perhaps, people like her will give us such durable inspiration that well barely miss the divas.

To visit Cumbio's flog, click here.

To read Michael Joseph Gross's picks for the places to go and the sights to see in Bueno Aires, click here.

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Michael Joseph Gross