How This Brazilian Drag Queen Is Taking the Pop World By Storm—And Fighting for LGBTQ Rights Along the Way

Andrew R. Chow
How This Brazilian Drag Queen Is Taking the Pop World By Storm—And Fighting for LGBTQ Rights Along the Way

If Pabllo Vittar is making headlines, they might be about her smash hit songs, her astonishing fashion week outfits, her disruptive political statements, or some combination of the three. Over the last four years, the 24-year-old Brazilian drag queen and pop star has established herself as someone to watch on many fronts, seamlessly integrating the personal with the cultural and political and using her platform as a musical star to demand equality for LGBT communities in Brazil and beyond.

In a music ecosystem made global by streaming, Vittar, who identifies as gay and genderfluid, has emerged as one of South America’s most popular exports: she has garnered half a billion Spotify streams and a billion YouTube views for her earworms that gild Brazilian rhythms with an American pop sheen. She’s forged partnerships with superstars from around the world, dancing alongside Charli XCX in “Flash Pose” and making out with Diplo in “Então Vai.” On Instagram, she has 9 million followers–more than double the number of her drag idol, RuPaul. Meanwhile, shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and FX’s Pose have increased visibility for LGBT stories. “It’s so cool to see drag queen art and LGBTQ art going mainstream and being introduced to people who haven’t even heard of what it is to be queer,” Vittar said at the TIME studios in New York, wearing dangling golden earrings and a shimmering skintight top.

Stevens Añazco for TIME

Vittar has used her global megaphone to both celebrate her identity — performing at the World Pride parade, the U.N. Headquarters, and Rio’s Carnival — and speak out against its horrifying dangers. The number of violent deaths of LBGT people in Brazil peaked in 2017 at 445 people, with researchers asserting this 30% rise on the previous year related directly to the virulent anti-gay sentiments championed by ultraconservative politicians. Last year, 420 LBGT people were killed, including Marielle Franco, a black, bisexual, feminist Rio de Janeiro city councilmember; Jean Wyllys, a gay federal lawmaker, resigned from his seat due to repeated death threats. To top it off, Jair Bolsonaro was elected president; the politician is a self-professed homophone who has said he would “rather his son die in a car accident than be gay.”

Thousands of women have taken to the streets in protest as part of the Ele Não (Portuguese for “not him”) movement against Bolsonaro, and Vittar has been an active voice in this resistance. “I feel really ashamed to be a Brazilian sometimes because of this president,” she says. “People are dying. People are having their homes and rights taken away.”

But this backlash has only inspired Vittar to fight more fiercely for queer rights. She has a new trilingual album on the way–the first half of which comes out Nov. 1–and will continue to champion other drag queens during her world tour. “As an artist, you have this duty to take a stance on things, and bringing along with your popularity the messages that really matter,“ she says. “If speaking out will put me in a risky spot, let us all die trying.”

Correction, October 14The original version of this story misstated Marielle Franco’s sexuality. She identified as bisexual, not gay.