Claudia Wonder: Sao Paulo’s First Queen Of Club Culture (R.I.P.) (interview)
Brazilian civil rights campaigner and transsexual performance artist Claudia Wonder started her nightlife career in Sao Paolo in 1975, performing alongside iconic Brazilian drag queens including Andrea May, Thelma Lipp and Brenda Lee.
Running round Sao Paulo’s then tiny after-hours gay scene, she routinely faced arrest from the police controlled by Brazil’s then notoriously brutal military dictatorship and became an ardent activist in the campaign that lead to democracy in 1985.
Also championing gay rights and later on, HIV and AIDS awareness issues, she became a national celebrity around the same time when she fronted Brazilian punk band Dirty Trick. In Sao Paulo meanwhile, she became even more infamous for her show ‘The Vomit of Myth’, which she regularly staged at the Madam Satan club, stripping off naked in a bathtub full of blood.
Moving to Europe in 1989 (where she worked as a cabaret artist and make-up stylist) she came back to Sao Paulo in 1999, returning to music in 2007 to record on a number of electro albums. She also became a columnist for GQ magazine the same year and in 2008 was the subject of a documentary “My friend Claudia’ directed by filmmaker Dácio Pinheiro.
Continuing to fight for gay rights and AIDS issues, Claudia died of an AIDS related illness of November 26, aged 55. She chatted to Jonty Skrufff and Benjamin Ferreira several months before, in her flat in the centre of Sao Paulo close to Avenue Paulista (Benjamin acted as a translator).
Skrufff (Jonty Skrufff) How did the film of your life ‘My Friend Claudia come about?
Claudia Wonder: “I wanted to make the film for many years, actually even in the 80s because I had such a long career then before I moved to Europe in December ’88. But I ended up living in Europe for 11 years then when I came back to Brazil it was very difficult to pick up my career here because I wasn’t connected any more. A lot of people I’d known before had died of AIDS including many of my friends. Plus the people that used to go out at night before I moved to Europe weren’t going out any more so I didn’t know anyone on the club scene.
I always wanted to make a documentary because I wanted young people to know about my life and the history of Sao Paulo nightlife since the film I’ve really got back to business, which is great. It’s based on my artistic career since 1975. Das Piniero directed it. We started with a fictional text which became a five minute video then developed from there, it wasn’t made overnight.”
Skrufff: When you first started going out in the 70s were there many transvestites on the streets of Sao Paulo? How was the club scene?
Claudia Wonder: “There were very few transvestites compared to today. At the same time it was more difficult generally because we were living under a military dictatorship. Though having said that, it was also more romantic at the same time because we were all young. There was also a tangible sense of danger which was also exciting. There were just two clubs then around 1975 and ’76 one of which was called Nostro Mundo that still exists today. It’s been there since 1973.”
Skrufff: Were the police very dangerous then?
Claudia Wonder: “I was arrested many, many times. I’d be there at the police station regularly until 4am in the morning then people would come and release us (bail us out) and they’d say ‘let’s go’. The police used to raid the clubs regularly and usually they would arrest absolutely everybody inside. Being gay wasn’t actually illegal then but even so they’d regularly arrest gay people.”
Skrufff: When did you become political?
Claudia Wonder: “I became active in the early 80s, in particular in 1983 and 84 when AIDS first arrived. I decided to do a show because I was really upset that at the time people didn’t even want to come close to gay people, because they were so afraid of being infected. They didn’t know what AIDS was. So I decided to do a show to tackle this prejudice head on, to hit them in the face and show them that it wasn’t the right thing to do. The idea of having a band came up too because Brazilian rock back then was beginning to take shape and was becoming really powerful and strong in our culture. And then I also started doing my performances in the bathtub filled with blood. The blood represented blood infected with HIV.”
Skrufff: Madame Satan is now seen as one of Brazil’s most influential clubs, what was it like in the 80s?
Claudia Wonder: “It was more than just a club, it was a cultural landmark in Brazil. It was full of revolutionary people and those who wanted to express themselves artistically who weren’t happy with the conditions we had to endure then. People there had a certain attitude of being willing to do something different. It was about saying no to all those years we lived through dictatorship and prejudice. The dictatorship ended in 1985 and Madame Satan developed as a reaction to everything we’d lived beforehand.”
Skrufff: How much did your life change when the military dictatorship ended?
Claudia Wonder: “Everything changed (laughing). But we’re still fighting.”
Skrufff: Why did you leave Brazil in 1989?
Claudia Wonder: “Brazil’s economy was ruined, I couldn’t see any chance of maintaining a career in Brazil so I left. I went to Lausanne in Switzerland. I was hired by a manager to work as a cabaret performer (laughing). Before being in a rock star I’d had a long career as a cabaret performer so that’s what I did in Switzerland. I’m back at college now, I used to study theatre at University for two years in the past and now I’ve returned to education to study history. It has a lot more relevance to my social work these days. I’m studying international history focusing on hermaphrodites. There’s no research on it that’s been published in Brazil yet and the field is open just waiting for me.”
Skrufff: Alisson Gothz was advising us to stay away from Sao Paulo’s Gay Pride Street Parade warning us that it’s dangerous, what did you think of the parade last weekend?
Claudia Wonder: “I didn’t go to the parade for two years but this year I decided to go. The police went on TV beforehand to stress that there would be a lot of policemen on the streets ensuring people’s safety so the atmosphere was different.”
Skrufff; We did go and arrived at 4pm and it was definitely a bit edgy, we saw a street fight later on . . .
Claudia Wonder: “If you’d gone there at noon you’d have had fun, the atmosphere was a lot better. I was on a truck, a float hosted by a gay NGO. Everybody was dressed in those 18th century costumes like Marie Antonette. Everybody was dressed in white.”
Skrufff: How big a problem is homophobia in Brazil today?
Claudia Wonder: “People certainly talk about it a lot more today but the fact people are talking about it may also have opened some wounds. Now that you see more gays in public, for example during Gay Pride on Paulista Avenue you also have a lot of homophobic people becoming more homophobic. Because there’s nothing happening here in Brazil to educate people that being homosexual is normal. It’s not enough to just put on a show and expect that everybody will accept you, there also has to be education to make people aware and to change people’s perceptions. Without that information it can still be dangerous.”
Skrufff: In London many of the transvestites I’ve known have been quite isolated from mainstream gay culture, how much is that the case here in Brazil too?
Claudia Wonder: “It’s the same here too. And I feel like slapping those queers in the face (laughing). Gays here don’t like transvestites, transvestites don’t like gays, nobody likes anybody else. Sometimes the prejudice from gay men towards transsexuals is even worse than from straight people.”
Skrufff: Has it always been like this?
Claudia Wonder: “Yes, I think so. You had the gays and the lesbians, then the transvestites were seen as gays dressing like women: when people started labelling and having so many categories for each other these categories separated people. In general most gays in my experience never really liked transvestites, instead they’d be more like ‘here comes this crazy gay with hormones and fake breasts’.”
Skrufff: What do you think of today’s alternative gay clubs in Sao Paulo such as A Loca and Vegas?
Claudia Wonder: “I like them. They’re underground, the music is good. I like rock music and electro but I don’t like this cheesy commercial house music people usually listen to in gay clubs. That’s why I prefer clubs like A Loca and D-Edge. I never go to those strictly gay clubs with commercial music unless there is a friend who’s going to perform there. Otherwise I don’t go.”
Skrufff: Looking back, do you have any key lessons you’ve learned?
Claudia Wonder: “the best way to fight prejudice is with culture and information.”
Skrufff: What do you mean by culture?
Claudia Wonder: “I mean any kind of culture whether it’s writing, movies, music, anything. You have to somewhere, some way, somehow, touch someone’s mind, so they click and start to understand what prejudice means. Somebody who obeys the law will follow the rules but just because there’s a law, that’s not going to change the way they think and feel inside. Their attitude.”
Skrufff: Did you have any periods when you became frightened of dressing as a woman?
Claudia Wonder: “No. never. Even during the dictatorship I never considered going out dressed as a man. Because it wasn’t prohibited, so I would be arrested anyway, whether I was dressed up or not just from being in the clubs.I learned that I’d be released early in the morning each time I was arrested and after that I’d simply go back home.
My family supported me. They weren’t saying to me ‘we’re really happy you’re living like this’ but they always made me feel welcome at home. I lived with my family for a long time so I always knew I could say ‘fuck off’ to people. I knew I wasn’t alone. Whatever it is, you can get it if you really want. It may be a cliche but I really believe it (chuckling).”
Skrufff: What advice would you have for a young transvestite starting out going out in drag?
Claudia Wonder: “Believe in your goals, go ahead and focus. And don’t try and run away from your problems using drugs and alcohol because you’re going to run away so much that you won’t come back. You have to face things and fight with your heart and most importantly accept yourself. You have to firstly fight the that’s inside of you. Once you do that everything else is possible.”
Jonty Skrufff (translation by Benjamin Ferreira)