Carnival Queen breaks down amid controversy

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She was cheered by legions of Carnival fans, but seven-year-old Julia Lira, the youngest drum corps queen in memory at Rio de Janeiro's lavish party, didn't dance and broke down crying upon realising she was the centre of everyone's attention.

Dressed in a sequined halter top and a miniskirt made of purple feathers, the youngster shuffled through the first 50 yards of the parade.

Her father - the president of the parading Viradouro samba group - then took her by the hand and presented her to the crowd. She smiled big for the photographers.

But 10 minutes into the group's parade and surrounded by dozens of photographers and television cameramen, the youngster broke down in tears and was immediately scooped up into the arms of her unofficial handler, the group's spokeswoman Joice Hurtado, and taken away from the attention.

After a five-minute cool down, Julia returned to her place in front of the group's massive drum line, but was quickly whisked through the parade grounds by her father and out of the media's eye.

It was not clear if the girl left the parade all together - the Globo television network, with exclusive rights to coverage of the event, didn't show her again.

Before the parade began, Julia's father, Marco Lira, said that "she's happy, she is ready to dance".

But some in the audience thought she was not ready for the spotlight.

"She is too young to be a drum corps queen," said Marister Deniz, 60, who was watching from the stands. "A girl that size shouldn't be thrust in such a role."

But Jorge Elias Souza, a member of the Viradouro drum corps, said he was proud of the girl regardless.

"She is the embodiment of all the love in our school. Normally a famous person is the drum corps queen, but her father is our president and she is the centre of our family," he said.

Putting Julia in the Carnival role drew the ire of child welfare advocates who were against a seven-year-old taking on a role normally reserved for models and actresses.

Carlos Nicodemos, director of the Rio de Janeiro state Council for the Defence of Children and Adolescents, two weeks ago asked a judge to keep the girl from dancing, arguing that "what we can't allow is putting a seven-year-old girl in a role that traditionally for Carnival has a very sexual focus".

A judge ruled last week that the girl could join the parade, and the overwhelming response in Brazil was a shrug and acceptance.

Before Julia took to the parade ground, the overall Carnival Queen Shayene Cesario Vieira, 24, said she thought "it's cool" that the girl would participate.

"I don't remember hearing of a drum corps queen being so young," she said. "But her dad is the president of the group and if he thinks it's OK, it's OK."

Viradouro's parade continued, however, and the group put on an intricate, Mexican-themed ode.

The Uniao da Ilha samba group opened the night in front of some 80,000 spectators, introduced by a massive fireworks barrage and the first beats of a 500-strong drum line.

Carnival queens wearing black feather headdresses, the tiniest of sequined outfits clinging to their sculpted bodies, incited the crowd with frenetic samba moves.

In the two weeks leading up to the Carnival parade, Marco Lira said repeatedly that he and his wife would be with the girl at all times and they would carefully watch to make sure she doesn't get too tired during the parade. Both he and his wife were with the girl through the entire parade.

The Viradouro samba group has a history of controversial themes. A 2008 float portrayed Hitler amid a sea of naked mannequins representing Holocaust victims. A judge banned that float from being in the parade.

Mr Nicodemos also suggested that the samba group thrust Julia into her role to get extra attention.

As 12 top-tier Rio samba schools compete fiercely in the parades that are broadcast to millions of viewers nationwide, massive street parties continue to erupt across the city.

Tourism officials say almost 730,000 visitors arrived in Rio this year for the big party - a 5 % increase over last year despite the world financial crisis.

It's the first Carnival since Rio was named as host to the 2016 Olympics, and officials have been working hard to show that the city, known for the drug-gang violence that pervades its slums, can safely host major events.