Samba girl, 7, wins a late pass to kick off Carnival

Judge rules youngster can take star role after protest by child rights campaigners
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The Independent US

Rio de Janeiro's youngest Carnival queen, just seven years old, will be allowed to samba dance alongside Madonna and Beyoncé at Brazil's annual blow-out, a family court judge has ruled.

The choice of Julia Lira to lead the drum corps for the Viradouro samba group sparked controversy and a legal challenge by children's rights campaigners who said she risked being sexually exploited. The final word was left to the family court judge, who ruled on Wednesday that she could join the parade.

Lira is now expected to dance through the Sambadrome stadium after midnight on Sunday cheered by thousands of fans and celebrities.

In the Carnival capital Rio, which has extra reason to party after being awarded the 2016 Olympics last year, Michael Jackson masks have been flying off the shelves, along with those of Brazilian politicians in an election year. Beyoncé and Alicia Keys are in Brazil to take part in the festival. But it is the much younger diva who has dominated pre-Carnival headlines. The selection of a tiny girl in a role usually occupied by scantily clad models and buxom television stars has sparked a heated debate, with critics saying she is too young to star in the gruelling, sexually charged parade.

Drum queens, chosen for their looks and samba skills, dance non-stop in front of hundreds of drummers, wearing little more than a tiny bikini, a feathered headdress and high heels.

With Rio sweltering through its hottest February in half a century, with temperatures over 40C (104F), concern has also focused on possible health consequences for a seven-year-old.

Julia's father, Marco Lira, who is also president of Viradouro, has defended her selection, saying she is doing what she wants and will wear an outfit designed for children. "No father wants to expose his daughter. She will parade because she deserves it," he told reporters.

Despite the controversy, children have traditionally been part of Carnival celebrations in the largely poor communities that form the competing samba schools, and Julia Lira is not the first young drum queen. Raissa de Oliveira, the 19-year-old queen of the Beija-Flor group, has been parading since she was seven and was crowned queen at 12.

"This is a good break from the view of the queen as a sex symbol. The role of the queen is above all to present the orchestra of the samba school," said Hiram Araujo, cultural director of the Independent League of Samba Schools. He saw no danger of Lira being sexually exploited as long as she was supervised by her parents.

Flush with the success of bagging the Olympics, Rio officials are trying to impose order on the chaotic event that draws millions of visitors to the city.

Their main target is the urination that turns the streets into a foul-smelling lavatory. Some 4,000 chemical toilets, up from 1,000 last year, are being placed throughout the city, and officials have threatened those who relieve themselves in public with up to two years in prison for indecency. A total of 62 have already been arrested for the offence. "Peeing on the street is one of the biggest complaints at Carnival," Rio de Janeiro's public order secretary, Rodrigo Bethlem, said. "Anyone caught will be taken to the nearest police station."