RIO DE JANEIRO – She is the Shirley Temple of samba, a 7-year-old named to a coveted Carnival role normally reserved for barely clad models who have undergone more plastic surgeries than little Julia Lira has seen birthdays.
Naming the girl drum corps queen for the Viradouro samba group is raising eyebrows even in a city that has seen everything during the annual mega-party that begins next week.
A judge is considering blocking Julia's participation. A state agency that defends children's rights says she's too young to take on a traditionally sexy role. But the girl's father, who happens to be the president of the Viradouro group, says Julia is a natural who can easily samba through the 80-minute parade route in Rio's sweltering summer heat.
"Any man who looks at a 7-year-old child and feels any sort of excitement should go see a doctor," Marco Lira said before rehearsal this week. "She has the aptitude to be a drum corps queen — you'll see it tonight. She has a seriousness inside of her when she is on the stage."
At the delicate core of Julia's case is the queen's traditional role in Rio's Carnival: that of sexy muse. Unlike other participants, she is usually not bare-chested and wears more than just glitter. But queen costumes would be considered revealing by any estimation.
Brazil has long had a problem with sexual exploitation of children, especially in the lawless Amazon region. Allowing Julia to be a drum corps queen "would increase the treatment of children as sexual objects in Brazilian society," said Carlos Nicodemos, director of the Rio de Janeiro state Council for the Defense of Children and Adolescents.
"We're not against kids participating in Carnival; it's part of Brazilian culture," Nicodemos said. "What we can't allow is putting a 7-year-old girl in a role that traditionally for Carnival has a very sexual focus."
The competition among the 12 top-tier samba groups is fierce, and the winners are hailed by fans across Brazil. Viradouro, which won the title in 1997, is no stranger to controversy. In 2008, a judge blocked the group's use of a dancer dressed as Hitler on a float loaded with naked people representing Holocaust victims after the display caused an international outcry.
Julia's fate is now in the hands of a family court in Rio. The judge examining the case, Ivone Ferreira Caetano, has declined to comment or say when she will make a decision.
Marco Lira said the judge requested information about the girl's role, what time the group was scheduled to makes its presentation — now slated for just after midnight on Feb. 14 — and what Julia would be wearing.
At practice this week, Julia danced in a poofy, white miniskirt, sequined halter top and silver-heeled sandals, a tiara atop her head.
While the details of parade themes and costumes are closely guarded secrets in Rio's Carnival, a Viradouro artistic director said Julia's outfit would be suitable for a child.
"We're taking the necessary precautions because she isn't going to be a muse," Edson Pereira said on the group's Web site. "We can't transform a girl into a woman, much less explore any sensuality."
Just before Tuesday's rehearsal, Julia was roughhousing with two other girls inside her dad's office. She stopped playing only when her mother, Monica, told her it was time to get dressed for practice.
A gregarious girl with a toothy grin, she declined to say much, despite the coaxing of her parents and samba instructor. She didn't like how her mother had fixed her hair and was in no mood to talk to a reporter.
Asked why she wanted to be the drum corps queen, Julia would only say quietly: "I'm happy because I like to dance."
That much is clear.
When she took the stage in front of more than 1,000 people at the rehearsal, she lit up as she presented a bouquet of roses to 30-year-old Juliana Paes, a top Brazilian actress who served as Viradouro's drum queen for five years. Once the beats from the drum corps erupted, Julia dove into her samba routine.
Beyond the question of appropriateness is whether a 4-foot-tall girl weighing about 55 pounds can physically withstand the dancing during Viradouro's parade.
At the rehearsal, she was handed cups of water within 10 minutes of taking the stage and in 20 minutes started to look tired.
Her father emphasized that several people would be watching after her during the parade, that she would be able to rest and that every precaution would be taken to safeguard her health.
Regardless, some Carnival fans don't see how Julia could be considered for the role.
"She is way too young to be parading down the avenue," said Jaquelene Oliveira, a 19-year-old college student. "The role of the drum corps queen is to inspire the drummers to play hard for 80 minutes. It is an innately sexual role and to put a child in that position is wrong."