“You want to see something?”
The Brazilian singer Anitta, still bronzed and coiffed from a photo shoot, is sitting in the rear of an Escalade jockeying its way through Los Angeles traffic. She juggles two cellphones, firing off a barrage of WhatsApp messages on one, and on the other, searching for videos from her fourth studio album, Kisses, whose April 5 release is still a few days away.
Balancing the second screen on her Gucci sweatpant-clad knee, Anitta guides me through the album’s tracks, a sultry mix of reggaetón, dance and R&B tunes on which she swaps puns with Becky G (“Banana”), captivates Snoop Dogg (on “Onda Diferente,” he raps, “Anitta, Anitta, so glad to meet ya!”) and rouses her own “tribe of women” (girl-power anthem “Atención”). Anitta shuffles genres and languages effortlessly, jumping from her native Portuguese — she is the most-streamed Brazilian singer on Spotify in Brazil — to Spanish, the lingua franca of the worldwide Latin market, to English, the passkey to crossover success. Sometimes she does it all in the same song.
Few Latin pop stars have proved themselves as culturally fluent as Anitta, the only Brazilian artist to simultaneously crack the top 10 of Billboard’s Latin Airplay, Latin Streaming Songs, Latin Digital Song Sales and Social 50 charts. And although her appeal relies in part on familiar tropes — twerking in various states of surgically enhanced undress for hundreds of millions of YouTube viewers — it would be a mistake to underestimate what lies below the surface.
Sly and self-aware, Anitta is the architect of her own career: a millennial entrepreneur who crunches her own numbers and maps her own strategy. Catch her at one of her corporate gigs, at a business conference or on an academic panel, and she reverts from Anitta to Larissa de Macedo Machado: the working-class Rio girl turned global marketing pundit. (She will speak at the “Women in the Lead” panel and will perform during Billboard Latin Music Week.)
“I think most of my success is my dedication, not my talent,” she says. “I don’t think I have the best voice ever. I don’t think I have the best look ever — my surgeries look good but not like a Miss America. I’m just a really hardworking person.”
Anitta’s ability to shape-shift inspired both her new album’s title and the video she posted for her 37 million Instagram followers to first promote it. The original plan was to call the album Anittas, but she scrapped that as too literal. Kisses, likewise, come in many forms: romantic, platonic, gay, straight, French, peck on the cheek. “It’s 10 songs with 10 music videos that are going to explain who Anitta is,” she says. “I’m crazy, but I’m serious. I’m sentimental, but I’m, like, really hard, too.” Her objective is simple: “I just want people to understand that I have all these sides inside me.”
To speak of Brazilian music, at least outside Brazil, is to evoke the nostalgia of samba or bossa nova, from the chica chica boom chic of Carmen Miranda to the understated cool of “The Girl From Ipanema.” When Anitta, at age 23, was invited to perform at the opening ceremony of Rio de Janeiro’s Olympic Games in 2016, it made sense that she was paired with two septuagenarian legends, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, whose names were likelier to resonate with international audiences.
Transcending that history is one of many obstacles to becoming a global star from Brazil — a country that, Anitta notes, tends to be overlooked in conversations about the larger Latin music scene. The reason is partly cultural: As the lone Portuguese-speaking nation on a Spanish-dominated continent, Brazil often follows its own beat, favoring homegrown musical trends and traditions. And it is partly logistical: Brazil may belong to the Americas, but Rio is a 15-hour flight from Los Angeles, farther even than Tokyo.
“What Anitta’s doing is historic,” says Marcos Kilzer, A&R manager for her label, Warner Music Brazil. “I have never seen someone from Brazil going so far.” (Warner Music Latina promotes her Spanish-language singles; in the United States, Atlantic Records will promote early Kisses singles “Poquito,” featuring Swae Lee, and “Get to Know Me” with Alesso.)
In 2018, after a string of regional hits, Anitta debuted at No. 1 on Latin Airplay and No. 2 on Latin Pop Songs with “Machika,” a fierce reggaetón chant with Colombia’s J Balvin and Aruban newcomer Jeon. She scored a six-part docuseries on Netflix, Vai Anitta (Go, Anitta), that touched on everything from her struggles with depression to her bisexual awakening. Her breakthrough duet with Balvin, 2017’s “Downtown,” recently topped 400 million YouTube views, helping to push her to a total of over 3 billion.
“She’s the hardest-working person I’ve ever met,” says Carina Liberato, a longtime member of Anitta’s management team. “One of her greatest goals is to prove not only to herself but to everyone that we are all capable of doing great things and going wherever we want, even if the way is not easy and is full of obstacles.”
Anitta has been chasing this dream for as long as she can remember. In one of the most revealing moments of Vai Anitta, she watches a home movie of her 5-year-old self doing a dance routine at a school assembly. All the other girls and boys look stone-faced, dreading the obligatory performance, but Anitta is beaming in a two-piece yellow outfit, eye on the camera, hips swiveling with precocious glee. “I was the only one who could shake it!” she shrieks at the screen.
Growing up in the modest Rio barrio of Honório Gurgel, the daughter of an artisan mother and a father who sold (and still sells) car batteries, young Larissa de Macedo Machado faced pressure to choose a practical vocation. She opted for business administration, landing an accounting job after high school with Vale, the multinational mining conglomerate, but then quit to pursue music.
A gag YouTube video, in which she sings into a deodorant stick, landed her an audition with Furacão 2000, a local record label that specialized in funk carioca, the bass-thumping, ass-bumping music of Rio’s underclass. She soon adopted her stage name, derived from a Lolita-inspired Brazilian series, Presença de Anita, featuring a teenage seductress with chameleon-like gifts. “That’s completely the concept of my album right now,” says Anitta. “That’s completely me.”
But to a surprising degree, Anitta is still very much in touch with Larissa, who is strategic and disciplined. Although she has a loyal cadre of friends and family in Rio who help keep her on schedule, she runs her own business, studying markets around the world and tailoring her promotional campaigns to regional tastes. She has worked with a phonetics coach to minimize her accent in both English (which she studied as a young girl) and Spanish (which she took up only recently, to prepare for the Latin media circuit). And she regularly gives paid speeches at trade shows and business expos, including last year at Harvard and MIT’s annual Brazil Conference.
“I make more money right now from these speeches than even from concerts,” she says, explaining that she always reminds audiences they are hearing from Larissa, the boss, not Anitta, the product. She adds with a laugh: “When I go to these panels, of course, I’m fully clothed.”
By now, we have settled into a courtyard table at West Hollywood’s Gracias Madre, a plant-based Mexican restaurant, where Anitta has ordered guacamole and Key lime mousse. She went vegan in January, after watching Cowspiracy, a documentary on the environmental impact of animal agriculture, and celebrated her 26th birthday in March by fooling her guests with meatless hamburgers and hot dogs.
Don’t mistake her for a diet or fitness devotee, though: Anitta unapologetically uses plastic surgery to maintain the image she chooses to project. In Vai Anitta, she reveals that she has had at least eight procedures, but now hints it could be more — or maybe she has just lost count. “If I could find 10 days to recover, I’m going to be taking care of things I have in here right now that I’m not happy with,” she says, pinching a bit of underarm flesh.
To her thinking, it’s all part of the same package: wielding power, rejecting labels, shrugging off flaws. “People want to define which kind of artist you are: if you sing this, you’re this; if you do that, you’re that,” she says. “I’m not shit — I’m everything.”