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"I put on pants and the public was stunned," says lesbian Ranchera singer Chavela Vargas in a rare 1991 interview. The admission is featured in the new documentary Chavela, from directors Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi.
Born in Costa Rica in 1919, Vargas ran away as a teen to Mexico City, where she would eventually become a fixture in the bohemian clubs of the 1950s, singing songs traditionally sung by men to women, smoking cigars, tossing back tequila, and of course, wearing pants.
Chavela, which won the Documentary Grand Jury Prize and the Best Documentary Audience Award at Outfest in Los Angeles and the Audience Award at Frameline in San Francisco, weaves a narrative of Vargas's life through vintage video, stills, and audio of her performances. Interviews with friends, former lovers, and the great woman herself were shot shortly after she reemerged from obscurity after several bouts with alcoholism.
Vargas, who took Hollywood royalty and Frida Kahlo as some of her lovers, enjoyed a career resurgence in the 1990s, thanks in large part to filmmaker Pedro Almodovar, who included her haunting, pining songs in several of his films. The friendship that blossomed between Vargas and Almodovar is also featured in the documentary. Having found her way back to singing, she returned to the stage and continued performing nearly up until her death in 2012 at the age of 93.
In this exclusive clip from Chavela, Vargas discusses how when she began dressing the way she felt most herself, in trousers, her career took on new life.
Chavela opens at Film Forum in New York City October 4 and in Los Angeles at the Nuart October 6.