Alexandre Frota is not a caricature. He may have the body of an action figure, with such toweringly muscular shoulders it’s a wonder he isn’t off-balance. And he may sound like a parody of misogyny, complaining that he dislikes feminists because they “urinate standing up.” But Frota, who made his fame in Brazil as an actor and porn star, is now a congressman in President Jair Bolsonaro’s far-right Social Liberal Party (PSL) party. And he has a serious voice and following.
The Frota of 2005, a gay pin up and pornography star, is a world apart from the politician today, swept to power alongisde the notoriously homophobic Bolsonaro. That world is bridged by social media.
When we met in his office in Brasilia in June, Frota vacillated between laughably outrageous and unexpectedly self-reflective. He began the interview by immediately trumpeting his “aggressive” online style (an aid suggested he meant “incisive,” but Frota stuck to his choice of words.) Though he seemed rash and off the cuff, Frota put aside an hour for the interview and planned ahead, asking a bilingual assistant to join us in case I didn’t have a translator.
Frota started building a social media following around a decade ago, and became politically engaged towards the end of 2013. Across the country, protesters were fed up with the ruling Workers’ Party (PT’s) endless corruption scandals. Frota, who had by then transitioned from soap opera actor to porn star to regular reality TV presence, became an online activist, posting videos that railed against the status quo.
“The videos I would make—there were videos that would get 15 million views in less than 48 hours,” says Frota, speaking in Portuguese. (We talked with the help of a translator working for Quartz.) “I was reaching a lot of people.” Along with several other right-wing social media activists who have since become elected politicians, such as Carla Zambelli and Bia Kicis, Frota demanded the impeachment of then-president Dilma Rousseff. In Frota’s view, he “reanimated” the movement against the leadership’s corruption.
Frota did not have a clear plan to enter politics. “I am very impulsive. I often act from a place of emotion rather than reason,” he says. These emotions—his anger and scathing frustration—were evident in his videos. Frota disagreed with the powers-that-be in the Workers’ Party. He flagrantly disregarded all norms of political discourse. He was shocking and unpredictable and different. “As soon as I began thinking about getting into politics, nine parties invited me to join them—big parties, medium, small. But they invited me. So, I saw that this was a path,” he says.
On homophobia, feminism, and getting offended
Now that he’s made his way inside Brasilia’s National Congress, the building designed by modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer, Frota says the environment isn’t so different from when he was in porn. “Pornography is in here,” he says, gesturing at the walls of his office. “The main actors and actresses—the ones involved in the pornography done to the country—are in here.”
Yet there are striking differences between Frota’s attitude towards sexuality, partly expressed through pornography, and the political norms in congress. Frota occasionally starred in gay porn and, while he’s only publicly dated women, has said he’s attracted to men and is “very open minded about all these issues.” Bolsonaro, meanwhile, once said, “Yes, I’m homophobic—and very proud of it.”
Frota is at pains to suggest that Bolsonaro’s views aren’t that bad, insisting that he’s never seen Bolsonaro disparage anyone because of their sexual orientation. What about when Bolsonaro said he’d rather his son die in an accident than be gay? “Fine, but that doesn’t mean that he hates gays,” says Frota. “Did he say it? He didn’t say that. It’s his choice. Maybe he doesn’t want his son to be gay.”
Frota is unwilling to condemn homophobia, even while acknowledging he disagrees with the president’s views on the LGBTQ community. It would be better for Bolsonaro “to have kept his mouth shut,” says Frota, before transitioning, without pause, into complaining about how easily people get upset nowadays:
“We’re in a very annoying country, where everything is ‘harassment,’ everything is ‘racism,’ everything is ‘an endorsement of.’ You’re not allowed to say anything anymore. I’m from a time when we would go to a party during carnival, we’d grab women by the arm.” Men at carnival often grab women by the arm to kiss them. “These days, if you grab a woman by the arm, it’s rape. It’s harassment.”
Frota doesn’t like feminists. He says this is because of their “grotesque” acts, like “urinating on the floor” and “defecating on the streets.” When he complains that feminist politicians are square, he adopts a high pitched, nasal tone to mimic them. “‘Presideeeeeent.’ They start speaking ‘like thiiiiiiis.’” His colleagues in the room laugh.
Frota doesn’t name specific politicians he thinks are boring. A few days before the congressman and I met, he apologized for insulting congresswoman Sâmia Bonfim’s appearance, having called her “the hamburger of the Federal Chamber.” Frota says he spoke with congresswomen from Brazil’s women’s caucus, who released a statement saying his comment demonstrated “contempt against women who exercise political power on an equal footing with men.” “They came over to broker a truce, and I ended up publicly accepting their opinion,” says Frota.
Despite this seemingly productive conversation, Frota apparently hasn’t embraced feminism more broadly. Women’s rights activists in Brazil are fighting against the country’s criminalization of abortion, widespread violence against women (four women killed per day in the first month of 2019), and a gender pay gap where men earn 20% more than women. To Frota, though, it all sounds indistinguishable. “They all say the same things. Because resistance. Because women. Because equal rights…The way they craft their arguments makes them square. Makes them annoying. You understand?”
With Frota, by contrast, it’s impossible to know what he’ll say next.
The congressman says he’s grown since transitioning from an activist to an insider politician. “At some point we also have to stop campaigning,” he says. “In here, we have to—regardless of parties, and the opposition, and the context—we have to focus on building, on developing relationships with people.”
Yet, in contrast with these mature intentions, Frota cannot help revert to his old combative ways. He’s still railing against the president, this time criticizing his own candidate and the Bolsonaro family. Frota proudly recounts a Twitter dispute between himself and Eduardo Bolsonaro, congressman and son of the president, imitating Bolsonaro in a moaning voice. “He says, ‘Yo, you tweeted that you’re gonna ‘set fire to the playground’. And I said, ‘Yo, you reading my tweets, dude? You have 1.8 million followers, and my tweets are getting to you?’ A few weeks later, Frota announced on Twitter that he and Eduardo Bolsonaro had reconciled their differences, though he didn’t refer to specific joint policy proposals.
Frota is also happy to tear down President Bolsonaro who, when he was elected with 55.7% of the vote, was as beloved by some Brazilians as he’s hated by others. As Bolsonaro’s popularity has plummeted, Frota has joined the growing chorus of discontent. Many newly-elected PSL politicians acknowledge that they rose to power off a wave of enthusiasm for Bolsonaro, but Frota emphasizes the inverse: Bolsonaro got support from Frota’s social media followers. “Just as we surfed Bolsonaro’s wave, we helped Bolsonaro get elected,” he says.“Because Bolsonaro was a joke. Bolsonaro was a ready-made comedy skit.”
In Congress, Frota looks unavoidably out of place. His glasses and tie have an almost comical effect, as though his outfit is borrowed and he’s playing the role of serious politician. But Frota has created a powerful performance. His role as outspoken critic still appeals to his legions of online supporters.
Overall, he’s not that impressed with how the government has fared under Bolsonaro’s direction. The government was five months old when I spoke with Frota in June; he emphasized the need to make a political case. “If I were president of Brazil, this country would be soaring,” says Frota. The idea seems to appeal to him.
He leans forward, chin in hand, and smiles at the room. “If even Bolsonaro was president, how come Alexandre Frota can’t be?”