Among new children's programs this fall, none has been quite the odd spectacle that Xuxa (syndicated; check local listings) is. A 30-year-old Brazilian with a fetish for hot pants and thigh-high boots, Xuxa (pronounced SHOO-sha) is the least likely kiddie-show host since Pee-wee Herman. While Herman radiated an unnervingly presexual nerdiness, Xuxa, a former Playboy model, gives off an equally startling sensuousness. At the end of her daily showan American version of her long-running Latin American seriesthe host applies a fresh coat of lipstick, then selects a child from the studio audience to receive an enthusiastic kiss on the cheek.
The rest of the time, Xuxawho lives in Rio and tapes her Spanish-language program in Buenos Airessings tinny Europoppy songs, referees studio games like Gloop Time (opposing teams of kids sit on balloons; whoever pops the most in 30 seconds wins), and works valiantly on her English. It's touching to watch Xuxa-an idol to millions outside the U.S. who's listed among Forbes magazine's 40 richest entertainers and has been linked romantically to everyone from soccer star Pele to John F. Kennedy Jr. to race-car champion Ayrton Senna-stumble through the few sentences she must deliver. Recent guest Michael Feinstein even made up a song about it: ''Her English is just so-so/But that's okay...''
A fascinating new book by Amelia Simpson, Xuxa: The Mega-Marketing of Gender, Race, and Modernity (Temple University Press), offers a lucid academic critique of Xuxa's persona. Simpson thinks Xuxa ''associate(s) herself with the notions of rebellion and liberation through a kind of naughtiness,'' and quotes the star as saying, ''There is no TV show in the U.S. where children can scream or cry or dance or do whatever they want.'' This ain't Mr. Rogers, folks. Is there any chance this woman could become the Madonna of kids' TV? Xure.