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RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Rio de Janeiro's youngest Carnival queen, just 7 years old, is preparing to share the limelight with pop divas Madonna and Beyonce as Brazil's annual blow-out gets under way this week.
The choice of third-grader Julia Lira to lead the drum corps for the Viradouro samba group sparked controversy and a legal challenge by a children's rights group who said she risked being sexually exploited.
The final word was left to a family court judge, who according to Brazilian media ruled on Wednesday she could join the parade. The judge's office declined to comment.
If allowed, Lira will dance through the Sambadrome stadium after midnight on Sunday cheered by thousands of fans and celebrities expected to include Madonna, who has been pictured in Rio smooching with her 22-year-old Brazilian boyfriend.
In Carnival capital Rio, which has extra reason to party after being awarded the 2016 Olympics last year, masks of late U.S. pop idol Michael Jackson have been flying off the shelves along with those of Brazilian politicians in an election year.
U.S. R&B stars Beyonce and Alicia Keys are also in Brazil to take part in the festival of hedonism before Lent that is thought to have its roots in pre-Christian spring festivals.
The two donned feathered Carnival costumes to shoot a music video in a Rio slum on Tuesday and Beyonce opened the celebrations in the northeastern city of Salvador on Wednesday night with a show in front of 45,000 people.
But it is the much younger diva who has been dominating the pre-Carnival headlines.
The selection of a tiny girl in a role usually occupied by scantily clad, high-heeled models and buxom TV stars has sparked a heated debate, with critics saying she is too young to star in the grueling, sexually charged parade.
Drum queens, chosen for their looks and samba skills, dance non-stop in front of hundreds of drummers, wearing little more than a tiny bikini, a feathered headdress and high heels.
With Rio sweltering through its hottest February in half a century amid temperatures well above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), concern has also focused on the possible health consequences for a 7-year-old.
Julia's father Marco Lira, who is also president of Viradouro, has defended her selection, saying she is doing what she wants and will wear an outfit designed for children.
"No father wants to expose his daughter. She will parade because she deserves it," he told reporters on Wednesday.
Despite the controversy, children have traditionally been part of Carnival celebrations in the largely poor communities that form the competing samba schools and Lira is not the first young drum queen. Raissa de Oliveira, the 19-year-old queen of the Beija-Flor group, has been parading since she was 7 and was crowned queen at 12.
"I think this is a good break from the view of the queen as a sex symbol. The role of the queen is above all to present the orchestra of the samba school," said Hiram Araujo, cultural director of the Independent League of Samba Schools. He saw no danger of Lira being sexually exploited as long as she was supervised by her parents.
Flush with the success of bagging the Olympics, Rio city officials are trying to impose more order than usual on the inherently chaotic event that draws millions of visitors to the beachside city with a reputation for violent crime.
Their main target -- public urination that every year turns the city's streets into a foul-smelling outdoor lavatory. Some 4,000 chemical toilets, up from 1,000 last year, are being placed throughout the city and officials are threatening those who relieve themselves in public with up to two years in prison for public indecency. A total of 62 "pee-ers" have already been arrested in pre-Carnival street parties, the city said.
"Peeing on the street is one of the biggest complaints we get at Carnival," Rio de Janeiro Public Order Secretary Rodrigo Bethlem told Reuters. "Anyone caught will be taken to the nearest police station."
Editing by Todd Benson and Eric Walsh