Born Elis Regina Carvalho Costa in Porto Alegre in 1945 to a working-class family, Regina began singing professionally at age 12 on a children's television show called Clube de Guri. For the next two years she was a regular performer on the program and became a local celebrity. It was during this period that she signed her first recording contract at the age of 13. At 15 she relocated to Rio de Janeiro, where she recorded the first of three records, returning to Porto Alegre between each. Her initial recordings sold well and she was soon a teenage star, as well as the family's principal breadwinner. In 1963, at the age of 18, Regina and her father, in a move designed to further her career, relocated to Rio. Unfortunately, it was around this time that a military junta took over control of the country.
Not long after her move to Rio, Regina became a fixture on Brazilian variety shows. Although the cool, supple, jazzy bossa nova sound was in vogue at the time, Regina preferred more raucous rhythms and full-throated singing. Adding to this was her dynamic, unsophisticated stage presence (which belied a career-long battle against near-paralytic stage fright) that, in American terms, might be best understood if one thinks of the tornado-like force that Janis Joplin could unleash. In 1965, Regina sang the controversial (and nearly censored) song "Arrastao" at Rio's first big popular music festival. In a performance that may well have been the defining moment of her career, she posed in Christ-like crucifixion, tears streaming down her face at the song's conclusion. From that moment on, her popularity rocketed; she went from being one of many successful Brazilian singers to the most popular and highest-paid singer in the country -- at the age of 21.
Although not as overtly political as other singer/songwriters of her generation (e.g., Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil),Regina was not shy about criticizing Brazil's military rule. While touring Europe in 1969 she told a journalist that her country was "being run by guerrillas." Normally this sentiment would lead to either jail or exile (or both in the case of Giland Veloso), but Regina's enormous popularity protected her somewhat from any public government retaliation. However, the military junta used more insidious strong-arm tactics, such as forcing her to sing the Brazilian national anthem at a ceremony to celebrate the anniversary of the country's "independence." She was roundly attacked by leftist performers for such a public display of pro-government sentiment, and it was years later that her husband revealed that she was threatened with jail if she did not comply with the government's wishes. As the mother of a young child at the time, Regina could not afford to become a martyr.