RBD Crash Course: How A Telenovela Became A Global Fenomeno

REBEL BARBIE: “Rebelde” stars Dulce María, Anahí and Maite Perroni showcase Mattel’s “Barbie RBD” inspired by the massively successful telenovela about a group of privileged teens at a boarding school bonding through their love for music. (Photo by Victor Chavez/WireImage)

No matter how many times it is parodied on television and film and ridiculed on social media through memes (and there are many of them), the telenovela continues to have a chokehold on Latin American viewers and refuses to let go.

But audiences don’t seem to mind, enjoying the heightened drama, melodramatic acting and oh-so-many plot twists. The telenovela, a Spanish-language soap opera, burrowed itself into Latin culture and hearts since debuting on TVs seven decades ago, dominating airwaves from the early afternoon until the evening news.

See Cover Story: How RBD Went From Telenovela Stars To Conquering Stadiums

Few telenovelas have ever reached the heights of “Rebelde,” a show about a group of angsty teens at a prep school who share a passion for music. The highly admired show spawned an even more popular music group, RBD, and commanded nearly all aspects of Latin culture. It truly was a movement that had to be seen to believe.

“It’s tying concepts of ‘Saved by the Bell,’ ‘High School Musical’ and a few other ideas together — to give people an idea of what it could have been,” says Hans Schafer, SVP of Live Nation Latin Touring. “But it’s also just so tied to people’s experiences, how they grew up with it.”

The show wasn’t afraid to flex its muscle with cameos from notable artists such as Hilary Duff, Lenny Kravitz and Gorillaz.

“It was definitely a cultural phenomenon that impacted everything around it, even the people who didn’t really watch it,” Melissa Santillana, co-author of the book “From Telenovelas to Netflix: Transnational, Transverse Television in Latin America,” tells Pollstar. “It was very common to see young girls with a star sticker on their head, being like Mía, or with bright red hair like Roberta.”

Santillana, who recently earned her doctorate in media studies at the University of Texas at Austin, didn’t watch “Rebelde” but dyed her hair red, an indication of the series’ influence, even amongst those who didn’t race home after school to watch it like my cousin, Veronica Areliz, who modeled her punk chic style after the characters.

“There weren’t many DVRs back then, so unless you recorded it on tape, you missed it,” Veronica says. “There was that rush of coming home from school to see what was going to happen next.”

The show, produced by major network Televisa, was a remake of an Argentine telenovela called “Rebelde Way,” which also featured a cast that went on to become a music group. The South American show and band weren’t nearly as successful as its Mexican counterpart, becoming one of the few remakes to eclipse the source material in every way. Mexican families were glued to their television sets every afternoon to consume this one product, and there lies the power of the telenovela: bringing people closer to their families and heritage.

“For Latinx individuals in the U.S., one of the ways that they can connect back to their Mexican roots is by watching these telenovelas and being able to talk about it with their cousins and family,” Santillana says. “It’s what helps them tie their identity to something. … It also helps with the language. A lot of Latinx people are not encouraged to speak the language at home or don’t have the opportunity to practice it as much, so being able to watch these shows help them understand it better.”

Veronica’s experience corroborates Santillana’s theory.

“As a Latina, we always get into a telenovela somehow,” Veronica says. “For me, it was whatever my mom was watching. But that changed when ‘Rebelde’ came. It was different. It was relatable and geared to a younger audience, and I was hooked.”

Santillana didn’t grow up with telenovelas but was fascinated by them, and “Rebelde” was one that particularly piqued her interest in her studies because of how influential its archetypes were in helping young viewers navigate through the challenges of adolescence.

“You could identify with whichever character you liked the most: the spoiled little girl, the rebel, the girl that was sort of good,” Santillana says. “It was aimed at teenagers who were at a period in their lives where they’re thinking, ‘Who do I want to be? Who do I want to identify with?’”

The story, characters and themes of “Rebelde” resonated with audiences, but it was RBD’s music that cemented the legacy of the series and actors, who became fashion and pop culture icons.

“A lot of their success has to do with the songs,” she says. “They were really good and catchy, and they’ve become classics that you still hear on the radio. I catch myself singing along to them.”