Born Isabel ("Chavela") Vargas Lizano to Herminia Lizano and Francisco Vargas in San Joaquín de Flores, province of Santa Bárbara de Heredia, Costa Rica, which is nestled between Nicaragua and Panama.
She moved to Mexico in the 1950s, in exile, where she associated with leading intellectuals such as Frida Kahlo, with whom she had an affair. Her career in singing began in bohemian cabarets in Mexico City and her performances attracted attention for their originality.
Her behaviour on stage and off, her stormy relations with women led to her rejection by right-minded Mexican society. Not only did she wear trousers and dress as a man, but she also smoked cigars, carried a gun in her pocket, and sported a red poncho in her celebration and vindication of folklore. Vargas, as a young woman, was alleged to have had an affair with Frida Kahlo, during Kahlo's marriage to muralist Diego Rivera.
Her ostracism from major theatres forced her to perform in local cabarets and to travel constantly. She fell into alcoholism in the 1970s. She retreated from the public sphere for about twelve years. She attempted comebacks with only modest success, though she did sing in local cabarets, especially those frequented by gay men, who continue to constitute a large fraction of her admirers.
In 1981, however, she made a major comeback with stellar performances in the Olympia Theatre of Paris, Carnegie Hall in New York, the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico, and the Palau de la Música in Barcelona.
In the early 1990s Pedro Almodóvar engaged her for a series of performances and a tour in Spain which scored a great success. In November of 2000, the President of the Spanish government presented Vargas with "la Cruz de la Orden Isabel Católica," one of the most prestigious awards for artistic production.
In her songs Vargas is a "macho" who loves delicate women, and like the males of Mexican folk songs, can be hurt by their arrogance or rejection. Musical modulation and emphasis place eroticism and desire in the foreground, never allowing the audience to forget that she is a lesbian who sings of her own pains. Vargas publicly came out as a lesbian in 2000 at the age of 81,