He's only 23, but Ricky Martin titled his latest album "A medio vivir," which translates as "Halfway Through Life."
Looking at his life up to now it's hard to blame him. A Latin American superstar at the age of 12 as a member of the teen-sensation bubblegum group Menudo, he's packed enough experiences into his young existence--good and bad--for someone twice his age.
In the years since he left Menudo at 17, he's struggled to gain artistic credibility and become the most successful of the group's former members while also reaching a non-Latin audience through his ongoing role as Miguel on "General Hospital." Even bigger obstacles came two years ago when he was injured in an auto accident and had a near-miss when a small plane crashed after dropping him off for an interview in San Diego.
"This is hard, man," he says during a recent interview in a Studio City hotel. "Life, it seems, is a constant battle."
The battle began in 1988 when he left Menudo--the word "menudo" being slang for "small"--and the members of the group were replaced as they matured. He finished high school in Puerto Rico and moved to New York, out of the limelight and with no specific plans for the future.
"It was like a shock, to be on my own after many years of touring," says Martin, who has lived in Los Angeles for the past two years.
But it was also a chance to reinvent himself. With his considerable savings from Menudo's international success, he spent one year studying dance and vocals and moved to Mexico, where he starred in the musical "Mama ama al rock" (Mom Loves Rock) and the soap opera "Alcanzar una estrella" (To Reach a Star).
Then, with his first solo album, "Ricky Martin," in 1991 and its follow-up, 1992's "Me amaras" (You'll Love Me), he reemerged as a legitimate music presence in his own right--both albums were hits throughout Latin America.
But still, the shadow of Menudo follows him. Worshiped by its mostly female teen-age fans since the late '70s, the group was the ultimate easy target for serious music lovers who dismissed Menudo as pure fluff--imagine New Kids on the Block in Spanish, only worse.
"True, it was commercialism to the highest degree," Martin admits, "and I'm not extremely proud about it. But I don't have to apologize either. It was a great school for me. They would pay us for the records, the concerts and all the training. The only thing that bothered me was not being able to express my opinions. When you entered Menudo you became part of a well-structured machine that did not need your input."
Martin's position now is the result of a careful plan that began five years ago, under the direction of manager Ricardo Cordero.
"We knew he could sing, dance and act like few others," says Cordero, 26, also from Puerto Rico, "but we wanted to make sure everyone knew that this was not an aspiring actor, but a well-established star in Latin America."
In order to land the role of Miguel in "General Hospital," Cordero sent videos and records to ABC producers and invited key people to some of Martin's sold-out concerts in South America. In 1993, he signed a contract for the soap opera and in '94 inked a deal for a movie of the week and a series pilot, both to star or co-star Martin.
"And of course, we'd like to make movies, but the main thing is not to rush him," Cordero says. "You know, in Mexico if you are cute you have work, but here you have to act."
Martin likes the idea of acting--he'd love to be in a big musical like "Les Miserables" or "Sunset Boulevard," though he says he'd be "willing" to do "Hamlet." But his main priority remains his concerts.
"I love the music behind me, boom, boom, and the fans' reaction. . . . That's the ultimate pleasure for me," says Martin, who grew up in San Juan listening to salsa, boleros and rock 'n' roll.
For his new record, Martin turned to another Menudo alum, Robi Basa, to produce along with K.C. Porter. Basa, who is billed on the album as Ian Blake, is also a solo star fighting to distance himself from his past. That bond made for a good match on an album that is the singer's best selling and most ambitious to date.
"I concentrated on it like never before," he says. "Now I'd like to continue working with K.C. and Robi. We developed a very interesting chemistry."
On "A medio vivir," Martin co-wrote one of the songs and borrowed material from Venezuela's Franco De Vita and Spain's Alejandro Sanz, both major Latin pop figures.
The collection showcases improved vocal skills and good production of its colorful mix of ballads and mild rockers, notably the fine opening track co-written by Porter, Rosa and Luis Gomez Escolar. Still, the album suffers from the same malady of most lightweight pop recordings--unimaginative love lyrics and few truly good songs.
Released a couple of months ago, it comes two years after "Me amaras," a particularly difficult period for him.
"It was a very strange bad streak," he says, referring to the auto accident that took place upon arriving in Buenos Aires two years ago and the later plane crash.
In the former, Martin's vehicle flipped off the road. The latter came when a plane that had just dropped him off in San Diego for an interview ran out of fuel and crashed. The pilot died and the false rumor of Martin's death spread like wildfire among his fans.
"I wasn't there, but it was very tough for me," Martin says. "Apparently, I still have a reason to be around."