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Rising from the ashes of Menudo and tempered by a new maturity, Ricky Martin is Latin pop's : Numero Uno

October 22, 1998|ERNESTO LECHNER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For a man who has sold 15 million albums all over the world at the age of 26, Ricky Martin is a pretty level-headed guy.

The Puerto Rican singer, who headlines the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim on Saturday, is happy to be at the top of the Latin music world, but if you ask him about the privileged life of a pop star, he'll tell how many times he's considered quitting show business altogether.

"Whenever I feel like throwing in the towel, I say to myself: 'If you quit, you're never going to be able to go see another show, because if you do, you're gonna feel so envious you won't know what to do,' " he says.

"You're gonna think: 'I could have been there, I could have been that person who's there now.' That's what keeps me from quitting."

Blame it on Menudo.

When Martin was a member of the '80s teeny-bopper phenomenon, he was plagued by his own fears and low self-esteem. And for a good reason: Although highly successful at the time, Menudo is better known for destroying musical careers than for launching them.

Martin, who was in the group from 1984 to 1989, was uncomfortable from the beginning.

"Menudo was a concept," he recalls, a hint of bitterness in his voice. "And you had favorites within the group. Some were favored by the fans, and some were favored by the managers. There were many things going on."

Back then, nobody could have foreseen that little Ricky would become the handsome young man who has appeared on the cover of virtually every Latino magazine in the Americas.

"I was a very small kid, 12 years old but looked like I was 8," he says with a smirk. "So with me, the fans would say: 'Who's that little one, the cute one?' . . ."

But as Martin grew up, Menudo's popularity went down. Gone were the sold-out stadium concerts and the private jets. It was 1989, and Martin was 18.

"There was only one person who kept telling me, 'You gotta go back on stage, " he says. "It was my mother, always there, bugging me the way only she can. And I would tell her, 'Mom, I'm never going back on stage.' It took me only a year to go back."

Martin spent that time reevaluating his life. He went to New York for six months, where he did "absolutely nothing." There was a lot of walking in the streets, feeling the respite of anonymity, sitting on park benches and watching the world go by.

"I wanted to get to know myself," he explains, "because the first five years of my career had been a nonstop barrage of euphoria and adrenaline and a lot of mixed feelings."

Then Martin started doing theater. He loved it, and producers praised his acting ability and encouraged him to keep at it. From 1994 to 1995, he had a recurring role in the soap opera "General Hospital," and in 1996, he spent three months playing the role of Marius in "Les Miserables" on Broadway, with fans flying in from Miami and Puerto Rico to see him. It added up to the injection of self-esteem that Martin needed to commit himself to the life of a performer.

*

Nine years after he left Menudo, Martin performed his hit "La Copa de la Vida" in Paris at the closing ceremonies for the 1998 World Cup soccer tournament, watched by a television audience estimated at 2 billion.

That single reached No. 1 all over Europe, and its album, "Vuelve," climbed to the top of the charts all over, from Turkey and Spain to Australia, Italy and Taiwan.

Unlike his competitors in the Young Male Latin Star arena (see accompanying list), Martin has the rare ability to combine commerce and art. A mix of delicate ballads and joyous dance numbers, "Vuelve" belongs to a species that is almost defunct in Latin pop: an album that transcends the year or even the decade in which it was made.

"You can't afford to be mediocre in this business," he explains. "Latin pop has become plastic, like bubble-gum. I'm not judging anybody. I'm only talking about me. I'm not a conformist, and I surround myself with people that are like me."

"Ricky is somebody who has taken the required steps into true artistry by tapping into his innermost essence, both musically and philosophically," says K.C. Porter, who teamed with Robi Rosa to produce "Vuelve."

"He is a perfectionist, but at the same time a very trusting man, which is wonderful for a producer. There's no better relationship you can have with an artist."

At the moment, Martin shows no signs of slowing down. After finishing a world tour with the Pond concert, he will return to the studio for his first album of English-only material.

"Ricky's crossover appeal is endless," says Allison Winkler, director of Latin Events for Nederlander, the company promoting the Pond show. "He has the best potential of any Latin artist for crossover because he has already achieved success in dozens of non-Spanish markets."

*

With all his success and potential for more, Martin has managed to maintain his equilibrium.

He lives alone in Miami, and he has just one employee to take care of his house and dog. "But she leaves at 6 p.m.," he says. "I want to be able to walk butt-naked in my house if I want to."

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