On a sultry April evening in Miami, some 5,000 young Hispanic women jam the downtown Knight Center auditorium to watch Latin America's hottest entertainer - and test the limits of local indecent - exposure ordinances. They wear wisps of chiffon, Lycra and fishnet, cocktail napkins masquerading as skirts and tops. Perched on six-inch heels, they peer hopefully toward the stage through an atmosphere thick with Giorgio and Eternity. Like religious zealots, they carry offerings and prayers: frothy bouquets of roses, a prom's worth of carnations wrapped in cellophane, handmade banners declaring Nos Entregamos! (We Deliver Ourselves!)
Interspersed among the girls are thirty - and fortysomething Cuban ladies and gentlemen, more sedate in their cocktail dresses and dark suits. Some are the parents of hard-core fans, though most are there of their own accord, to hear a performance geared as much to them as to the adolescent set.
Backstage, in the quiet of his dressing room, sits the object of all this yearning - a sleek 22-year-old Mexican singer named Luis Miguel. Almost unknown in Anglo America but a huge star south of the Rio Grande, Luis Miguel has the voice of a young Frank Sinatra and the full-lipped gorgeousness of a James Dean. And while his lady-killer image and romantic repertoire make the comparison to Julio Iglesias inevitable, Luis Miguel is a good deal hipper and a lot less gooey.
A former teen idol who had a string of hits before he made the transition to adult stardom, Luis Miguel won a Grammy in 1985 (for a duet sung in Spanish with Sheena Easton) and boasts a stack of platinum records.
Moments before ascending the stage in Miami, the young star jumps into a tiny booth to dab at his makeup and fool with his hair. Then he sets his jaw, puffs out his chest and begins to pace, jump - starting his adrenaline for the performance. By the time he lopes into the spotlight, he seems savage with energy.
On stage, Miguel glides and struts, one hand thrust in the pocket of his gray double-breasted suit, which hangs impeccably over a starched white shirt and a tie. Squeals from fans erupt when he so much as opens a jacket button. Backing him is a battalion of jazzy musicians; two buxom, bugle-beaded singers; and, for one sweet, brief set, three aging mariachi players, who look a little lost strumming away amid the clouds of dry-ice vapor. The eighty-minute show is a much a love fest as it is a concert, with the girls shrieking, dancing and lip-synching along to songs they know by heart.
For Warner Music International, Luis is a cash cow. He's one of the best sellers, up there with Madonna, Phil Collins, Prince and Rod Stewart. Overseas, he's on equal footing with an English-speaking artist. Outside the coliseum, safely ensconced in his getaway van, Miguel breathes a sigh of relief. Thank God, he says as the van speeds past clusters of girls still waiting for a glimpse. Back to reality.
However, Luis Miguel's idea of reality has always been shaped by show business. Born in Puerto Rico and raised partly in Spain, he is the son of an Italian actress, Marcela Basteri, and a Spanish singer, Luisito Rey, who was a favorite with Latino audiences in the Sixties. When Luis was 11, his father launched the boy's singing career at a birthday party in Veracruz, Mexico. Luis sang a song, and a Mexican record executive, conveniently present, signed him on the spot. Within a year, he produced two smash albums, 1+1=2 Enamorados (One Plus One Equals Two Lovers) and Directo al Corazon (Straight to the Heart). By 14, he was Mexico's littlest heartthrob. While other kids were doing their homework, Luis was doing gigs throughout South America, making schlock videos and movies (usually featuring a pubescent Luis being chased by a pack of girls) and cranking out records under his father's auspices. In 1987, he signed with WEA Latina, the Warner Music International division that distributes his records in the U.S and the year after that, he broke with his father.
Basically what happened is the son surpassed the father, he outgrew him. He was better than his father was letting him be. It happens in a lot of show-business families. Luis will discuss it only obliquely, in the breathy English he learned from American movies and music. There have been some difficult times in my life, he says. But I feel like a survivor. You have to get people to respect you for your professional life, and your professional life depends on your personal life. It's very hard not to show people what you feel. When you're famous, you can't show everything or do things that you know are wrong in front of other people. It's not good for you over a long period. And I really care about the long period.
But it was the separation from his father that allowed Miguel to mature as a performer and take control of his persona. Managing his relationship with the public, his look, his sound - in essence, his identity - is crucial to Miguel, who came of age under his father's command and according to his father's vision. As Miguel grew into his own, his adolescent bubble-gum disco evolved into more-sophisticated, Latin-sounding pop songs and ballads. He began taking a larger role in the production of his music and co-produced Romance.
He has fine-tuned his wardrobe. Conservative and inspired by old movies, he favors double-breasted suits for performing, but for interviews and photo shoots, his uniform is a pair of faded, crisply pressed jeans and a white T-shirt - the better to show off his carefully sculpted muscles. He sheared his shaggy teen bi-level into a buzz cut, now stylishly tousled. Luis Miguel is enthusiastic about style, a symbol of power for someone pushed on to TV shows at age 12, wearing polyester suits and high-waters.
The Italian designers, I love, he says energetically. A British producer, trying to introduce Miguel to Euro-audiences, asked him to trade in his Armani suit for a leather jacket. People believe that fashion is something you can change all the time, says Miguel, sounding a little put out. Fashion is a question of your integrity. People have to believe me, so it's what I use. I like to wear leather jackets but not for singing.
After the concert, in the peach-colored serenity of his hotel suite, showered and cologned but still sweating from the performance, Miguel looks extraordinarily smooth and evenly bronzed. Having dutifully doled out handshakes and kisses to well-wishers, he settles down, with an air of resignation, for a rare interview. Good reviews are in the bag for Miguel, and Latin American press coverage holds little interest for him; its celebrity journalism is usually the sum total of reprinted press releases. He admits he hates interviews and manipulates ours by answering questions with sweeping, abstract responses. I'm one of those people who doesn't like working in front of a camera or doing interviews, he explains. Many times (interviewers) aren't sufficiently prepared, which makes it uncomfortable. And even though it's part of my career, I try to avoid it as much as possible. I dedicate myself to doing only what's absolutely necessary.
Yet even a man who is a demigod among Latinos realizes that the Hispanic market can take him only so far. I have everything. Everything that I need, my career in Spanish music has already given me, he says, toying with a thin gold bracelet. So what I am trying to do is something new, something important for me. Music in English is a different dimension. A record in English can be known around the world, and it doesn't happen in other languages, not even in French or German. If this means submitting himself to the North American star-making machinery, then so be it. Crossover successes are few and extremely far between, and Miguel knows it. It is very difficult. We have to find a way of doing it with personality and everything. It's not my natural language, but I think I'm ready.
Luis Miguel is choosing his new music carefully. His musical heroes range from Ruben Blades to Hammer to Huey Lewis and the News, but his all-time favorites are the soul and the R&B legends of the Sixties and Seventies, and it's their style he wants to evoke on his first English record. I'm very old-fashioned in what I like, he says. In my opinion, the Motown singers, like Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder, they're the best singers of all time. We'll probably to something like that, with that kind of taste. Actually, those singers have already seeped into his repertoire: Miguel does a Spanish version of Michael Jackson's blame It on the Boogie and scats like a pro in some of his original pop numbers.
More than is the case with most performers, Miguel's profession is his life. He maintains a grueling touring and recording schedule and lives in a world pretty much closed off to the outside, peopled with handlers, producers, a smattering of childhood friends and Latino celebs. But Miguel doesn't think he's trying to make up for a lost childhood. On the contrary, I've had experiences that the other guys my age haven't had. And I feel very good about that. Everything that I am is because of my singing and my career, he says. I don't imagine myself doing anything else.
For now, friends and managers barely nick the wall of privacy Miguel has built up: no talk of dysfunctional families or kicked cocaine habits here. And definitely no mention of a well-circulated rumor of a 2-year-old child by the niece of a famous Mexican chanteuse.
Luis Miguel will admit that he rarely goes out these days. I'm not very comfortable doing that, going to clubs, he says. I'm not used to it anymore. My life is different now. He prefers his tastefully appointed Acapulco digs, working on music and trying to have fun, listening to records. The outside world intrudes only through the pages of Reader's Digest and of fashion magazines. Leaving this bubble of comfort and seclusion will be one difficult aspect of bringing his act to Anglo listeners. Americans prefer their celebrities on chummy terms, and, whether he likes it or not, Miguel may have to cough up a personal revelation or two. And for a performer who's used to automatic adoration, this brave new world may seem shockingly indifferent. But looking ahead to the day he takes his music over the border, Miguel curls his lips with a small smile as he hints, It's something more personal than material. When we do it, we have to do it very strong.