We already know gay men are smitten with Ricky Martin, But why are the media so intrigued by the notion?
ON A RECENT BALMY NIGHT in the gay mecca of West Hollywood, Calif., a machismo-crazy party host put TV in one of his bedrooms with the sole intent of showing Ricky Martin videos throughout the evening. There were 20 guys at any given time, glued to the set, reports one of the mesmerized revelers.
Similar Martin moments pile on salsa. New York: A gay music exec throws a "Ricky Martin Night" soiree where only the singer's music is heard and cocktails called La Copa de la Vidas are served with gusto. (What, no Ricky Martinis?) Chicago: ,The gay bar.
Sidetrack plays Martin s videos to cheers. Los Angeles: Spin-class teachers at the gay-popular Crunch gym get their clients pedaling to -- guess who -- and just over the hill in the San Fernando Valley at Oil Can Harry's, a gay club with a country bent, customers have managed to customize a cowboy line dance to the rhythm of La Vida Ricky.
Even lesbians are shaking their "bon-bons" to the beat. Just before Martin kicked off the Blockbuster Awards on May 25, "Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche ran by, not stopping to do any press," says Us magazine reporter Dennis Hensley, "and Ellen yelled back to the reporters, `We don't want to miss "Livin' la Vida Loca!"'"
Well, maybe Ellen was kidding. But Ricky fever is a serious phenomenon. Ricky Martin, the 27-year-old singer's first English-language album (there have been four in Spanish) sold nearly 661,000 its first week and debuted at number I on the charts; his May 8 performance on Saturday Night Live helped earn the show's highest ratings of the season; and at least two major publishers are rushing biographies on the leading Latino. In a matter of weeks, Martin has gone from a virtual unknown among non-Latinos to a cross-cultural superstar, the one person news editors -- including those at this magazine -- know will grab readers' attention. Just check out any magazine rack, tune in any entertainment news show or music channel, or scope out the gossip columns: Martin mania is everywhere.
And almost everywhere he pops up, so does discussion of his avid, special following. The mainstream media seem to love the idea that gay men love Ricky Martin. After his breakthrough earth-and hip-shaking February 24 performance on the Grammy Awards show, Entertainment Weekly immediately declared, "Women and gay men across the nation awoke and wondered: Why don't I know this guy?" New York magazine noted that "members of both sexes lust for him." Even the Buffalo [N.Y.] News found it noteworthy that the singer's fans are both "male and female." Gay fans have picked up on the frenzy: "I don't think I've been this worked up since Tom danced in his undies in Risky Business," wrote Chris Smith, a self-described 36-year-old gay man, to Entertainment Weekly.
Not only do the mainstream media relish the openness of Martin's gay male following, but they also insist on confronting Martin with it at every opportunity. "I keep running into women and men with crushes on you," Rolling Stone's David Wild told Martin. "Do you enjoy this sort of universal impact?"
What's going on here? Other gyrating popsters have acknowledged the gay fan quotient [see "The Boys in the Bands," page 43]. Rapper-cum-actor Mark Wahlberg even nurtured it by appearing at gay clubs (and talking with The Advocate in 1994). But Martin may be the first case of the mainstream media's acknowledging gay men as a key element of a performer's "overnight" success.
An even more curious aspect of the Martin file is that several mainstream reporters are leaping from the sexuality of his fans to that of the artist himself. In Entertainment Weekly' s first major piece on the exploding star, writer Andrew Essex asserted that Martin's cross-gender appeal has "sparked is-he-or-isn't-he watercooler debates." Meanwhile, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel noted that "the music industry is awash in rumors he's gay." Then MTV personality Serena Altschul prodded the charmer about romance in an on-camera interview: "I'm open to love," Martin said. "Male or female?" Altschul tossed. Suddenly sounding like a Jeopardy contestant, the Latino wonder responded, "Let's go for girls."
All the quick and fierce speculation might have more to do with expanding minds than with inquiring ones, says Steve Kmetko, the out anchorman of E! News Daily. "I work with a lot of straight and gay people in their 20s, and for them homosexuality is not a big deal," observes the broadcasting veteran. "It's just a matter of fact. Maybe that's where [the 28-year-old Altschul] was coming from." (Altschul declined to comment, while publicists for Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone did not respond to requests to interview their reporters).
Whatever its spin, the Martin coverage, suggests Billboard talent editor Larry Flick, signifies a gay rights victory. Noting that the media's approach to Martin has been "unusual," he adds, "We've gotten to the point where people aren't so shocked by the gay thing, and the media is feeling those questions aren't as taboo."
What is off-limits, in Martin's mind, is discussion of his love life. He may "go for the girls," but beyond that, "What I say about sexuality is, I leave it for my room and lock the door," he told longtime friend Gloria Estefan in June's Interview magazine. "I go back to my culture. It's something you don't talk about."
Indeed, Martin's Catholic upbringing -- he was even an altar boy in his hometown of San Juan, Puerto Rico -- alone could explain his reluctance to discuss his personal life. Born Enrique Martin Morales, he landed in the Latino boy band Menudo at 12. Five years later he left the band and put an accent on acting, eventually starring in a hit Mexican TV drama, winning Mexico's equivalent of an Oscar, and crossing into English-language television as longhaired singer Miguel Morez on the soap General Hospital.
All the while, this modern-day Ritchie Valens has pined over femmes fatales in song -- up to the imminent single "She's All I Ever Had." Although the tabloids have jumped on the "Is he?' bandwagon, they and the mainstream press have also linked him romantically to the likes of Madonna, with whom he recorded "Be Careful (Cuidado con Mi Corazon)" for his new album; a former Miss Universe; America's Funniest Home Videos cohost Daisy Fuentes; and most recently Miami model Adriana Biega. In interviews the singer -- who reportedly shares his Miami house with his dog -- toys with such reports without confirming or denying them, or he laments that his crazy career keeps him too busy for love. (Martin, it should be noted, declined several requests to talk to The Advocate.)
Although the Hedda Hopper-era euphemism "eternal bachelor" has long been retired, Martin's singleness seems to fuel the media's curiosity. "Martin is awful cute, he has a high profile, and he's discreet about his personal life," says Billboard's Flick. "That's all titillating." Raising the goose bumps is Martin's own occasional ambiguity in interviews. "When I do music, I don't focus on just women or men," he told Rolling Stone, attempting to explain that "universal" appeal. "I want to see the guy bringing his girlfriend to the show and enjoying the music with her. I don't want to see only girls. It's going to sound weird, but that's not the turn-on I'm looking for."
The media's obsession with just who or what does turn Martin on is lost on some. "It's a nonissue," says Nick Turzo, who manages gay neofolk-singer Rufus Wainwright. "It's no one's business." Adds one music journalist, "All this speculation is amusing on a base level, but if he is gay, what does it really do for gays? And if he's not ready to come out, what does it do to his psychology?" A source close to Martin is more dazed: "I don't understand why the media is making such a big deal out of any of this."
Still, people talk -- and talk. Gossip columnist Michael Musto finally threw up his hands in The Village Voice and declared, "Ricky Martin, please stop with the girlfriend talk, girlfriend!" Musto later reported that he'd heard Martin "is okay" with his sexuality, "and even saw Get Real, the [gay] coming-out movie with his Wilfredo," suggesting Martin even has a steady boyfriend. These are blatant tosses that most publications and on-air outlets won't touch, however willing they otherwise may be to dabble in Ricky rumors. Instead, the debate and gossipmongering about Martin has exploded in a freer zone: the Internet.
Speculation about Martin's sexual leanings became rampant in gay-dominated chat rooms immediately after the Grammys, alongside benign crushes posted by the likes of Andrew, a 22-year-old Webmaster who proudly runs "Australia's First Ricky Martin Site." Chat rooms and gossip columns like those on the gay online clearinghouse Data Lounge boil over with "friend of a friend" allegations and endless debate. The "E-Vida" even reached online magazine Salon.com, the Web's nearest equivalent of a mainstream media publication, where lesbian pundit Camille Paglia boldly titled a recent column "Ricky Martin -- Superstud or Closet Case?"
What must Martin's handlers think of such questions? After all, Martin's core fan base is still predominantly Latinas and their beaus, and, notes one record industry executive, "In Latin culture it's not as easy to dig a guy who is gay." If Martin were in the closet, he adds, "I'm certain the spin would be to keep him there -- and away from Beverly Hills bathrooms."
Not that out male pop stars are an anomaly. Elton John has produced some of his best-selling albums since affirming his sexuality. George Michael's career track hasn't seemed to completely derail since his unplanned, law-enforced outing in 1998. And Wainwright has been a critical darling -- and out -- from the start. But John and Michael are past the Fabian phase, while Wainwright works the alternative pop niche. "There are no examples of an openly gay heartthrob appealing to teenage girls, and no one wants to test that," says Darin Soler, a retail marketing employee at DreamWorks Records. "Hormones sell those records."
Even so, the idea that the media, including the Web, are playing up the gay angle with Martin does not seem to concern his camp. Says his publicist: "We're all thrilled that Ricky's appeal spans such a wide spectrum of audiences."
But while some performers with big gay followings, such as Cher and Depeche Mode, are specifically promoted at circuit parties or gay discos, no one has gone that route with Martin. "With Ricky the strategy is all-inclusive," says Rocco Lanzilotta, senior director of marketing at Martin's label, Columbia Records, who has done marketing to the gay public for other artists. "Ricky transcends all demographics -- that's what's exciting about him. I have a 4-year-old nephew who runs around the house singing `Livin' la Vida Loca,' and my sister is a new Anglo fan. My parents watch MTV and wait for the Ricky Martin videos to come on."
If the Martin music machine hasn't included mass mailings to gay discos, the artist himself hasn't excluded gays from his world. Desmond Child, who had a hand in many of Martin's hit songs, including "Livin' la Vida Loca," is gay [see "The Man Behind the Man," page 38]. And Martin, a sensitive type who practices yoga and reads Deepak Chopra, has expressed sorrow in interviews over the loss of his good friend, gay composer Renato Russo, to complications from AIDS; Martin even included a tribute to Russo in his last album, Vuelve.
He also can't be called insensitive to the plight of minorities. Unlike many of his Latino predecessors (Martin Sheen and Anthony Quinn, for instance) who hid their roots to make it big in Hollywood, Martin makes no bones about his Puerto Rican heritage. After years of recording in what was recently considered a niche, he is passionate about spearheading the touted (by the media again) "Latinization" of America via his music and even his Miami restaurant, Casa Salsa. Said Martin to the Mexican newspaper Diversion in 1998: "I must seize the moment. I must live with the knife in the mouth for all the countries where I have worked to be respected."
Martin's passion for his people may extend to an appreciation of its gay component. "His whole look, the leather pants and posing with the best of what he's got, are absolutely borrowed from gay culture," says noted Latino performance artist and writer Luis Alfaro, who has been following Martin's career since Menudo. "It's a larger-than-life look that started in gay discos in Puerto Rico, and the mainstream grabbed. Look at all the Mexican boy groups. They wear eyeliner, but they're worked out. It's sensitive and macho, and that's the image Ricky's built too. He's very smart. He's posing for the new millennium."
Find more on Rick Martin and the accompanying media frenzy at www.advocate.com