Ricky Martin: The Rolling Stone Interview

From teen idol and soap opera actor to singing with Madonna and generally taking over the world

Ricky Martin performing on stage in 1999. Credit: Mick Hutson/Redferns/Getty

It's eight in the morning in New York, and 5,000 young girls are hanging out of office-building windows and crammed onto West Fifty-first Street, screaming. For conservative midtown Manhattan, this is an event. For Ricky Martin, it's just another day at the office. This morning, it's the Today show, where Martin is appearing on Today's live summer-concert series with a performance that ties up traffic for hours.

"Ever since I've known him," says Robi Rosa, the co-author of Martin's smash single "Livin' la Vida Loca" and a former member of Menudo who roomed with Martin when Martin joined the Latin boy band, "Ricky has exuded a sense of joy."

Not to mention organization. The twenty-seven-year-old CEO of Ricky Martin Inc. has managed his career in a way that is anything but crazy. Born on Christmas Eve 1971 in Puerto Rico to Nereida Morales and Enrique Martin III, Enrique "Kiki" Martin IV started doing TV commercials at seven. At twelve, he joined Menudo. After leaving the band at seventeen, Martin considered quitting show business. But a role in a Mexico City musical led to soap opera work there, and then to a part on General Hospital and a stint on Broadway in Les Misérables in 1996. In 1991, he began releasing a string of four solo albums, which sold a total of 15 million copies worldwide.

He did not work alone. "When Ricky called me, about 1993, saying he wanted to do a Latin album, I was surprised," says Rosa, whom Martin calls his "Latin soul" — a bit of a dark one, at that. "Ricky and I are as much alike as Julio Iglesias and Sid Vicious," Rosa says with a laugh. A little Sid Vicious is clearly what Martin knew he needed; it was a song Rosa co-wrote, "Maria," that broke Martin in Spain and the rest of Europe.

But it wasn't until February that America heard the beat itself. Martin's hip-popping rendition of "The Cup of Life" at the Grammys brought even that jaded audience to its Manolo Blahnik-shod feet. In May, when his first English-language album, Ricky Martin, was released, it shot into the top of the charts at Number One and hasn't left since. Neither has Martin.

Hard to believe it's been only six months since you took America by storm at the Grammys.
For me, it was yesterday. But instead of grabbing America by storm, America caught me. Ever since, I've been living, literally, la vida loca — the crazy life. Although I must admit I've been in a spin for the last two years — since I started working on the crossover from the Latin market to Europe and then Asia.

You seem to be running a very well-thought-out career.
Thank you. Once Latin America started working, people asked, "Why Europe now? Why go into Asia before America? Start in the U.S. and you go, 'Boom.' You took the bumpy road." Let's put it this way: America is like my doctorate degree. Europe and Asia — there I did my master's.

After the Grammys, Madonna suggested a duet, which appears on your new album. Had you met before?
When she was in Argentina shooting Evita, I was doing concerts. We stayed in the same hotel, and my fans are noticeable [laughs]. But it was after the Grammys that we got together.

So the two of you had chemistry?
From the get-go. It was [finger snap], "Feels good!" We had only fifteen days until the release of my album. I was biting my nails, but Madonna was very comfortable to work with, very flexible.

How much time did you have to work on the song?
Ten days, on and off. She's very smart and honest. I learned a lot from her, but she's also willing to learn.

So what did you learn?
To be stubborn in a good way. When you want something, get it. Do what you have to do without hurting others. In the studio with Madonna, you work. In that way we were different. Maybe it's my island way of thinking, but I'm more kicked back. I sit down with the producer, smoke a cigar, say, "Oh, shall we go into the studio?" She was very businesslike. But the important thing was that we were both hungry. Something would happen and we'd go, "Yes!"

Curiosity always keeps things fresh.
Yes, it gets you closer to that kid who is naturally curious. It is very important to go back to the six-year-old kid [you were] and ask him if he's proud of who he's become.

Speaking of kids, when you were growing up, your dad was a psychologist. What was that like?
I always say that I grew up in jail. My father was a penal psychologist who worked in jails, giving therapy to drug-addicted convicts. Now he oversees the psychological treatment for a number of prisons in Puerto Rico. My father is smart, serene and precise.

And you'd go to work with him sometimes?
I wouldn't go into the cells with him; I stayed in his office. And I'd go to the prison Christmas parties. Of course, I also grew up in a Catholic home, was an altar boy and went to Catholic school — until I joined Menudo, where we had tutors. Then my classroom was a hotel room.

Before we get to Menudo, tell me about your mother.
[Long pause] My mother is very organized — a leader. And she has the knowledge of a mother. When you're going crazy, she has that one word that will take you back to normal. But she is a very tough woman.

In what way?
She raised three boys. She had two other sons from her first marriage, so she had to be in control. Even today, she helps me a lot — emotionally, and when it comes to business. When I started my solo career, in Mexico City, I didn't have a manager. So she became my manager for six, seven months. And today she oversees the money, although she's also trained my older brother to take care of business.

Your parents were divorced when you were two. Was it friendly?
My parents were buddies when they got divorced.

Did either remarry?
My mother never married again. My father has been remarried for more than twenty years. After the divorce, according to the judge, I was supposed to be with my father on weekends, my mother the whole week. But I did whatever I wanted. It's something I'm very grateful about. My parents were so open about letting me make up my own mind that today I can make decisions and not doubt myself.

You grew up with a working mother.
Yes, always working, keeping accounts for banks. When I was seven or nine, she came to America and worked in Miami and Hollywood, Florida.

Did you live with her?
I was going to, but didn't want it. My brothers and I went for a visit and said, "We want Puerto Rico." My father was very important in my life; he was my hero. So even though I loved my mother with all my heart, I wasn't going to stop seeing my hero. So my mother gave everything up and came back to Puerto Rico.

Why is your father your hero?
Because he is the best father. Brilliant but very practical. When I was seven years old, I told him that I wanted to be an artist, and he said, "How can I help you?" And he looked for an agent in the newspaper. He saw an ad that read, "Agency for models, TV commercials and publicity ads," and took me to this shopping center. I stood in front of a camera; they took pictures and said, "What's your name?" "Kiki" [laughs]. After that, I did thirty commercials in three years — sodas, toothpaste, any commercial you do from age seven to ten.

What was your first one?
My first one was for Orange Crush. It only aired in the U.S., but it was good money: $1,600 the first day and residuals every six months. After that I said, "Dad, I want to become independent" [laughs]. He was like, "What are you talking about?" "Well, now I have money, I can pay for my school and books, and I want a bicycle." My dad's like, "What's wrong with him?" But he helped me. He had a book where he would write, "Pencils: Look, you spent twenty dollars on pencils." And I bought my bike. When I wanted a motorcycle — my father drove a Harley-Davidson, and I wanted to be like him — he said, "OK, but you're ten years old. You can only get a scooter."

It's one thing to do commercials, another to go on the road at age twelve. How did you convince your parents?
Without me telling them, they knew if they didn't let me, I'd be the most frustrated guy in the world. I'd see Menudo and get this sparkle, like I couldn't live without being in the band. For them, the detaching process was very hard. But, me, I was ready for it. I was like, "Good! I'm going!"

So they accepted that this was your destiny.
Yes, even when I called them from the road, homesick and crying on the phone. It would've been easy to say, "Come home!" But they had the wisdom to say, "Everything is going to be fine. It's good to feel this way. You're alive. Enjoy it and keep moving forward. You're supposed to feel these things — you're human."

You got turned down for Menudo three times.
Yeah. The first time, they told me I was too short. It was horrible. The second time, the manager said, "Buddy, buy a basketball so you can grow."

And did you?
I did. I swear [laughs]. The third time they called, it was: "Four feet ten? You're just not going to grow." The fourth time, they just told me, "You are the new Menudo. Tomorrow you're on a plane to Orlando. Maybe you're not the best singer or dancer, but you wanted it so bad. That's why you became a Menudo."

You must have been thrilled.
Everything moved so fast. The next morning at six, I was on a plane to Orlando. When I got there, I did six interviews, fittings, hairstyles. In twenty-four hours my life completely changed. It was very dramatic.

And shocking, no?
I see that now. But, then, I was having fun. I learned eighteen routines in ten days. I have to brag about it. There were guys who took four days on one routine.

Where did you first perform?
My debut was at Radio City Music Hall [in New York], where we played for ten days. I went from riding my bike to learning my steps to Radio City.

Were you scared?
I didn't know what Radio City was. For me it was about, "My God, I'm doing the show. What do I do now?" There was crazy girls, crazy hysteria.

How did that strike you?
I loved it [laughs]. I was a little kid having a blast. At our hotel, one whole floor was a game room, full of pinball machines, just for us. It was like Disneyland. We worked hard, but we were pampered.

That's not how every Menudo remembers it. Some members claim they were overworked, got ripped off financially — some even said they were molested by the band's manager.
Put a lie detector on them and we'll see if it works. We were respected and treated like kings. The paternal figures were always there. And there was a woman, a mother figure, who traveled with us, too. What I remember of Menudo was respect, a lot of work, discipline and a family atmosphere. Always. I can say, "I am proud of the beginning of my career." It was an easy way: You join a band that's already a phenomenon, and learn. When you leave the group, you have the tools to do whatever you want — if it's school, you have money; if it's to stay in the business, you've done everything, which helps a lot.

Traveling the world, performing, ain't the normal deal for a thirteen-year-old. What did you guys do for fun?
If you were a fifteen-, sixteen-year-old kid outside your house, on the road, with beautiful girls following you? Yeah, you would party! Even though we were pretty disciplined. Believe me, it could have been much worse — we were so naive.

You were surrounded by girls. Did you have groupies?
We had groupies.

How did you respond to having that kind of attention?
I wanted that so bad. I wanted the fame, the fortune, the girls, private jets. Yes, the music and performing were great. But when my friends asked me why I wanted to be in Menudo, I'd say the fame, fortune and girls.

So, Ricky ... when?
My first kiss was when I was thirteen, and it was really wet. I stopped being a virgin when I was fourteen. In Argentina.

Well, if you're going to lose your virginity, Argentina is the place to do it.
Yeah, they're beautiful women.

Were you chaperoned most of the time?
Of course, so we would have to hide [laughs]. And when I say "parties" ... when I was twelve years old, I'd be so tired, I'd want to sleep. At fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, the managers would trust you: "You want to go with some friends to the movies? Go." But we had our parties. Basically, it was a very healthy atmosphere. Menudo was not about sex, drugs and rock & roll.

Were you making money?
Yes. We had a salary. Like $5,000 a month, maybe. And we had no expenses. Not at all. I wouldn't see the money; it went straight to Mom and Dad [laughs]. Boom! It was in the bank account.

During Menudo, your father and you had a major falling-out, resulting in a long estrangement.
In ten years, if we talked twice a year, it was a lot, which was tough, because fatherhood was so important to him.

Your father gave you an ultimatum, didn't he? "When you're home, you stay with me, not your mother"?
It was all about love. My parents both wanted me with them so badly. I suffered a lot, but I don't have any resentment toward my dad. Just the other day, my dad said, "Kiki, did I ever say, 'Your mom or me'?" And I said no. I'm not blaming the estrangement on my parents. I was the problem. I was angry at life. The hormones were all over the place; the girls ... it was all about rock & roll, being a rebel. I was giving the positive side of my energy to my career and the negative to my family. Because who do you hurt when you're angry? Those you love. There was a moment when I was not getting along with my family, period.

Perfectly normal for a teenage kid.
But the good part is that we're not trying to hold on to those years that we weren't together. One day I called up my father and said, "Enough is enough." He was always there for me. It was up to me. Today our relationship is amazing.

After five years, did you get tired of the Menudo thing?
Yes. I wouldn't show up for interviews — again, angry at life, not having a good time. I never missed a show; I still loved being onstage. It was more, "I'm not motivated. In fact, I'm starting to hate this."

After Menudo, you returned to Puerto Rico. What did you want to do with your life?
I didn't know if I wanted to stay in the business or go back to school. One day I said, "Mom, I'm going to New York for a vacation. I'll be back in ten days." Never came back. I found an apartment in Long Island City and did nothing. I needed some anonymity, to get to know myself, because, for the last five years, it had been about, "You wear these clothes, get this haircut, sing this song." I needed my personality back, to find out what I liked and hated. So those ten months in New York were phenomenal.

How did you spend your days?
I was a tourist guide for a while. I invited all my friends from Puerto Rico: "Come. I'll take you to the Statue of Liberty." And they did. I went four times in a year.

Did people recognize you?
No.

How did you support yourself?
In ten months, I did four autograph sessions at stores that sold Menudo merchandise.

What about the money you made while in Menudo?
I didn't want to touch it — that I would use for investments. I wanted to study computers, but my mom said, "No, that's not who you are. You are in art. I know you'll be back on the stage." I was so angry. I didn't want to go back into show business. I said, "Me? Sing onstage? Never again!"

What did you learn about yourself that year?
That I was someone who was good at hiding feelings — really good. I was an expert. I was like, "No, I don't want to feel this," and I wouldn't. It was hard for me to say, "I love you." I wouldn't dare. I was afraid of rejection. For five years I was trained to be part of a concept, not to say what I really felt: "Be yourself, but you can't be angry, because we have to work. You're not Ricky Martin, you're Ricky Menudo." So that year, I began to be — accept — myself. I read a lot, started painting. My paintings were a little dark. If you did a psychological test, you'd say, "This guy was depressed." But I was also having a good time, because I didn't have to follow an itinerary. If I wanted to be locked in my house for three days without leaving, I was [laughs].

What did your parents say?
"Take your time." I'd say, "Mom, I'm going into the fashion business" — I always liked clothes — and she would say, "No, you're not."

What finally got you back into performing?
A friend called from Mexico City and said, "Come for the weekend." I flew to Mexico on Friday, went to see a play on Tuesday, and the following Monday I opened in the theater.

Emotionally, what happened that evening?
I got the goose bumps again, but it was different; it was theater. Menudo was a big theatrical play on the road, but that night I saw the acting and said, "I can do that." I went to see the producer, a friend of mine, and she said, "You're not going back to New York; I want you here, because an actor is leaving — and if he's not, I'll kick him out." So I started the show, and it was the domino effect. A producer of soap operas asked me to audition for the biggest Mexican soap opera, To Reach a Star. Then I got asked to record an album. But I was still in denial: "I have no time to record at the moment."

You finally did do an album, in 1991, but it wasn't Latin.
It was pop. I was finding myself — who am I when it comes to music? I did ballads, because they're the shortcut. Everybody falls in love, everybody likes ballads. You have to be a businessman, after all. But it was not risking. . . .

You were building.
I was building, and it was a smart move. I got the record company trusting me because the album sold, so for the second album, I got a bigger budget and said, "I want to work with the producer at the moment in Latin America, Juan Louis Calderon." They said OK, but it wasn't going with the image. And it wasn't a big seller. But it was a step up. Today, you listen to that album, and it's one of the best I've ever recorded, but it didn't do good: "No problem. Let's go to the next one. Let's keep searching." And that's when I started having fun with my background, with the Latin sounds, with the percussive, when I started working with Robi [Rosa].

Did you go "more Latin" because of your gut or because you sensed it could be commercial?
Gut. I was looking and looking, and suddenly I said, "Wait a minute. Keep it simple. You were born in Puerto Rico, and you're a Latin — even though the first stuff you listened to was Journey, Foreigner, Cheap Trick, Boston — so let's play with it a little, not be stereotypical," which even I was before I started working with Latin sounds, because the Anglo influence is so strong in countries like Puerto Rico. I only started listening to Latin music when my mother said, "Enough with this! I hate rock [laughs]. What do you know about Latin sounds?" "I don't know nothing, don't need to; that's for old people." And she grabbed me by the ear and took me to see Celia Cruz and Tito Puente. That's when I started being proud of it. When you leave Puerto Rico, you become more . . .

Nationalistic?
Definitely. You hear salsa, you go, "That's Puerto Rico." I learned so much in Mexico, because their music is the mariachi, which I thought were sounds for adults. But you go into a club, it could be two in the morning, and they throw on a mariachi song and everybody stands up, grabs the bottle and starts singing — they're so proud of it. I said, "We have to be proud of who we are. They have their thing in Mexico. Let's go with what we have in Puerto Rico." So we created the mix of sounds — salsa, a little cuema and samba. And when I showed Robi's song "Maria," everybody got scared. They said, "What are you doing? This is the end of your career."

Because?
Because, "You do ballads, and now you're doing Latin sounds. The album is not going to work." And boom! It sold 1 million copies. "Maria" broke me into Europe through Spain. It triggered the World Cup people to say they wanted something like it for their anthem. But I was just being me, and that's what the audience got. They get it.

They sure do. But you give it. Your shows, and your schedule, are so high energy. How can you keep up that pace?
It's all about giving. When you're onstage, you have to give it all if you want that applause. In interviews, in everything, you must give.

But who gives to you?
I get a lot from my friends — people who have known me for a long time, who I grew up with. When I'm with them, I'm not judged. This is me. If I want to pick my nose, I'll pick my nose in front of them. My life is very simple when I'm around my friends. It's, "Light the fireplace and let's eat marshmallows, crack up, be silly and stupid." Though I have new acquaintances . . . new friends, I don't. Who today is my friend will always be.

Do you have a personal, romantic life?
Definitely. That's what feeds . . .

The work?
The artist, the one who goes onstage. You have no idea how I protect my personal life [laughs]. With a knife in my mouth.

Have you ever been in love?
Yes, And it's crazy when I am, because I quit everything when I'm in love.

You get obsessed?
Obsessed but not possessed [laughs]. Possessive.

Do you fall in love often?
It's so beautiful when instead of being in love, you're in passion. Though, of course, love and passion are completely different. Passion is so terrific that I want to say, "I'm in love" immediately. Because if this feeling isn't love, what is it?

Usually lust. Sexual attraction.
Whatever it is, it feels amazing. I dated this incredible woman. I shouldn't say "dated" — we were together, boyfriend and girlfriend, when I first moved to Mexico. I was eighteen, and I fell in love with her. Her name is Rebecca. But I got caught up in the career and got distracted. Two years later she came back.

And?
We went out for a while and broke up. A year ago, we started seeing each other again. We were at the Grammys together last February. But a month ago, we broke up. Still, there's something that keeps bringing us back together.

What attracts you to Rebecca?
She's so feminine, very sensual, knows how to pamper herself. I need a woman who really knows how to take care of herself. She has a lot of class, and she's brilliant, which turns me on. Rebecca is a very talented, focused woman who knows what she wants. The mother of my kids [laughs].

She could be the mother of your kids?
Yes.

What's keeping you apart?
Maybe me. Maybe there are things I still have to work on when it comes to my childhood. I don't want to blame it on my parents' divorce, because I never saw them together.

Do you think you'll get back together?
I wouldn't mind. It's a healthy relationship.

She's older, isn't she?
She'll be thirty-five in October.

Does Rebecca think you're not ready?
We didn't talk about it.

Why not?
I guess that's why we keep coming back together. It's a circle that hasn't been closed. We leave things open. It leaves the possibility of coming back.

Have other women ever made that kind of impression?
Oh, yes. I have my experiences. There was a woman who really drove me crazy two years ago: Alejandra, a rock star in Mexico. She was so intense and crazy. I felt crazy with her.

There we go again: la vida loca.
[Laughs] She drove me insane, man, but I loved it. It was dangerous. I loved it because it was edgy.

Dangerous people are provocative. I'm not sure you want to settle down with them.
Exactly.

Do you want to get married someday?
Yes, I want to get married. Wait a minute — I'd like to have a steady relationship.

The idea of marriage bothers you?
No, it doesn't, but it does others. The word marriage scares some people. . . .

You mean women?
People in general. The signing of the paper. But I'd like to have a steady relationship.

Do you want to have children?
I would love to have kids. Lots of them. I want to have a mess of toys in my house. . . . Me tripping because of a toy in the middle of the living room.

You'd be a great father.
I'll be a great father because of the father I had. I want to give my parents grandchildren. I don't know if it's now.

You're only twenty-seven.
In my culture, I'm late. But even if I start when I'm thirty-five, I'll grow with my kids.

First you have to find somebody with whom you want to have children.
You know what? You don't look for it.

It will find you.
Hopefully.

Have you had your heart broken?
I've had my heart broken . . . really broken, and it was so painful. It was like, "Oh, man! What is this?" [laughs]

That was Alejandra the rock star?
Yeah.

You know, the bigger you get, the more people talk about you. You've been frank about saying your music appeals to everybody, men and women. Maybe as a result of that there've been some rumors flying around about your sexuality.
Well, this is show business. It's a lot of fantasy. You can fantasize whatever you want to be. You can fantasize however you want to [laughs]. Go for it. Be free about it. I'm not too concerned with what people say about me. You can think whatever you want. I know what I am, my beliefs, what I like and don't like. As I just said, I have the need someday to have a family. And that's something I'm going to go for. The people I care about know me. I'm happy.

Your schedule is almost inhuman. How do you cool out?
Nowadays, it's all about silence. Before, I'd walk into a room and turn on the TV even if I wasn't watching, because I needed company. The noise. It became a drug — a hard habit to break. Now, I walk into my room, and silence. Every morning is sacred. I have breakfast in silence — nobody around me — and I meditate.

You do a formal meditation?
I have ever since I went to India last year and learned Kriya yoga. Twenty to forty minutes to myself, every day. Keeps me balanced. No television, no radio, just me. "Don't be afraid; go in there" [points to his chest].

You were in India just before the Grammys?
I did a concert in New Delhi last December for 55,000 people, which was amazing. It was the first concert I did that was all men.

Only men?
Eighty percent male.

Women weren't allowed to attend?
They could, but only with a bunch of friends. Usually my audience is very mixed. In this case, the energy was very aggressive, like a soccer stadium.

So how did you get from there to yoga?
At my hotel I met a Puerto Rican man who had fallen in love with a Thai woman, moved there and sold Cuban cigars in a store in the lobby. In three days, we became buddies. Turned out he was a Buddhist monk who'd lived in India, traveled to Nepal and Tibet. It was a very tough trip. You wear a backpack, and when you get tired, you say, "I'll sleep right here." We visited temples in Calcutta, then traveled to Puri, a very small town, fifteen hours by train from Calcutta. You're completely disconnected. If you think you're known in the world, go to Puri. Nobody knew who I was.

What do they do in Puri?
It's like a yoga retreat, the mecca of many religions. We stayed a week, and I learned yoga. Then we headed to Nepal and the Himalayas. It was great. I'd do it again. I would love to take my wife eventually, because if you really want to know me, you gotta go through this.

The record company must have been berserk to have their superstar running around the mountains.
They thought I was going to stay over there [laughs], because I shaved my head. We were there for twenty days, which is nothing.

Was that the first time you focused on Eastern thought?
I've always been searching for spirituality.

What are you searching for?
The truth. I'm looking for stillness, serenity, peace of mind, God — whatever word describes the ultimate. Like my father, I have to touch to believe. I'm analytical. I can't stand questions that aren't answered.

Does the need increase as your life gets more complicated?
It does. I've been depressed. I've had my moments.

What's caused you depression?
In Spain, I did forty-four concerts in two months, and after that I was like, "Enough! I'm tired." I never wanted to do anything again.

Obviously, India had a big impact.
It did. I was always looking outside, not inside. I always made my decisions with my mind — too mechanical — or my heart — too passionate. Big mistake.

You're everywhere nowadays. Aren't you exhausted?
Every day that goes by, it gets more intense. I had to put my priorities in order — and one of my priorities is myself. I get worn out. And when I'm worn down, I get in a bad mood, anxious and sad. And I cry. I defend my days off as if there are no other days.

Every time you appear in public, you nearly cause a riot. People are comparing the reaction to Frank Sinatra in the old days. Why are people so drawn to you?
When I'm out there, I'm giving it all. I'm not wearing a mask. I'm having a good time, I'm dancing, I'm interpreting from my gut. At the same time, there are so many things happening on this planet — we just went through a war, the earthquake in Mexico. People are afraid. My music is like freedom. It hits the nail on the head. I do this kind of music because I know what I need to go through life. But I try not to analyze this too much. I just say, "Go for it, buddy. Enjoy it. Go out there and have a blast."