“This is only the beginning,” says Ricky Martin, one of the most acclaimed and admired creative artists ever to emerge from Puerto Rico, as we sit down at the offices of The Hollywood Reporter and reflect on how his career has evolved. The 46-year-old, who looks much younger, is a two-time Grammy-winning singer and an incredible dancer, best known for the mega-hit song “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” which will turn 20 on March 23 (“It’s one of those songs that I need to perform still,” he says); and he is now also an Emmy-nominated actor, having garnered his first-ever nom, in the category of best supporting actor in a limited series or movie, for his portrayal of Antonio D’Amico, the longtime lover of fashion designer Gianni Versace, on Ryan Murphy‘s FX limited series The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story. “Music will always be there,” he says. “But I also believe that I am a storyteller, and if I have the opportunity to be surrounded by an amazing group of people — directors, producers and actors — and we can tell a story that can be of impact for the world, I am going to commit to it. I am so thankful that my peers are kind of telling me that I’m doing a good job.”
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Martin was born and raised in San Juan, and was drawn to performing from an early age. Between the ages of 9 and 12, he made a ton of commercials on the island, before ultimately — after three rejections — landing a spot in Menudo, the popular Puerto Rican boy band, with which he performed for the next five years, gaining immense performance experience and fame. After that chapter of his life came to an end, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to continue singing, but after taking some time off to live in New York, a fortuitous series of events led Martin to sign a record deal with Sony’s Latin music imprint in 1990, which led to the release of his first solo album in 1991. His international fan base began growing steadily, and by 1995, his Spanish-language single “Maria” proved a hit all over the world.
But then, 20 years ago, a series of events propelled Martin to a level of fame that few others have ever attained. On July 12, 1998, the singer-songwriter, having been invited by FIFA to write and perform a song that would be the official anthem at the 1998 World Cup final in France, sang “La Copa de La Vida,” or “The Cup of Life,” in front of more than a billion TV viewers around the world. Shortly thereafter, the song was released as a single, topping the charts in dozens of countries, and it then became part of his fourth album, Vuelve, which ended up being nominated for the Grammy for best Latin pop album. At the 41st Grammys on Feb. 24, 1999, Martin not only won that Grammy, but also was performed “La Copa de la Vida,” and his rendition, which was greeted with a massive standing ovation, changed the course of his career — as well as how people regard Latin music in America — forever. “I was crossing over in a very significant way,” Martin says, noting that he didn’t even fully appreciate how well he had gone over, because he had to jet off immediately after his performance to a gig in Europe.
Martin had already been far into the production of his first English-language album when the Grammys happened, and his label wanted to rush it out to the public. “This album was almost going to be released without ‘Livin’ La Vida Loca,'” he reveals, “but three days before I walked into the studio with Madonna [to record another song for the album, “Be Careful”], we were done with ‘Livin’ La Vida Loca,’ so I showed her what I was presenting — and she was like, ‘Yep! I’m ready to go into the studio with you!’ It was a very beautiful moment. I will always go back to it.” The album eventually debuted in huge numbers (it sold 661,000 copies in the first week, propelling it to the top of the Billboard 200 and accounting for the biggest first week in the history of Columbia Records) and ultimately sold over eight million copies (making it one of the biggest singles ever, and the most successful debut album by a Hispanic artist in Billboard history). A week after it was unveiled, Martin appeared on the cover of Time under the headline, “Latin Music Goes Pop!”
Mega-fame — and having women and men throw themselves at him — required a bit of an adjustment, Martin acknowledges. “Once I woke up in Brussels, I had lunch in Paris and then I hopped on a plane and I had dinner in Rio de Janeiro,” he marvels. “That was my life, and I didn’t know how to do it any other way. I mean, everybody told me, ‘Rick, in order for you to make it to the top, you have to work like crazy.’ And then I had a crazier manager, who was just very happy filling up that schedule.” Perhaps the most uncomfortable aspect of Martin’s new life in the spotlight was the interest in his love life — since Martin was gay but still in the closet to all but a small number of trusted family, friends and collaborators.
“Everybody was asking me,” he says. “I was totally living in fear. I look back and you don’t know how many times I’ve said: ‘Barbara Walters asked me if I was gay. Why didn’t I just say yes, for God’s sakes, yes?’ But it was not my moment.” He elaborates, “I was so not ready. I was still living with a lot of internalized homophobia. Back then, that was a concept that I didn’t even know existed, I didn’t even know that there was a name for it. So I just took my time and I kept on working until I got tired of people trying to get out of me something that I was not ready — not ‘to accept,’ because in my world, in my life, I was living fully, I had my relationships with men and all my friends and my family, they all knew about me. But I just did not want to do it publicly back then.” It didn’t help that, at the time, even some in his inner circle told him to keep this information to himself. He recalls, “They were saying if I come out, ‘this [will be] the end of your career because no one is ready to deal with a pop icon that is out as a homosexual.'”
In any event, Martin didn’t have much time to mull over his personal life, as he was performing frequently and was under immense pressure to record and release another album that would capitalize on the success of Ricky Martin. He volunteers, “The only thing that I loved back then about the entertainment industry was being onstage, because anything else was a struggle — even writing music was a struggle, because what can I talk about without people knowing? And doing interviews?” He continues, “After the madness that I was dealing with, it would have been smart to disconnect for a minute and decompress and maybe just spend time at home, instead of, from the road, going back into the studio and recording because the record company wanted another album ‘now.'” His second English-language album, 2000’s Sound Loaded, which is best known for the single “She Bangs” and a duet with Christina Aguilera titled “Nobody Wants to Be Lonely,” sold four million copies, which would have been a big number but for the fact that Ricky Martin had sold 15 million. “It’s not the album that I’m most proud of,” he admits. Around that time, he “was physically and mentally tired” and knew it was time to take a break from work when he started getting angry even in his happy place, onstage.
“I was really confused,” Martin reflects. “Every time I could, I would hop on a plane and I would go to India. I started meditating a lot. I spent months up in the mountains in the Himalayas. I spent time in ashrams in India doing yoga and digging deep. ‘What is it that I need in order for me to be happy? Is it all the glamour? Is it the private jets? The big suites? The penthouses in New York City or Paris or wherever?’ It was at least three years of a very heavy spiritual quest. And I was confronted with a lot of demons that I needed to deal with.” And when, in 2003, he returned to music with his next album, it was Spanish-language — he had crossed back over, and, in a very real sense, gone home.
Over the years since, Martin’s pace and popularity has ebbed and flowed. He continued to put out music of all sorts — popular and personal, English-language and Spanish-language. (“What I do is fusion,” he says. “I grew up in Puerto Rico, of course — I am Hispanic, I am Latin — but the Anglo influence musically is very powerful and I really enjoy it. I am not purist at all.”) In 2008, he became, via a surrogate mother, the proud father of twin boys, who he calls “the most beautiful project of my life.” And on March 29, 2010, at the age of 38, just months before the publication of his memoir, Me, he finally came out as gay. “I couldn’t find the end of the book, and it was all because I wasn’t accepting who I was,” he says with emotion. So he posted a statement to his website in which he finally addressed his big secret. “I was crying when I was writing it, but it was cathartic,” he says. “It was so liberating. I’d never felt better in my life. So really, I was at ease with whatever the outcome was going to be.” As it turned out, his life did not implode. “It got better,” he says with a smile. “For a moment I thought that it was probably the end of my career, but what happened was within two days, I got one million [new Twitter] followers. I guess maybe a lot of people deleted me from their social media — but another million came back.”
By 2012, Martin returned to something he had dabbled in between Menudo and Ricky Martin — acting. In 2012, Ryan Murphy invited Martin to guest-star on an episode of his Fox musical dramedy series Glee, which all parties enjoyed. Five years later — after Martin starred in a Broadway revival of Evita and spent three years as a judge on The Voice Australia — Murphy reached out to him again, this time to offer Martin the part of D’Amico on The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story. Martin jumped at the opportunity, which was appealing to him not only because it was a plum role in a Murphy production, but also because his onscreen love interest would be his dear friend Edgar Ramirez, and because the story itself was one closer to Martin than most realize — indeed, he resided in South Beach when Versace lived and died there, and he was frequently invited to, but never got around to attending, parties at the Versace mansion on Ocean Drive.
All these years later, Martin finally got to visit that mansion — as part of the production, since many of his scenes were shot there — after tracking down and consulting the real D’Amico to inquire about his happy and sad memories of life there with Versace. For the two weeks that Martin worked on the property, he stayed in-character, wanting to give Murphy and the production everything he possibly could. The entire experience — which meant returning to the closeted 1990s to live them again, only through someone else’s experience, and with the perspective of all that he has been through since he lived through them the first time — was both painful and cathartic, especially the scene in which Versace comes out to a journalist, but only after bringing D’Amico into the room and introducing D’Amico to the journalist as his partner. “It was very emotional,” Martin says. “I remember when, in my life, it was the other way around, when I was just hiding my relationships.” He smiles and says, “It was a very beautiful scene.”