"I was seduced by the madness and the fame," Ricky Martin says, letting out a deep breath as he leans back on a sofa in a studio in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. The 40-year-old superstar's chiseled features, which once made him an MTV fixture, ensure he's still boyishly handsome, but there's also a well-earned maturity that wasn't evident when Martin became a household name. "Once I took a moment to step out of the spotlight and create my family, I thought it was the perfect moment to have this stability."
Having settled down with his partner and two children in New York this winter, Martin has found a constancy that seemed to be missing when he first became a superstar more than a dozen years ago. The singer is in many ways liberated, certainly from the closet in which he hid his sexual orientation. Perhaps the best word for Martin is one he used to describe himself last year while accepting an award from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation: free.
He may be free, but today Martin is a very busy man and on a rigid schedule. Martin arrives at the studio for this interview and photo shoot accompanied by his longtime publicist, John Reilly, and his manager, Jose Vega, who's been with him since he joined the wildly popular Puerto Rican singing group Menudo when he was 12 years old. He's just come from a wardrobe fitting for Evita, a Broadway revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber's celebrated political-themed musical; it's the reason for his move to New York. And though he says he's eager to get home to see his twin sons, Matteo and Valentino, Martin takes time to offer a friendly smile and firm handshake to everyone on the small crew assembled for the photo shoot. Although it's a brutally chilly Friday afternoon in Manhattan, Martin is gregarious and warm.
Martin's charisma appears effortless and genuine, and his magnetism isn't reserved for the cameras. The crew, most of whom are gay men, exchange glances to signify that this will be an exciting afternoon. Even the lesbian studio manager — no stranger to superstar photo sessions — is hovering about, clearly smitten with Martin.
His crossover appeal is, by now, almost legendary.
Feeling stifled creatively, he left Menudo in 1989 and began a solo career that yielded four hit Spanish-language albums, a year-long stint as a bartender on the daytime drama General Hospital, and a turn in Les Misérables on Broadway, before a performance that would alter the course of both his career and contemporary music. In 1999, while still relatively unknown in the U.S., Martin performed a pelvis-gyrating version of "La Copa de la Vida" ("The Cup of Life)" to a standing ovation at the Grammy Awards. Months later the international chart-topping success of his self-titled English-language album and its inescapable lead single, "Livin' la Vida Loca," would usher in the Latin pop explosion, helping to prepare the lucrative U.S. market for Latin entertainers Jennifer Lopez and Enrique Iglesias. Martin was everywhere: MTV, Saturday Night Live, dozens of magazine profiles, even on the cover of The Advocate as the subject of a 1999 article that examined "Ricky fever." His level of stardom made a literal truth out of the title of his loca hit song.
"You have to be careful," he says now about playing to sold-out stadium crowds around the world. "It's not easy to deal with fame. I'm very lucky to be surrounded by amazing people who are raw and honest, who will say I'm wrong, and who will also congratulate me."
Martin seems to take his own celebrity and the accompanying power in stride. In March 2010 he ended more than a decade of speculation about his personal life with a simple message he posted on his website and linked to on Twitter. It read, "I am proud to say that I am a fortunate homosexual man."
He remembers a tweet he received after that, from a straight Latino father thanking him for coming out, saying it allowed him to better understand his own gay son. Martin was so touched that he sent the man a direct message back. "I wrote, 'Sir, you just made my day. Go and hug your child.'"
In the fall of 2010, just months after he came out, Martin published Me, a best-selling memoir that examined his colorful career and the secretive private life that led up to his decision to come out. Me explored Martin's romantic relationships with both men and women, and it addressed the infamous interview with Barbara Walters in which he refused to answer her questions about his sexual orientation. Martin says he hasn't read the book since it was published.
"Exactly a week ago I had it open on my computer and I started reading a paragraph and had to stop," he says, his voice cracking and his eyes tearing up. "I had to stop. It reminded me of the place I was when I was writing it." Martin stops, regains his composure, and smiles.
"When I released the book, the people I met doing the in-store signings were like, 'Please allow me to give you a hug. You have no idea what you've done for me.' I had no idea it was going to be like that," he says. "When I started writing this book I just wanted to let go of a lot of things I was holding within."
Until this year's guest appearance on Glee, Martin hadn't acted since Les Misérables. Glee cocreator Ryan Murphy, a fan of Martin's, had pursued the singer and wrote the episode specifically for him. "He has such star power," Murphy says. "Even the straight boys in the cast were just gob-smacked by his confidence and said if they ever turned, it would be for Ricky Martin."
Murphy says Martin was nervous about the acting but nailed every take. In fact, he was so taken with the star's professionalism that he has spoken with Martin about starring in his own series. "If he'd relocate to L.A., I'd write a TV show for him in a heartbeat."
The pleasant experience Martin had on Glee makes him wonder why he'd waited so long to return to acting. "I was very busy with so many things that I didn't realize I missed acting," he says, before adding with a laugh, "This had to happen."
Martin is referring to the Broadway revival of Evita, which will open this month. The performer, who made his debut on the Great White Way nearly 16 years ago (as the love-struck Marius in Les Misérables), will headline this reportedly sexier restaging of Evita as Che, the rebellious voice of the people and antagonist to Argentinean first lady Eva Perón.
It's not uncommon to pair an iconic performer with an iconic character, but as with Madonna, who played the title role in the 1996 film version, Martin as Che is particularly cleverly cast. Webber predicts that Martin will be "fabulous" in the role, and the character — a revolutionary inspired by Che Guevara—who finds Evita seductive, yet is horrified by her opulent lifestyle, is someone Martin feels he's been preparing to play his entire life.
Che's conflicting emotions are appealing to Martin. "I get to feel many things. I can go from anger to love to uncertainty within 30 minutes of the show," he says. "That's amazing because that's what my life has been about for the last three years — feeling. Not sabotaging any kind of emotions. Letting everything just come through me and verbalize it. It's a very spiritual exercise that I'll do every night."
But it's the common cause Martin finds in his character's desire to correct social injustices that really inspires him. "The man I'm portraying is all about the people and working for human rights," Martin says. With the Ricky Martin Foundation, an organization committed to ending human trafficking and the exploitation of children, Martin too has been working for human rights. "And since I came out, I've been verbal about the importance of equality and what needs to be said. That's what Che is about too. That is going to be my inspiration, my motivation every night."
Witnessing brutality and exploitation around the globe spurred Martin to action. He recalls in particular a trip to Cambodia, during which he saw photos of a young girl being sexually exploited.
"I had a breakdown when I saw those images," he recalls; his face is now flushed, and there's anger in his voice. "I was like, 'Fuck, I'm out of here.' I hate seeing that man seducing that little girl. I just hate that."
Martin says one of his mentors grabbed his hand to calm him. "He said, 'Ricky, please hold on tight and focus. If you can just save one life from the sexual exploitation, you will have won. It will have been worth it.'"
Martin continued to educate himself about the human trafficking epidemic, his foundation even spearheading the first research on the subject ever conducted in Puerto Rico. "Crime is so organized and under the radar," he says. "It manifests in so many ways. Human trafficking can be sexual exploitation or child labor or organ trafficking. I realized that while the majority of human trafficking is through selling drugs, there's also sexual exploitation within the world of drug trafficking. With every child that is a victim of one type of trafficking, there's a big chance that he's been a victim of another kind."
Martin plans to build a series of child development and prevention centers for at-risk youth, beginning with one in Loíza, Puerto Rico. "There are 13- and 14-year-old boys and girls selling drugs," he says. "We're creating this holistic center to open the doors to all the kids. We also want to protect the mothers."
Though his commitment to the Evita redo and his foundation are significant, they pale next to his devotion to his twin sons, Matteo and Valentino. The boys were born via a surrogate mother in 2008. It was Martin's desire, after years of avoiding discussion of his sexual orientation, to live an honest life with his children that led him to come out two years later. "I don't want my family to be based on lies," Martin told Oprah Winfrey in 2010, during his first interview after coming out. "I want to be transparent to them."
"Every decision I make and everything I do is based on their needs," Martin says about his sons, now age 3. "I don't want to sound cliché, but they teach me new things every day."
"Valentino is mister peace and love," Martin says. "He loves flowers and nature. If I ever wonder where he is, he'll be somewhere behind the bushes covered in mud. He's just at one with nature." Martin pauses briefly, then decides to continue. "I know this sounds crazy, but I think he meditates. He goes under the water." Martin imitates being submerged in a tub of water. "I'm like, He's gone. He's traveling right now. He's very Zen and noble." Matteo, Martin says, is a little more demanding. "He's more alpha and a leader. He's like, 'You don't do that, this is what you do.' He tells his brother what to do and what not to do."
Martin is very much a hands-on father and raises his sons with the help of his mother, who frequently travels with him, and Rose, their nanny. Martin's sperm was joined with eggs from a donor he selected from a book; the fertilized eggs were then implanted into a different surrogate mother. Neither woman knew Martin was the father. When it's suggested that his sons have inherited his good looks, he smiles. "I ate a lot of protein," he says, laughing. "I don't know if that worked, but I was very healthy-eating and resting for a whole month before I got the cup."
The boys have already become accustomed to life on the road. Martin took a sabbatical from touring during their first year and maintained a stable home life while he wrote Me and recorded his most recent album, 2011's Música + Alma + Sexo. When Martin went back on the road to support the hit album, he took his sons along.
"Every other night we were on a plane," he recalls. But the two boys quickly developed a large surrogate family while on the road. "It was amazing because they'd walk through the venue or arena. The crew was building the sets and they'd stop what they were doing and smile and say, 'Hi Valentino, hi Matteo.'" Martin pauses again and lets out a breath before adding, "They are tools of healing, of love, these two. The crew would go back to focusing on their work and dealing with their stress, but those five seconds with the kids were very beautiful for them."
Even within the chaos of traveling, Martin maintains a structure for his
family. "The amount of love these kids have is crazy," he says. "Me and
Carlos, my mother, Rose, the dancers, the sound engineers..." Martin's
voice trails off.
The Carlos he refers to is Martin's boyfriend
of nearly four years, Carlos Gonzalez Abella, a financial
analyst/stockbroker. Martin has been hesitant to discuss his boyfriend
in the past, but now he flashes a toothy smile and leans in a bit, his
voice growing softer. "I think he's so sexy. He's very smart. That is
such a turn-on," Martin laughs. "He leaves the house every day in a suit
and tie and that is so sexy. It's two different worlds — his and mine. I
know as much about his world as he knows about my world, which makes it
Martin acknowledges that dealing with media and
public scrutiny isn't easy for the press-shy Abella. Except for
occasional paparazzi shots, the two are rarely photographed together.
While being honored at the GLAAD Media Awards last year, Martin thanked
his boyfriend from the podium. "He takes it one step at a time," Martin
says. "And still my world — our world — is full of surprises every day,
even for me. We complement each other beautifully in many ways."
partner is also equally dedicated to providing stability for Matteo and
Valentino, Martin says. "There's a lot of love and a lot of
communication. He's guided by the approach I take with the kids, he
imitates it perfectly."
Martin insists he wasn't looking for a
relationship when a mutual friend introduced the two men in 2008. "It
was just one of those things that just happened," he recalls. "I was
like, 'You're not supposed to be here right now. Would you please allow
me to just go on my journey?'"
"People say be careful what you
wish for. The other day — " Martin pauses again. He's cautious of saying
too much about his partner. "I don't care. I'm going to say it. The
other day he said, 'I was looking for a boyfriend and God gave me a
family.' I said, 'That's beautiful, but you were looking for a real man
with a family and you got it.'"