Two days after bringing midtown traffic to a grinding halt during an alfresco Today performance, Ricky Martin is seated in a spartan L.A. photo studio, a serene island in a sea of doting publicists, bodyguards, friends, and stylists. Even up close, the 27-year-old pop star looks surreally perfect -- like a shiny mannequin from a Barneys window come to life. For almost three hours, as a photographer clucks his approval, Martin happily serves up a series of sultry expressions and coy contortions, a performance that would seem comic if it wasn't so effective. You don't get to be the hottest pop star in the world without knowing your way around a camera. Indeed, in the decade since Martin grew out of Menudo and decamped for New York and a gig on General Hospital, the Puerto Rican prodigy has managed to transform himself into a global juggernaut. In Latin America, Europe, and parts of Asia, where he has long been a household name, Martin's four solo albums have sold more than 15 million copies. In America, his eponymous English-language CD sold 4 million in four weeks and made Martin the poster boy for America's endlessly heralded Latin invasion. A catchy, slickly produced amalgam of Latin fusion, classic rock, and bubblegum pop -- it spawned a single, "Livin' La Vida Loca," that has become the summer anthem of 1999. As his electrifying performance at the Grammys made clear, he has the kind of charisma that prompts normally sober critics to compare him gushingly to Elvis and the Beatles. Martin's upcoming seventeen-city tour, which kicks off in Miami next October, includes two nights at the Garden on October 28 and 29. Tickets go on sale July 10. He's not completely immune from the perks of celebrity ("Ricky feels like mashed potatoes!" someone barks during the shoot, and a woman dutifully trundles off to fetch some), but in the midst of this madness, he still seems surprisingly down to earth. In person, he is winningly earnest and intensely physical -- the kind of guy who looks straight in your eyes and touches your arm while discussing his sister in San Juan. New York's Maer Roshan met with Martin last week, just hours before the singer's appearance at a local record store forced police to shut down several city blocks.
Maer Roshan: I know you've been at this for a long, long time, but did it scare you to suddenly blow up so fast? Did you ever imagine that things would get so big so quickly?
Ricky Martin: You mean in America?
R.M.: You know, in a way I never wanted to be overwhelmed by America. It can be a scary place. But I had a mission, and the mission was to get rid of stereotypes and make people understand a little bit more of what a Latin performer, Latin sound, can be. It's always been my plan.
But the roller-coaster aspect of all this must be terrifying sometimes.
R.M.: You have to stay in touch with your mind and your soul, because it's not just a problem of it being terrifying or overwhelming -- it can be fatal. Looking back at the history of those in this business who weren't ready for it, who couldn't deal with the applause and ended up dead or on drugs -- that's something I don't want to face. I want to be happy.
How will you manage that?
R.M.: With silence. That's my medicine. The adrenaline of press conferences, photo sessions, the energy of the concerts, it's like a drug. It's addictive. There's nothing like it. And when it's over, you have to lock yourself in a room and just be alone.
On my way here, I heard on the radio that some people had camped out at the Beverly Center for fourteen hours waiting for you to arrive. And right now there are probably 10,000 screaming people out there, all waiting to see you and touch you and get a piece of you. How do you possibly prepare for something like that?
R.M.: It's not really a challenge for me. I get a lot from it, too. Just looking at people's eyes when you're signing autographs, you know, at an in-store or in a concert. People think when I'm up here, because of the lights and everything, that I can't see the audience. But I can -- I do see the audience and it's my food . . . I don't know how to say it. The way I feed myself is looking at people's reactions and people's faces. You just try and absorb everybody. It's pure energy. And all these people, all of them are telling you, "You're doing great, man."