Women in Music 2016

From Sex Cults to Prison Time, Inside the True-Life Telenovela of Gloria Trevi

Austin Hargrave
Gloria Trevi on April 23, 2014 at the Billboard Latin Music Conference.

In the early ’90s, Gloria Trevi embodied the radical spirit of a Latin generation. Then came a series of bizarre allegations, followed by a miraculous prison birth and an eventual exoneration. Now she faces her toughest challenge.

It's sweltering Southern California afternoon, nearly 100 degrees, and Gloria Trevi is about to chow down on some In-N-Out Burger. Already today, the Mexican pop star has worked out, boot camp-style, with a trainer she jokingly calls "the Evil Filipino." The 46-year-old exercises for three hours daily when she's not on tour, so even her lettuce-wrapped hamburger indulgence is moderate.

On this Monday in September, Trevi is working from her manager's Santa Clarita home, more than 1,500 miles away from where she resides with her two children and husband, attorney Armando Gomez, in McAllen, Texas. Fit and radiant, she's wearing black leggings with a blouse of violet hues. Her shoulder-length auburn locks are perfectly in place, a major contrast to the Latin singer's colorful beginnings, which included big, wild hairdos in the '90s. She has since toned down her look, but not her glamour. "I have some nails I bought at the pharmacy," says Trevi, showing off her hands and snickering. "If my nails start flinging, don't get scared." (Billboard spoke with Trevi in Spanish, then translated the conversation.)

It's that kind of honesty and humor that has helped the Mexican Madonna amass a worldwide fan base. In the last 25 years, she has sold more than 25 million albums globally, according to her managers, and landed four top 10s on the Top Latin Albums chart. On Twitter, Trevi has nearly 4 million followers. In a few hours, the singer and her team (and her drugstore fingernails) will board a plane to Peru, where she'll perform in support of last year's Hollywood-themed album, De Pelicula (or Like a Movie, which debuted at No. 2 on the Top Latin Albums chart), as part of an international tour that will ultimately reach more than 50 cities. Simultaneously, cameras will be filming for her upcoming reality series on NBCUniversal's mun2, A Toda Gloria (All Gloria), which premieres Oct. 5.

Trevi is a natural reality-show protagonist. In more than three decades as one of Mexico's most loved (and controversial) celebrities, the flamboyant entertainer has cultivated a life story that borders on urban legend. By 15, the Monterrey-born teenager left home alone and headed to Mexico City, where the oldest of five siblings earned money by selling gum on street corners and teaching aerobics. By 22, she had not only sold 3 million copies of her debut solo album, 1989's ¿Que Hago Aqui? (What Am I Doing Here?), but had also nearly been banned from Mexican network Televisa for flashing her underwear on the station's hugely popular variety show Siempre en Domingo (Always on Sunday). ("I told them I could take my underwear off so you don't see them," she recalls. "They said it was too aggressive of an act for a Mexican woman.")

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"I never thought she would go into entertainment," says her mother, Gloria Ruiz-Brioso, who divorced Trevi's father when her daughter was a teenager. "But I knew she had a lot of talents: She won prizes for her work; she danced lovely and liked everything that was art."

All along, Trevi's brassy persona was as untamed as her hair. In the '90s, she wore bandoliers of condoms and whipped young men onstage. She was outspoken about women's rights, sex and government when it was culturally contentious to do so, singing about abortion in the 1994 song "Chica Embarazada" ("Pregnant Girl") and embedding a masturbation pun in her fourth album's title, Mas Turbada Que Nunca (More Disturbed Than Ever). As Trevi's music -- and radical spirit -- filtered throughout Mexico on radio and in clubs, the performer became a voice of her generation, inspiring pinup calendars, look-alike contests and even a doll. 

Her motley style and ethos of empowerment had a lasting effect on a younger generation of artists. "Gloria Trevi made me want to have loose hair and wear my old shoes with pride," says Marisol "La Marisoul" Hernandez, 34, the lead singer of La Santa Cecilia, a six-piece Mexican-American band that won a Grammy earlier this year. "She's a grand woman and a grand artist. Her live shows are spectacular, a lot of fun and all about girl power -- and that's something I love."

But it was a bizarre string of criminal allegations that made Trevi’s career unlike that of any other feminist pop star. In the late '90s, Trevi and her then-manager/boyfriend, Sergio Andrade, were accused of leading a sex cult for minors. After allegations publicly surfaced that they had kidnapped, raped and corrupted young women, the couple disappeared until early 2000, when they were detained in Brazil, where they were found with three teenage girls.

 

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While imprisoned in an all-female maximum-security wing and waiting extradition, Trevi mysteriously became pregnant. (Brazilian authorities had never handed over the parent of a child born in their country, so the pregnancy was suspected to be an attempt to avoid extradition.) Initial reports suggested the baby was the progeny of cellblock neighbor and gangster Marcelo Borelli -- police reports speculated that his sperm had been bagged and smuggled to Trevi in warm milk -- but her lawyers accused prison guards of raping their famous client. DNA tests later confirmed that Andrade had fathered Trevi's now 12-year-old son Angel Gabriel. (Authorities believe Andrade allegedly bribed guards for time alone with Trevi.)

In 2004, a Mexican court acquitted Trevi, who had spent four years and eight months locked up, due to a lack of evidence. "Yesterday, I had my 10th anniversary of getting my freedom back," she notes. "Many people don't understand that I wasn't detained for a crime. I was part of a process," she says of the investigation. (In 2005, a Mexican judge sentenced Andrade to nearly eight years "for the rape, kidnapping and corruption of an underage girl," according to The New York Times.) "I was exploited by those who I was working with. All I did was be loving, faithful and loyal. God picked me up. He protected me. He took me out. I was cleared. I was released. I've never committed a crime." (Trevi defended Andrade while she was in prison, but they later became estranged. She has no contact with him.)

In the immediate aftermath of her release, Trevi was an object of lurid fascination, drawing news trucks and an unexpectedly large crowd to the 2004 Latin Music Fan Awards in Los Angeles. As event organizer Luis Medina put it at the time, "Latinos like a rebel, but we love a martyr."

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In the decade since her exoneration, Trevi has matured from a scandal queen to Latin pop doyenne -- still a point of focus, but not a national obsession. She has gotten married, given birth to a second son and moved to the United States. Professionally, she has recorded four studio albums, including 2011's Gloria, which ruled the Top Latin Albums chart, and played a lead role on Televisa's 2013 telenovela Libre Para Amarte (Free to Love You).

"I'm happy because things have turned out well," says Trevi while sipping coffee on the couch. "I'm living in a magical time in my life, and I have everything. There is love, my kids are still children, and there is success -- a great career, health, my mother and father."

But for someone who has built a loud career out of living dramatically, can Trevi settle down and still be successful?

Enter her next reinvention, A Toda Gloria. The hourlong reality show shadows Trevi as she navigates the conflicting responsibilities of stability, including her roles as wife, working mother and international brand. Her husband is a main character, as are her two sons, and her two young U.S.-based managers, Guillermo Rosas and Rosela Zavala. While filming, A Toda Gloria's crew followed Trevi nearly everywhere except for one place. "Cameras do not go into the bathroom," she says, laughing. "Only my husband can [come in there] when I'm in the shower to give me a kiss."

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In the season premiere, Trevi is cast as a strong female role model, a perfectionist and workaholic who processes her husband's neediness and her children's needs by declaring things like, "If life turns its back on you, grab its ass."

"We want the show to empower women," says Ruben Mendiola, president of mun2. "When you see the first 15 minutes of the Gloria Trevi show, you're going to be floored. She has a tremendous story to tell."

But Trevi's appeal extends far beyond working mothers. "A lot of people would think that, at her age, she's sort of beyond the point of having a youthful audience, but her audience is diverse -- everything from young to gay to female," says Yvonne Drazan, a Latin division vp at Trevi's publisher, peermusic. "Her shows are such big Broadway productions: the costume changes, the wig changes. They are so much fun."

Trevi's real-life telenovela will also become an unauthorized biopic, Gloria, written by award-winning Mexican journalist-playwright Sabina Berman. Initially, Trevi was involved with the project, which will premiere Jan. 1, 2015, but then reneged. "I did not want to be part of it, especially when they were asking people like my ex-manager about my life," explains Trevi. "The story of my life is not just about this scandal. It's also about a girl who had dreams." (Ricardo Kleinbaum, a Gloria executive producer, says he stands by the film's script.)

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Yet that scandal, says Trevi, continually follows her, no matter what she does. "People make comments, and even if they apologize later, they've done harm," she reasons. "It's like confetti -- you'll never be able to pick up all the confetti.”

This is why Trevi would like to create something straightforwardly positive. "I want to do a series like Power Rangers or Thundercats," she says. "It will be called Trevilanders: Trevilinda, Superglow, Trevil -- [characters who represent] the women we all want to be." In recent weeks, Trevi has also started on a new album, due in 2015, enlisting producer Humberto Gatica, who won a Grammy for Celine Dion's Falling Into You. She has also been collaborating with songwriter Claudia Brant, who has worked with everybody from Michael Buble to Ricky Martin. "Gloria is a star," says Brant. "She has a heavy story about surviving, and many people can relate to it. She came back and kicked ass."

"I'm in an evolution," says Trevi. "I love life and I love the phases of life. The day I have white hair, I want to be able to dye it violet. If I'm 60, I'm not going to stop singing a sexy song. I told my husband I want to live to be 130 and be sexually active."

She's well on her way. When a member of the paparazzi recently called Trevi "the Mexican Lady Gaga," she shot back, "Lady Gaga is the American version of Gloria Trevi."

This story originally appeared in the Oct. 11 issue of Billboard.