Gloria Gets Personal

Excerpted from the magazine for

Reinvention is often seen as essential for longevity in pop music.

But for Gloria Estefan, the more things change, the more her personal life and public persona seem to stay the same.

It's a paradox that has allowed Estefan to remain relevant and enormously popular during more than two decades of music making. Her name is recognized all over the globe, and she has sold upwards of 70 million albums worldwide, according to her label.

Still, her individual album sales in the U.S. have rarely been spectacular. Her biggest-selling albums to date, "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me" and "Into the Light," have sold 1.7 million and 1.8 million copies, respectively, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

But a new career highlight might be just around the corner, with the Sept. 23 release of "Unwrapped," Estefan's first English-language studio album in six years and her most intimate work yet.

Featuring duets with Chrissie Hynde and Stevie Wonder, "Unwrapped" -- written almost entirely by Estefan -- is neither dance-based nor obviously Latin-tinged. Its lush, acoustic sound is closer to that of Norah Jones than Madonna.

Still, with four Spanish tracks and at least one remix included, the album should please Estefan's core Latin and dance fan base while reaching out to the mainstream audience and new listeners.

"Unwrapped" -- which was co-produced by Sebastian Krys (Carlos Vives), Estefan and her husband, Emilio Estefan Jr. -- will be released worldwide by Sony Music.

"Someone said, 'This is Gloria's "Tapestry" album,' and I thought, 'This is so true,' " says Estefan Enterprises president Frank Amadeo, alluding to Carole King's landmark album. "The music, obviously, is very personal to her. She's tapped into a place she's never gone before. Musically, this is to her English-speaking audience what 'Mi Tierra' is to her Spanish-speaking audience."

"Mi Tierra," Estefan's homage to her Latin roots, has sold more than 1.1 million copies in the U.S. since its release in 1993, according to Nielsen SoundScan. It was the first set to top the Billboard Top Latin Albums chart that year and spent 58 weeks in that position, more than any other album in the chart's history. Her most recent studio recording, the Spanish-only "Alma Caribe?a-Caribbean Soul," sold 255,000 copies in the U.S.

Estefan is planning to tour Europe and the U.S. next year in support of the album -- something she has not done for at least five years. She'll also play a string of concerts Oct. 10-19 at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace, the state-of-the-art Las Vegas showroom built for Celine Dion.

The intimacy of the chosen venue, which seats 4,000, highlights the dichotomy that makes Estefan appealing.

She's the girl next door who can be found in the coffee shop (she frequently can in Miami, where she lives), but she can also become the diva spotlighted on an episode of VH1's "Behind the Music" or the powerful performer at a sold-out arena.

"I call myself the reluctant diva, when they joke with that whole diva thing," Estefan says. "Because I wasn't a performer. It wasn't what I envisioned myself as. I see myself more as a writer and a communicator. That's why I hope that in my shows, people take away a little more with them than just the music."

Cuban-born and raised in Miami, Estefan grew up speaking more English than Spanish, but she was also surrounded by Spanish culture.

This is certainly not uncommon in Miami's Latino community. What is unusual is the meshing of those influences into a commercial sound that is more accessible to the mainstream than, say, Tito Puente's Latin jazz. Also, when Estefan sings in English, she does not have an accent.

Her story is well-known. Emilio Estefan Jr., a bandleader who had a merchandising business on the side, met Gloria Fajardo at a 1975 wedding and convinced her to sing in his band. He also urged her to write, because the group wanted to play original material.

Three years later, Gloria Fajardo became Gloria Estefan, and the original Miami Latin Boys -- who played weddings and bar mitzvahs -- became the Miami Sound Machine.

The act's big breakthrough came with the 1985 album "Primitive Love," which sold 300,000 copies and included the huge single "Conga." The Estefans went on to win Grammy Awards and become business moguls.

For a recent interview at the Estefans' Crescent Moon Studios, she showed up unrecognizable in jeans, braids and with a bandana tied around her head. She drove a nondescript car and was alone. Her cell phone rang periodically, and it was always her 8-year-old daughter, Emily.

Unlike Madonna, who was already a superstar when she began discovering the joys of motherhood, having kids around has been a constant for Estefan. Her oldest son, Nayib, is now 24.

For that reason, being a sex symbol was never an integral part of the package-even though the package continues to be attractive.

"I always had my son when I became famous, so I never thought of myself that way," Estefan says. "If anyone ever saw me as a sex symbol, it wasn't anything I saw."

If Estefan is ever compared to another act, it tends to be Celine Dion, who boasts a similar, scandal-free image.

And like Dion -- with whom she has shared the stage for several specials -- Estefan has paced herself. That keeps her from appearing too hungry for exposure or taking on the feel of a nostalgia act.

"First of all, I'm not out there," Estefan says. "I don't have to be. That's the best part. Emilio grew the business to a point where he had other artists, [where] I'm not the only artist, and I've been able to pick and choose what I do. What a luxury that is. I'm happy for whoever is out there having success. And at the same time, I'm relieved that I had the time to cement a relationship with my fans and that they're still loyal to me."

Excerpted from the July 26, 2003, issue of Billboard. The full original text of the article is available in the Premium Services section.

To order a single copy of the issue, visit The Billboard Store.