Jenni Rivera's Second Life: The Billboard Cover Story

Photograph Courtesy of Fonovisa Records/UMLE

Jenni Rivera

This is an excerpt. For the complete story, buy this week's issue of Billboard.

Last year, Jenni Rivera made a vow to herself: 2013 was going to be her breakthrough moment. She was 43 and already a multimillionaire. As the biggest female artist in regional Mexican, she'd placed 26 songs on Billboard's Regional Mexican Airplay chart, including "De Contrabando" (Of Contraband) at No. 1. Her edgy and romantic songs catapulted her to icon status for a devoted audience of women who saw their own struggles reflected in her work. But she had something more in her sights.

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This was the year she was going to star in her own sitcom, part of a plan to capture the mainstream success that would take her beyond her Spanish-language hits. Not that she would leave behind her loyal fan base. A Las Vegas residency at one of the MGM properties would give her a chance to keep in touch with her audience, and it would cut down on the rigors of touring.

She had signed with Creative Artists Agency in hopes of expanding her brand, and was preparing to release a tequila line that she thought her fans would make a strong seller. "Being signed by CAA, knowing that such a huge company would even be interested in me, makes me proud of myself," Rivera said backstage at the Billboard Latin Music Conference in April 2012. "I'm kind of in disbelief that they would want a Jenni Rivera, but I guess now I see the world in a different way."

Eight months later, in the early morning hours of Dec. 9, after a concert for 17,000 in Monterrey, Mexico, a small private jet carrying Rivera and six others disappeared. The news spread quickly, lighting up social media. Two million-plus followers on Rivera's Twitter account received the nine messages she'd sent before takeoff, including a final note to let them know her tablet's battery was about to die.

Later that day, 1,500 miles away in Los Angeles, panic was setting in behind the scenes as family and friends grappled with the news that the plane was missing and had probably crashed. Rivera's manager of nearly a decade, Pete Salgado, awakened from a deep sleep at 5 a.m.

"When the phone started ringing, I knew something was wrong," Salgado says. "In my mind I was thinking it had something to do with my aunts because we had just laid my dad to rest the day before. I got out of bed. I picked up the phone. I did not believe it."

Rivera was Salgado's business partner, but she was as close as a sister to him. In the hours that followed he tried to convince himself that she would call.

Instead, news reports confirmed the worst. Rivera's plane was found in pieces in Iturbide, Nuevo Leon, near a ranch known as El Tejocote. Those onboard also included Rivera's attorney Mario Macias, makeup artist Jacob Yebale, publicist Arturo Rivera (not related), stylist Jorge Sanchez and pilots Miguel Perez Soto and Alejandro Torres. There were no survivors.

Back in Southern California, Salgado joined the Rivera family by 9 a.m. The phones kept ringing as news trickled in. Known for his steady and no-nonsense business demeanor, Salgado stayed calm and focused as hope drained away, and began planning Rivera's public memorial 10 days later, at the Gibson Amphitheater in Los Angeles. The graduation, as the family calls it, aired live on TV, and in attendance were such Mexican stars as singer/songwriter Joan Sebastian, pop artist Gloria Trevi and songstress Ana Gabriel, who performed a moving rendition of Chavela Vargas' "Paloma Negra" (Black Dove).

Salgado's role had shifted. He was handling media inquiries from around the world, many from journalists who knew little about Rivera and even less about her command of the brass-based Mexican music called banda. Her songs were for the lovelorn, and reached beyond generalities in ways that touched everyday women. She sang about a single mother raising children, crooned about love gone awry and belted out vocally demanding tunes about drinking those worries away. She proudly performed crowd-pleasers like "Ovarios" (Ovaries), and was known as "La Diva de la Banda" or "the Diva of Banda."

Jenni Rivera: The Latin Diva's Life in Photos

And one cruel irony was that in death Rivera had achieved what she had dreamed of most of her life. As Spanish-language media outlets rushed to cover the accident, mainstream English-language attention followed closely behind for the first time for the singer who was born to a working-class family in Long Beach, Calif.

The coverage was so plentiful in the days and months that followed, that one Spanish-language TV executive told Salgado that her death helped viewership grow about 30% across the board, on national and local broadcasts. Univision and Telemundo aired continuous programming devoted solely to Rivera, and her story captured the attention of English-language networks-an indicator, Salgado says, that represents the "Latino sleeping giant that everyone goes after."

It is that Latino demographic that is keeping Rivera's businesses thriving. If projections hold, by the first anniversary of her death she will have sold as many albums in America as she did during her entire 20-year career. At the time of her death, Rivera had sold more than 1 million albums in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan. In the months since, she has sold 881,000, including 208,000 of La Misma Gran Señora (The Same Grand Woman)-released just two days after her death. The set spent eight weeks atop the Top Latin Albums chart and 37 weeks in the top 10. In a sad parallel to the 1995 death of Selena Quintanilla, Rivera was at work on her first English-language album, branching out into hip-hop and dance. The label and the family are working out the details of the album's release, but Universal Music Latin Entertainment plans to introduce Rivera's first posthumous project in Spanish that would be followed by others in a three-year period.

"The reality is that Jenni left at the highest moment of her career," says Victor Gonzalez, president of UMLE, Rivera's distributor under the Fonovisa label. "She had a strong following and was starting to make new fans who were falling in love with her. She leaves a huge void."

Rivera-who was known for the business savvy she acquired at a young age working at her father Pedro's small label, Cintas Acuario-is said to have been worth $15 million-$20 million at the time of her death, according to sources familiar with her businesses. Her revenue was anchored in music, but included a TV partnership, a clothing line, beauty products and a syndicated radio program.

In 2010, bilingual cable network mun2 debuted the reality show "Jenni Rivera Presents: Chiquis & Raq-C," which Rivera produced and starred in, alongside her daughter and her offspring's best friend. In the 2010-11 touring season, the TV exposure helped her more than double her average concert draw, from 5,085 to 10,262, with average grosses rising nearly 40%, from $329,495 to $460,712. Like regional Mexican acts at the top of their field, Rivera could easily take home $100,000-$200,000 per performance. She toured on weekends, but always tried to be at home early on Sundays when her five children woke up.

Between 2006 and 2012, fans bought nearly $7 million in tickets with an overall attendance approaching 120,000, according to Billboard Boxscore. Milestone sellouts at the Nokia Theatre in 2008, 2009 and 2010 led to a landmark concert across the street in 2011 at the Staples Center attended by nearly 14,000. 

Jenni Rivera Leads Billboard Mexican Music Awards Finalists

While touring was a primary source of revenue for Rivera, her businesses included products ranging from jeans to a line of blow dryers and flat irons. The family will open the Jenni Rivera Boutique in Los Angeles later this month, featuring items including mugs and shot glasses, as well as a line of quinceañera dresses created by Rivera's personal designer Adan Terriquez. Plans also call for jewelry, children's clothing and a perfume called Forever, a project that Rivera's daughter Chiquis is completing for her mother, who left detailed notes about these ventures.

The family is also working on a tribute concert in Mexico for the one-year anniversary of Rivera's death. During the summer, Rivera's children, along with 4,000 fans, helped launch the book "Unbreakable: My Story, My Way" (Atria Books). "She dreamed of being a New York Times best-selling author," says Johanna V. Castillo, VP/senior editor at Atria, a Simon & Schuster imprint. "Jenni was a Latina who inspired other women to be strong. She was so resilient."

To date, there have been 24 printings of the book totaling nearly 400,000 copies. Of those, more than 200,000 have been sold in the three months since the release, Castillo says, adding that the book is still No. 1 in Amazon's Spanish store. The simultaneous release of the hardcover and trade paperback in English and Spanish also coincided with a Walmart edition, a first for a Latin artist. Other projects have also been published including "We Love Jenni: An Unauthorized Biography of Jenni Rivera" by Marc Shapiro and Charlie Vazquez and "Jenni Rivera: The Incredible Story of a Warrior Butterfly" by Billboard's Leila Cobo.

The day Rivera died she was traveling to Mexico City, where she was to tape the final episode of the third season of the country's version of "The Voice," a gig she was originally thinking of turning down. But Rivera-sometimes known for her public feuds with celebrities as much as for her music-sparkled as the gentle, intelligent and endearing coach nurturing young talent. (One of her contestants ultimately won the competition.)

"Jenni was heading toward something big and people wanted more," says Gonzalez, whom Rivera often called for advice. "We realized that no [Latin] celebrity in recent times, not even a politician, has received that kind of coverage. The interest in Jenni illustrates that there was this momentum, a major force. People will continue looking for her in one form or another."

The Rivera estate is being administered by her sister Rosie, who consults Jenni's children regarding pending business. Daughter Chiquis, brother Lupillo and father Pedro all continue to honor their famous relative with songs, tributes and appearances.

CAA is handling the development of a film about Rivera. Chiquis, who this summer was a guest host on "The View" with Barbara Walters, is said to be interested in playing her mother. Lupillo has dedicated many of his performances to his sister, and Rivera's singer/songwriter father earlier this year was in Mexico promoting his daughter's role as a drug-addicted mother in the independent film "Filly Brown."

This is an excerpt. For the complete story, buy this week's issue of Billboard.

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