Paulina Rubio Aims To Cross Over

Latin star Paulina Rubio plans to follow her successful "Paulina" album with an English-language album, and has just kicked off a U.S. tour.

When Paulina Rubio was a little girl, she asked for permission to redecorate the house while her mother -- Mexican film star Susana Dosamantes -- spent the day on a film shoot. Expecting a few chairs to be moved about, Mom said yes, only to return home to find walls, furniture, and drapes painted with a 7-year-old's delighted scrawl.

More than two decades later, when Rubio was given complete control over a solo album for the first time in her singing career, the results were again artful -- if highly unexpected. More than a year after its release, "Paulina" -- Rubio's first solo album in four years and her first Universal Latino release after four albums with EMI Latin -- has become one of the big success stories in an arid Latin release season.

To date, "Paulina" has spawned five singles and sold more than 1.6 million copies worldwide, achieving multi-platinum sales of 300,000 in Spain and certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America for U.S. shipments of more than half a million copies. The disc has spent 51 weeks on The Billboard Latin 50 since its release -- 19 of those in the top three -- leaving observers wondering how an artist whose career seemed all but washed up managed to make such a spectacular comeback.

"We thought we had a great album on our hands and that we could sell a lot, but never did we expect these numbers," says Dario De Leon, Rubio's manager of eight years and the man who helped broker her deal with Universal after she left EMI.

De Leon, after all, faced the challenge of shopping around an artist whose two most recent solo albums had flopped. Beyond that, Rubio -- the one-time child actress who was a product of the Televisa system (the giant Mexican TV network known for manufacturing stars) and a former member of teeny-bopper group Timbiriche -- faced the more daunting challenge of gaining credibility as a singer.

"I met her and saw her personality, saw her desire to win," says Marco Bissi, president of Universal Music Mexico. "I believed that strong package, plus her core artistry -- you either have that or not -- together with a good producer could be something very innovative. So I put faith and a lot of money behind the talent to make the best possible album of her career."

Rubio came through to such a degree that she's already recording tracks for an English-language album slated for release later this year. Among those tapped to produce it is Rodney Jerkins. Already, a first English-language single, recorded as a demo, is being played on WPOW (Power 96) Miami, even though it has had no promotion.

In crossing Rubio over, label Universal is banking not only on her command of English but also on her universal look and appeal, apparent in the cross-section of people -- from children to grandparents -- who attend her shows.

"She has a complete album, from beginning to end," says Heidi Rios, promotions and advertising manager for Latin American Records Distributions and Discolandia Record Shops. Discolandia in Chicago hosted Rubio at an album signing that brought in a record 3,000 people and was sponsored not by a pop station -- Rubio's format -- but by a regional Mexican radio station.

Rubio "came out with this song, 'El Ultimo Adios,' [a mariachi hip-hop track], which gave her a break in the ranchera stations," Rios says. "People who would never buy a pop album buy hers."

As gimmicky as that may sound, "Paulina" works because it doesn't sound contrived. Rather, it's a solid pop album with remarkably good tunes and a clear personality that comes across in every song. "Let's be honest," says one top record executive. "No one could have imagined Paulina Rubio would sell like this. But ['Lo Hare Por Ti,' the album's first single] is so good, even I would have sold records singing it."

Everyone, Rubio included, is quick to point out that success is due in large part to her collaboration with songwriter Estefano, who wrote many of the album's tracks and whose team at Estefano Productions produced the disc.

In Estefano, Rubio says, she found a kindred spirit -- someone who could take her ideas and put them into words and songs and who was also patient enough to coddle her in the nearly yearlong making of her album.

"I think [EMI] saw me in a way that I didn't fit into," says Rubio, who had spent her early career singing what she was told to sing. "They tried out one thing and another, and finally I couldn't take it anymore." And, she adds, although she didn't see "Paulina" as her last chance, "I did see it as my risk return. I had to do it well or not do it at all."

With "Paulina," Rubio did exactly as she pleased. When the album was complete, she stowed the mixed copy away in a drawer and went to Africa for three months. When she returned, she listened to the mix once more and only then requested final changes. "I'm really thankful to my label, because they did things for me that they don't do," Rubio says with a laugh.

First released in May 2000 in Mexico, "Paulina" was initially given a major push there, as the country is her homeland and main market. Yet the album seemed to take off elsewhere on its own. And not only was the first single catchy, but the singer -- previously a rather haughty, distant figure -- made a conscious effort to change and become accessible.

"Divas are not fashionable," says Rubio, who -- with her tousled blond hair, big movie-star sunglasses, and Diane von Furstenberg outfit -- looks the part but doesn't act it (no makeup at all for this interview, conducted poolside at Miami Beach's Delano hotel). "Maybe the audience loves you in a certain way, no? But I think people feel closer to their artist, say, if they see Lenny Kravitz walking the streets with his guitar or Madonna with her daughter."

In that spirit, Rubio launched an extraordinarily aggressive promotional campaign that had her touring in Mexico while simultaneously promoting her album around the globe. In Colombia, for example, the single "El Ultimo Adios" (The Last Goodbye) was promoted at radio by having listeners call in and say why they were dropping their girlfriend or boyfriend.

In Miami, Power 96 PD Kid Curry requested a copy of "Y Yo Sigo Aqui" after hearing repeatedly that the track was the hottest thing being played in Cancun, Mexico. His interest coincided with Rubio's recording of an English version of the song, which Universal chairman/CEO Doug Morris personally sent to Curry. The remixed version currently on rotation, Curry says, has become hugely popular with Power 96's predominantly female listenership.

"Whenever I go to clubs, there's always a really pretty girl and a not-so-pretty girl together," Curry says. "When I hear the songs, I watch their mouths, and they both know the song. They love the track. It connects."

Even as Rubio records in English, Universal is poised to release "Paulina," the original Spanish album, in France and Italy this summer. On June 23 Rubio kicked off her U.S. tour at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles.

"I see this as the moment in which I've been understood, liberated, and listened to -- not only by the industry but by the generation I represent," says Rubio, who admits she wakes up every morning surprised at her success. "I spent all these years preparing for this moment."