• U.S.

Show Business: Hail the Conquering Crooner

6 minute read
Gerald Clarke

Julio Iglesias wants Americans to love him too

He pays $700 apiece for his jackets, but his trousers are always too short, just as they were when he won the contest that launched his singing career 26 years ago. He leaves the table if salt is spilled, and if he hears very bad news, he sends his clothes, underwear and socks included, straight to the incinerator. When he begins a seven-day engagement at Manhattan’s Radio City Music Hall this week, Julio Iglesias will of course knock wood several times before he goes onstage. How else will he ever succeed with that fickle and unpredictable creature, the American audience?

The answer: probably the same way he has won over much of Europe, Asia and all of South America. He does not have the best voice in show business, or the most galvanizing or innovative style. But what he does have, an exuberancia of charm and sex appeal, would probably be enough to make even the croakings of Kermit the Frog sound like satin. For Iglesias, 40, all that machismo has done something more. It has made him the most popular singer in the world. The Spanish Sinatra, as he is sometimes called, has sold well over 100 million records in six languages.

His name has only recently become a marketable item north of the Rio Grande, but in much of the world, millions of faces, mostly female and mostly over 25, light up when he is mentioned. Feminine “ohs” reverberate from Madrid, where Iglesias was born and raised, to Montevideo. “He rouses middle-aged women, especially the depressed ladies with no dreams,” says Italian Psychologist Erika Kaufmann. “When he sings, they come alive. I call him the sex symbol of the menopause.”

What Iglesias has done, more than any other performer, is bring back to popular music the romantic style of the ’40s and ’50s. He is not androgynous like Michael Jackson, but neither is he aggressively masculine like Tom Jones. He is instead the elegant male, well dressed and sophisticated, but with a boyish, ingratiating smile, so dazzlingly toothy that, for safety’s sake, it almost has to be viewed through smoked glass, like a solar eclipse. To keep the tan that has given his skin the color of a tobacco leaf, he has artfully arranged his schedule so that he is almost always in that half of the globe that is celebrating summer. When his 33-city U.S. tour ends Sept. 29, about the time of the first frost up north, he will race back to his $5 million home in Miami, then flee to the Southern Hemisphere and another round of engagements in South Africa, Australia and Latin America.

Right now he is intent on conquering America. Although he has made brief commando raids into the U.S., never before has he attempted to become the star here that he is almost everywhere else. “No non-Anglo Saxon performer has been able to sell music in America,” he says. “I want to make a bridge between Latin music and American music that others can cross afterward. In the music business the U.S. is tops. A No. 1 song here goes all over the world. I have taken a risk in coming here, and I have put my challenge in front of everyone.”

So far the gamble has paid off handsomely. Tickets for Radio City sold out in only a day and a half, as might be expected in a city with a vast Hispanic population. But he has also had sellouts in the heartland, where Spanish is still a language heard mainly in high school classrooms. “A year ago, someone asked me when I would consider myself a success in America,” says Iglesias. “I told him I’d be happy the day I put 10,000 people together in Ohio. In Cleveland, I got nearly 20,000.” His first album in English, 1100 Bel Air Place, was released in the U.S. last month and sold a million copies in its first five days on the shelves. “Real Americans are coming to hear Julio now,” says his press manager, Fernan Martinez. “He has shown that he’s universal.”

What Americans are seeing, and hearing, is nearly two hours of Mr. Universal. He jokes about his bad English, his age and gives an engaging Latin spin to sentimental favorites such as La Vie en Rose, Begin the Beguine and, of course, As Time Goes By. He demands little of either ear or eye, rarely even moving around the stage, and soothes rather than ignites. “The American people are looking for romance and class again,” maintains his business manager, Ray Rodriguez. “Julio hit this country right when it needed him.”

His relaxed performance is the result of endless discipline and labor, and Iglesias is rarely satisfied. “He always wants more—more love, more houses, more records, more success,” says Martinez. His marriage of eight years was annulled in 1979, and although he remains devoted to his three children, who live most of the time with their mother in Spain, he has very little else in his life but singing, rehearsing and singing some more. He has four houses scattered around the world, but his real home is a Mystère-Falcon 20, which jets him from gig to gig. “Everything has to be quick for Julio,” says Martinez. “Once he thought the water was too warm in his Miami pool. I offered to turn down the thermostat, but he said that would take too long. We had trucks dump five tons of ice into the pool.”

He is never alone, yet he seems lonely to most who know him. Though there is frequently an attractive woman near by, his only real romance is in the lyrics he sings. Is he a sex symbol? He laughs and pulls up his trouser legs to reveal skinny legs above white socks. “Not when I look in the mirror in the morning,” he says. “But my goal is to make people dream. When they see me onstage, their fantasy of me and the reality meet. I seduce them. But I must seduce myself first.”

—By Gerald Clarke. Reported by Elaine Dutka/New York, with other bureaus

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