‘It’s scary--a lot of people want to kiss the same cheek.’

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It started with a kiss on the cheek.

The kiss, from Pope John Paul II on Sept. 15 last year during his visit to Los Angeles, was viewed on television by millions of people around the world and lifted armless itinerant musician Tony Melendez, who had learned to play guitar with his feet, from obscurity.

In the intervening year, Melendez, 26, of Chino, has gone from playing at local churches and for tips on the boardwalk at Laguna Beach to giving paid performances across the nation and around the world. He leaves next month on a tour of Japan.

Melendez, who never finished high school, is working on a book about his life, an album of mostly original songs, a family TV special for NBC, and has more offers than he, his brother, Jose, or his personal manager can successfully juggle.


But along with the fame and five-figure paychecks has come a disturbing revelation--there are people as desperate as he once was who believe he has become a miracle worker.

“It’s scary--a lot of people want to kiss the same cheek,” Melendez said in an interview at the modest home he shares with his mother, Sara, 49, his brother Jose, 28, and his sister, Mayella, 24.

Photographs of his meeting with the Pope are conspicuously absent from the Melendez home. Even the hundreds of letters and telegrams that he has received in the past year are stored in a cabinet.

It is part of an attempt to preserve humility in the face of instant stardom, said Melendez, who once dreamed of becoming a priest.

“I don’t consider myself a big deal,” Melendez said. “I don’t want people to go crazy over me. I just want them to be a friend to a friend.”

When the pressure of offers and travel arrangements becomes unbearable, Melendez said, “I run to the mountains.” There he said, “I like to walk along a stream and think.”


The problem is reflected in his latest song, “Solitude.” The song’s lyrics include the following words: “There is nowhere left to run to in this great big world I see/No hidden spot secluded where my thoughts can be set free.”

Melendez was born in Nicaragua, where his mother had taken the drug thalidomide, later found to cause birth defects, during her pregnancy. The family moved to the United States when he was a year old. His father died in 1984.

“He comes from a simple background, and the adulation makes him uncomfortable,” said Father Michael Manning, who produces a 24-hour Catholic cable network program and has been a mentor to Melendez for years. “He needs to have people in his life that he can let his hair down with.”

The mixed blessing occurred when Melendez sang “Never Be the Same” for the Pope in a program staged before young people at Universal Amphitheater. The Pope then reached up to embrace Melendez, who had to lean down to accept a kiss on his right cheek.

Since then, Melendez has been performing on the road three weeks of every month. Through it all, he has managed to maintain a sense of humor that he interjects in a question-answer segment of his shows.

“People want to know how I put on my shirt,” Melendez said with a laugh. “I say, ‘I button it up, throw it into the air, it opens like a parachute and I dive into it.’ ”