A ‘True to Life’ Triumph : Years of Struggling Pay Off for Self-Taught Singer Lisette Melendez


The list of Latino women who have had big pop hits in recent years is a short one:

1) Gloria Estefan.

2) Lisa Lisa.

And that’s it.

To many, that’s evidence that the record business discriminates against Latina singers.

“Not true,” declares Lisette Melendez.

A Puerto Rican from New York’s Spanish Harlem, she’s become the only Latina singer to break through in the pop market in the ‘90s. Melendez, whose second album, “True to Life”--featuring the single “Goody Goody”--has just been released, had record company doors slammed in her face throughout the late ‘80s when she was looking for a record deal. But she never felt that her being Latina was the reason.

“If it was a problem I didn’t know it,” says Melendez, whose music spans dance and hip-hop/R&B; styles. “They said the problem was the music. I was trying to get a deal based on a song that nobody really liked. My feeling was that they were rejecting the song, not me.”

Not that Melendez--who won’t tell her age but appears to be in her late 20s--sees the record industry as a bastion of racial equality. But she believes that, to label executives, skin color and ethnic background always take a back seat to one thing.


“Money is all that matters,” she insists.

David Harleston, president of Def Jam Records--the parent company of Melendez’s label, Fever Records--agrees.

“If there’s money to be made, no one in this business is going to back away from an artist because she’s a Latina,” he said in a separate interview. “Crossing some artists over from a small specialty market into the pop market is tough. But once an artist breaks through, it’s easier for others to make it. If Lisette becomes a star, record companies will start looking for other Latinas to sign.”

The real problem in the record business, Melendez insists, has nothing to do with ethnicity.

“People are just afraid to take chances on music,” she says. “A lot of potential hits--and hit artists--never get a chance because people are afraid to gamble. I struggled for years because no one wanted to gamble on me.”

But producer Carlos Berrios finally did, and it paid off with two independent late-’80s dance hits--”Make Noise” and “Together Forever”--that paved the way for her to record her dance-oriented debut album, “Together Forever,” in 1991. That one did well enough, selling more than 200,000 copies, to establish her as the most promising Latina singer in the business.

Not bad for a self-taught singer who started out singing along with Barbra Streisand records as a teen.


“I couldn’t hold notes or sing a melody well in the beginning, but I kept at it until I got pretty good at it,” Melendez recalls.

Perseverance is one of her biggest assets. Without it, Melendez insists, she’d be just another hopeful looking for a way out of Spanish Harlem. “Looking back on it, I don’t know why I didn’t quit,” she says. “I was this shy kid trying to get into the music business. I had no contacts. But I forced myself to meet people and inched my way along.

“Spanish Harlem is tough, and things can seem real hopeless there,” she continues. “I didn’t want to be like the kids who give up when they’re teen-agers and just get into trouble--go to jail or whatever. I kept working at singing and hoped it might get me out of what looked like a dead-end situation. Even when I made contacts and got into the business, I wasn’t getting anywhere. But Carlos would push me, and I kept pushing myself, thinking I’d make it to the big time one day.”

Her new album, she hopes, will be the ticket to the big time. Not only does it feature a variety of music--pop and R&B; as well as dance--but it also launches her new image.

“It’s much sexier,” explains Melendez, who still lives with her mother in Spanish Harlem. “I was always this home girl that the Latina girls could relate to. I don’t want to lose that identity because I know I’m a role model for those kids. But I come across sexier now.”

Why the new image?

“I’m close to breaking big--so close I can feel it,” she replies. “I wanted to do something different, something that would take me to the next level. So I change the image. If that doesn’t work I’ll try something else--anything to get me to that next level.”