For more than a decade, Julio Iglesias has been the most famous Latin pop singer in the world, but he's been overtaken in the Spanish-speaking realm by a man who may someday replace him everywhere: Luis Miguel.
If so, it would mark the culmination of a daring series of moves that began when he fired his father as his manager in in 1986, risking his stardom for new challenges.
"It came to a point when I hated my old career," says Luis Miguel, 25, of his teen idol days. "At first it was fun, but after a while I felt a horrible pressure. I didn't like what I was doing, and I'm not proud of any of that. I'm proud of what I am now."
What he is now is Latin America's most important singer of romantic material, both commercially and critically.
But what about the rest of the world? In the age of the "crossover dream," few in Latin pop appear in better position to reach the English-speaking audience that embraced Iglesias in the '80s.
Two of Luis Miguel's last three albums--the memorable jewels "Romance" (1991) and "Segundo Romance" (1994)--together sold more than 5 million copies worldwide. The recordings created a revival for the bolero --the old-fashioned, string-based romantic messages of unrequited love were embraced even by young listeners.
Overall, his 21 albums have sold more than 45 million copies (his next release will be a live album, due next month). He's won three Grammys, and was the first Latin artist to sell a million copies of a non-English recording in the U.S.
So when is he making his crossover move? The ever-calculating singer isn't losing any sleep over it.
"Not in the near future," he says during a recent break in rehearsals for his shows tonight through Saturday at the Universal Amphitheatre. "It does interest me, but sometimes you have to pay too big of a price. My language and my world is Spanish, and I'm very comfortable with that. If I'm going to do something else it has to be at the right moment, when I feel very confident it's going to be good for me and my music. That time is not coming yet."
In a rare interview, Luis Miguel speaks in both English and Spanish as he sits on a couch facing the stage in a Hollywood rehearsal studio.
The singer is deeply tanned and his fingernails are finely manicured. He wears a black silk shirt, tight jeans and Italian black leather shoes, and he munches on raw celery stalks as members of his staff take turns walking by to make sure that the interview doesn't last too long.
"I'm used to singing for two, three hours nonstop, four nights in a row," he says. "But for everything to come out right, we must run a very strict, disciplined system."
Luis Miguel Gallego, born in Puerto Rico to a Spanish father and an Italian mother, grew up in Mexico and considers himself a "Mexican born in Puerto Rico." He began singing on stage at age 9 and was a Latin American superstar at 12. After the 1986 split with his father, the late singer Luisito Rey, Luis Miguel's new career went on to dwarf his first one. He's become one of the few Latin stars to control virtually every aspect of his career, from business decisions to musical production.
"At this point of my life, I don't feel the need to have someone telling me what to do," says Luis Miguel, who works closely with his record producer Kiko Cibrian. "I listen, but I know exactly who I am and what I want. If it's wrong or right it is my problem, and that's the way I want it to be.
"I mean, it's you out there, your name is everywhere. As they say in English, 'Follow your heart.' I never take too much guidance from other people, because people confuse me a lot. Otherwise, I would be very unhappy and embarrassed. You have to do what you desire, otherwise you are faking it and people sooner or later are going to notice that. I've done it this way since I turned 18 or 19, and so far it's been pretty good."
Miguel still seems relaxed and talkative after 45 minutes--a surprise, since he's often described as arrogant and narcissistic. Far from the intimidating image, he seems simple, down to earth and vulnerable. But he admits to being difficult.
"I'm a very volatile person," he says. "When I'm working, I want to be aware of everything and make sure everything is as perfect as possible. And always, whether I'm alone or working, I hate routine and I'm always trying to make new plans.
"Maybe that's why I'm a little afraid of marriage, because I've seen the way some relationships function. Many times, those types of relationships kill the passion. I don't want that, I want to have options."
If the price of crossover is, in fact, too high, at least Luis Miguel knows what to expect. He's one of the favorite targets of the Spanish-language tabloid press, which reports on both his old family problems (besides firing his father, he hasn't spoken to his mother, Marcella, since his parents divorced in 1986) and his "romance of the week."