The Mexican American banda singer Jenni Rivera was a major star in the Spanish-speaking world. She was poised to become a multicultural star too.
Already the star of the popular bilingual cable reality show “I Love Jenni,” she had recently filmed her first English-language feature movie and was on deck to produce — and star in — a pilot for an ABC television series loosely based on her life.
The Long Beach-born pop singer also had introduced her own makeup line, and a perfume, Jenni by Jenni Rivera, sold at Sears, and had partnered with NuMe on a line of expensive blow dryers and flat irons. Early next year, she was prepared to launch her own line of denim jeans, open boutique stores and headline the Gibson Amphitheatre.
“For Jenni, it was all about the promise that was yet to come,” said Flavio Morales, senior vice president of programming and production of NBCUniversal’s cable channel, mun2, which shows “I Love Jenni.”
Early Sunday, Rivera had just finished giving a concert in Monterrey, Mexico, and was headed to Toluca, near Mexico City, to be a judge on the Mexican version of “The Voice.” Mexican transportation authorities said Monday that a plane carrying the singer and her entourage went down about 10 minutes after it took off. Officials combing the crash site found Rivera’s California driver’s license.
The late singer’s career began more than two decades ago, when she was a teenage mother who sold CDs at an area swap meet. Her father, an entrepreneur from Mexico, created a music label that specialized in the Mexican storytelling ballads known as corridos. Jenni liked to boast that she was a businesswoman too, reminding others that she had earned a college degree in business administration. Rivera was hands-on as she steadily built a business empire that she hoped would rival that of Jennifer Lopez or Kris Jenner, matriarch of the Kardashian clan.
Like the Kardashians, Rivera’s children were part of the growing empire. The singer’s eldest daughter, Janney “Chiquis” Marin, had recently opened a beauty salon called Blow Me Dry, in Encino. The venture was chronicled in a spinoff reality show on mun2 called “Chiquis ‘n Control,” her second reality show on the network. Another daughter’s nuptials were recently the subject of a highly rated mun2 TV special.
Earlier this year, Rivera mentioned that she wanted to write a memoir and create a lingerie line and apparel for full-figured women. She even managed to find time for a weekly four-hour Spanish-language radio show, “Contacto Directo con Jenni Rivera,” designed to reach her most ardent fans: middle-aged Latinas who warmed to her message of empowerment.
“Jenni spoke for a segment of the community that doesn’t often get heard — single mothers who work hard every single day, who care for their husbands and families and others but don’t get to complain,” Morales said. “She represented an entire community: me, my family, my friends and a whole generation of Mexican Americans who are making up the new America.”
The English-language ABC project was expected to mark Rivera’s mainstream success. The pilot’s concept was loosely based on Rivera’s own story of a working single mom struggling to balance career and family. In real life, the mother of five, grandmother of two and survvivor of domestic abuse was frequent tabloid fodder. She was embroiled in a public dispute with a daughter and in an increasingly messy divorce from her third husband.
Rivera’s first feature film, an independent drama called “Filly Brown,” is scheduled to be released in April. Rivera plays the incarcerated mother of an aspiring rapper, trying to maintain a relationship with her daughter from behind bars.
Her part wasn’t big — just four emotional scenes — but Rivera spent a month rehearsing with costars and an acting coach before production began. “Filly Brown” director Youssef Delara believed the film would show her acting potential.
“She’s sort of like the everywoman,” Delara said. “A lot of women can relate to the fact that she’s not this ingénue. She’s just this woman who went through a lot and was forged by all the terrible things she went through.”
Gustavo López, an executive vice president with Universal Music Latin Entertainment, Rivera’s music label, said he spoke to the pop star Saturday. Some of his friends in Monterrey were unable to get tickets to her concert, and Rivera secured last-minute passes.
Rivera was Universal’s top-selling artist of regional Mexican music, López said. She drew a crowd when she attended Dodgers and Lakers games. An album signing event in Riverside last year attracted so many fans that police were called to disperse them.
Rivera’s music sold millions of copies, including 1.2 million albums in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan. Her biggest seller was her 2005 album, “Parrandera, Rebelde y Atrevida,” which has sold more than 200,000 copies. She’s also sold nearly 350,000 digital tracks.
“What made her so appealing is that she was born in Long Beach, spoke perfect English but focused on Latin music,” López said.
“It was always her dream to do an English album, but she always thought there would come a time,” he said. “She always wanted to do an oldies album. She was a huge fan of Mary Wells, and she would say that she wanted to go back and do those songs and show people that she did more than banda or mariachi music. She said when the time came to do it, she would know it.”
A concert Rivera headlined last year at Staples Center sold out. That success underscored how Rivera had arrived, said Morales of mun2. The event became an enormous “girls’ night out,” with corporate luxury boxes filled with Latinas who had pooled their resources to attend.
“They rocked to the message of empowerment that Jenni provided them,” Morales said. “And backstage, Jenni recognized the moment. She said, ‘See, I’m good enough to be playing at the Staples Center.’”
Emily Simonitsch, senior vice president of talent for Live Nation/Southern California, said, “Jenni inspired women to believe in themselves and delivered this message in her music. She was in control of her business and made all her decisions in producing her concerts in addition to the production of the show.”
Initially, Rivera wasn’t interested when Morales and others with mun2 approached her about doing a reality show. “She was like, ‘Eh,’” Morales recalled, and instead prodded the network to create a show around her daughter and friend. Rivera agreed to do just a handful of cameos.
“When we got her on camera, she was magic,” Morales said. “She knew what to say, how her audience would react and then as we started production, she got what we called the TV bug.”
From that grew her reality show “I Love Jenni,” a wink at the old “I Love Lucy” show. It became one of mun2’s most popular and profitable shows. Such major corporations as Target, T-Mobile and Burger King agreed to participate — unusual support for a reality show.
“She loved the fact that she was in control of the show,” Morales said. “She was often the subject of tabloid stories, but here she got to say exactly what she wanted to say.”
Staff writers Amy Kaufman, Todd Martens, Randy Lewis and Tracy Wilkinson and correspondent Steve Carney contributed to this report.