An Interview With Gloria Estefan

Posted on: 27 August 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

The Queen of Latin music talks to 50connect about how she loves being 50.

She has sold 90 million records worldwide, won 5 Grammys, sung for the Pope, recorded duets with Frank Sinatra and Pavarotti, and written chart topping tracks for today’s pop stars including Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin and Shakira.  Her music credentials are vast but there’s much more to Gloria Estefan than pop music, as Rachael Hannan finds out.

It was in 1984 that Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine topped the European charts with their funky single Dr Beat. Their fusion of pop, disco and salsa, coupled with Cuban rhythms ensured a string of hits including Rhythm Is Gonna Get You, Conga, 1-2-3 and Get Up On Your Feet. The livelier tracks were contrasted with poignant and thoughtful ballads such as I Don’t Want To Lose You and Words Get In The Way, and secured a twenty-two-year-run of non-stop hits. 

Gloria performed a one-off Greatest Hits concert at Wembley Arena on the 10th September 2008, her first UK performance for twelve years. 

She looks fitter than ever, and at fifty-one-years-old says she enjoys performing a ‘hell of a lot more’ than she did in her younger days.

“When you are starting out there’s so many things you are learning about yourself and what you want to do, but at this point, I’ve pretty much done everything there is.  I know what I’m doing and I feel very confident up there.”

Gloria Estefan plays first UK concert fro 12 years“I think being a woman at this age is phenomenal.  You feel so much more relaxed about everything, I take things in my stride, and it all becomes much more enjoyable.  You’re maturing so you know a lot about yourself, and what you like and don’t like.  I am super fit and stronger than ever.  I rarely get tired, and right now my mind is in a lot more control.”

When asked if being 50 is better than being 30, she says for her, yes.

“It would be great if I could have the body I had at 30 -  now that would be the perfect combo, but you know what? I think that would be very dangerous.  I think whoever designed us, God or whoever, knew he couldn’t give it all to you, because that would be a problem,” she jokes.

Born in Havana in 1957, her Mother left Cuba for Miami with Gloria as a 16 month baby when the Cuban Revolution began.  Her father, a body guard to the then President Fulgencio Batista's wife, was taken a prisoner by Fidel Castro's forces and joined them on his release. He later served in Vietnam under the US Army where exposure to Agent Orange led to him developing multiple sclerosis.

The strong Cuban influence to her music is obvious, and she tells me that the one thing her mother tried to smuggle out of Cuba was her record collection.

Aside from the Cuban greats she was exposed to at home, the British music of the 60s also played its part.

“When I was 6-years-old, I have a very vivid memory of the British invasion, especially Gerry & The Pacemakers singing Ferry Cross The Mersey.  I remember sitting in the car when my mother pulled up next to a laundry van playing that song, and I got goose bumps all over listening it.”

“It was only years later that I realised it has a very Cuban bolero beat to it.  I think British music was experimenting with that way back then, including the Beatles who used to love that kind of music.”

It was in 1975 that Gloria joined the band, then known as the Miami Sound Boys, headed by Emilio Estefan, who would later become her husband.  Gloria never had ambitions to be a performer and found she had to overcome her aversion to being the centre of attention.

“When I joined the band at 17, it was as a hobby - for a bit of fun.  My Dad had been very ill for many years and I spent much of my adolescence looking after him, so it was one of my first experiences of actually being out in the world.” 

“I would enjoy the rehearsals more than anything because I was very shy.  I don’t like being the centre of attention and I ended up in a business where you become that.  I love to observe life and people, and I ended up being the observed one, so that took some getting used to because it's just not part of my nature.”

“It took a good ten years for that to happen.  I joined the band in ‘75 and we had our first big hit in ‘85, so by that time, I had performed with almost every size audience and it just became easier.  I learnt to enjoy it very much, but deep down inside, music was a wonderful escape and a wonderful catharsis for me, but I never really wanted to be that famous.”

Today she is in the top 100 of best selling music artists worldwide, is hailed as one of the most popular Latin music cross-over artists, and will be the first woman awarded Person of the Year by the Latin Grammy Award Recording Association, in a ceremony to be aired in November this year. 

She has also worked with stars past and present, including the 3 tenors on separate occasions, Quincy Jones and Frank Sinatra.

“I’ve been lucky to experience such talent along the way. Sinatra needless to say was such a thrill. We had dinner with him and he was quite a character.  His charm was above anything else, and he was funny. He was one of these guys who did what he wanted every second of the day and you could see it.  He was larger than life.”

More of a writer at heart, aside from writing hits for today’s pop stars, Gloria has found a new avenue for her literary talents in writing children’s books.  Her first two books reached number 2 and 3 on the New York Times Bestsellers list, and she is now writing the third. 

The inspiration for the stories came from an English Bull Terrier she has. 

“When she came to my house I had five Dalmatians, and watching her trying hard to fit in and be one of them even though she had short stumpy legs and couldn’t keep up with them, reminded me of when I first came into this country. I felt like I was the odd man out; I was the only Hispanic in my school in first grade, and when I started school, I didn’t speak English."

"I thought a story that can be entertaining and fun is a great way of dealing with the different issues kids have, and it’s about animals which I love because my friends call me Doolittle."

"Each one has a message and a meaning and I always put in an educational overview.  All the facts are true and it rhymes which kids really love because it sticks in their brain.  For me, it’s like writing a 31 page song - and a natural evolution for my writing.”

Not only have the books proved popular in bestsellers lists, they are also being used in the classroom.  As a psychology graduate, at one point Gloria had considered a career in teaching like her Mother, so she says that through these books, she has has managed to combine her passion for education and for the written word.   

“When I started writing, I really wanted teachers to be able to use them as a learning tool and now I receive letters from teachers telling me that they do a week of class activities around the books.  That is exactly what I had in mind, so it is extremely satisfying because I truly believe that is how you change the world. You focus on kids, and they in turn will focus on others.  Usually by the time children are in adolescence, it’s a lot harder to inspire them, so I love the early education and that whole aspect of getting in touch with young kids."  

Besides children’s books, Gloria has also been working with Connie Francis since 2000, writing a film script for a screenplay about her life which will be filmed early next year. 

“Connie is a brilliant and very funny woman.  She’s still taking lithium because she was bipolar way back, when they didn’t know what it did to you.  She has had a really tough life; her father institutionalised her three times in an attempt to control her, she was brutally raped in her hotel room after a concert, she lost her brother to the mafia, but she was the world’s first real female pop star."

"She recorded in 9 different languages, and was huge in Europe and all over the world. She was also an ardent campaigner for victim's rights after her ordeal and is responsible for getting the laws changed and making things better for women.  People don’t know a lot about the things which make her so incredible, and I hope to change that with this movie which is the story of a survivor and an amazingly smart woman."

Apart from her musical and literary career, Gloria and her husband Emilio, own several businesses including seven Cuban restaurants and two hotels.  They have worked together for over thirty years and are obviously a very close and dynamic duo, with a fortune worth $500 million according to People En Espanol magazine (February 2007). 

They met whilst she was still at high school, when he came in to speak to her class about how they could set up a band for one night, for a charity project they were involved in.  A few months later her Mother 'dragged' her to a wedding where his band was playing.  He remembered her and asked her to sing with the band.  It was such a success she was asked to join them full-time.  I ask if it was love at first sight.

"No not really," she laughs.  "I was a baby at 17, he had just turned 22 and his girlfriend was 36, so I always looked at him as my boss and an older man.  But he was a big flirt, and would always flirt with me, but he didn’t want to hurt me, so he stayed away. I had no experience whatsoever, I hadn’t gone out because I had taken care of my Dad, but it all happened naturally."

"About a year later he lied to me and said it was his birthday on July 4th and asked whether I would give him a kiss.  I said no, and he said, 'Oh go on, just a kiss on the cheek,' and then he turned his face.  It had all been brewing for a while, but that definitely was it.  From July 4th 1976 we were together pretty much all the time."

They have been married 30 years this September and she says the secret is that he still makes her laugh. 

"He hasn’t lost that little boy in him; he’s a person who gets up everyday raring to go, wanting to do things, always very positive and never moody. He’s a motivator and a do-er and I love that about him.  He fills in the spaces in me, and I fill in spaces with him; I think it was meant to be.”

“I never thought I’d get married until I was in my late 30s and in the end I got married the day after I turned 21, and I was completely sure that this was the man I wanted to be with for the rest of my life, and that hasn’t changed, ever."

"We balance each other well because we are very different.  I keep him from having a heart attack and killing himself from over-work and he prods me out of being happy sitting on the couch!  Even though we are very different the things that are important to us are very similar.  We have the same values, priorities, and family is number one.  We rarely disagree and have the same visions for what we want musically and what we want for our other business, which definitely helps."

And it seems that a talent and passion for music runs in the family.  Gloria’s daughter Emily will be on stage with her as part of the band, playing the guitar and drums in the forthcoming UK concert this September. 

“She has more talent than all of us put together this little one.  She’s really a natural musician; going between the guitar, piano and drums all day, and I am not exaggerating.  The other day I was taking a shower and she came in with the amp she fixes on her belt buckle, and serenaded me in the bathroom," she says with enormous pride.  

"She's just like me; very shy, and I think that’s why she likes to play the drums because she can't see the audience," she laughs. 

Looking forward Gloria says balance is the key for her.  

“I think you need balance in all things - with what you eat, what you enjoy, what you drink and how you work.   And right now even more, I think you must enjoy every moment, and find something enjoyable in each moment, even if you are doing something you don't like.”

Interview by Rachael Hannan 

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