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Olga Tañón: Sultry Siren Of Merengue


January 28, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved. 

''With cinnamon? Dark? How dark?'' asks singer Olga Tañón, getting the cappuccino order to room service just right. She rapidly adds more items for the train of interviewers who will come this afternoon. ``A bottle of water, no, make that two -- big ones. And six Cokes and six 7-UPs. No, nobody's on a diet here. And some pastries.''

One of the biggest stars in Latin music, the queen of merengue is, by her own admission, a bit of a control freak. When the drinks arrive, she spills out some of her coffee, adds milk, then washes and dries the spoon, placing it on a napkin next to the bathroom sink. Everything arranged to her satisfaction, she sinks into a chair, oversize diamond studs sparkling over fashionably worn denim jacket and jeans. She seems much smaller than the towering diva of her vibrant live shows.

''I have a lot of problems for being so independent,'' Tañón says. 'You have to give other people a chance to help. I'm the kind of person who always wants to help you, who always says 'Do it this way'. At home I'm always moving furniture.'' She wiggles her chair sideways, heaving exaggeratedly. 'My husband comes home and says 'My love, why didn't you call me?!' And I'm like, Well, you weren't here!''

``One reason I love my husband is that he gives me my own space. When I come to Miami [from her home in Orlando] I like to drive my own car. I love to be alone, listen to music, talk to God and the angels.''

Tañón began singing as a child in the church choir in her native Puerto Rico and says that as a young girl she wanted to be a nun. But it is hard to imagine any male authority, no matter how high, telling Olga Tañón what to do.


''She's a tough woman who'll kick your ass or seduce you in the same breath,'' says Sergio Rozenblat, former general manager of Warner Latina, who signed Tañón in 1992. He remembers meeting a plain girl, without makeup, hair tied up. ''But I saw something -- you either have that aura or you don't,'' Rozenblat says. ``A lot of artists, the personality catches up to the success. She had the personality to begin with.''

Veteran Dominican producer Manuel Tejada, who produced Tañón's first solo album, Sola (Alone), and has worked on many of the nine albums she has done since, including her latest, Sobrevivir (Surviving), says the singer seemed sure of herself from the beginning. ''With a new artist there's always some fear, some tension in the studio,'' Tejada said from Santo Domingo. 'She had this attitude of `let's do it, let's go'. Her determination really impressed me.''

That confident sense of herself has been, perhaps, the biggest reason for Tañón's success. Now called the Queen of Merengue, she had never sung the style when she auditioned for her first professional group at 17 (''Las Nenas de Ringo y Josie,'' Tañón says, rolling her eyes. ``Imagine -- you're halfway down the highway by the time you finish saying that'').


She has earned the nickname 'Mujer de fuego' -- Woman of fire -- for the sensuality and ferocious energy with which she commands the stage. And with three Latin pop albums and a host of awards to her credit, she is outgrowing her original genre to make a broader mark.

In 10 years and as many records she has racked up four million in sales worldwide. Last year she was a presence at every major Latin musical award, winning an American and a Latin Grammy for 2001's Yo por ti (I'm For You), as well as five Premio Lo Nuestro awards and a Billboard award. Earlier this month she was featured on CBS performing in the Orange Bowl halftime show. Así es la vida (That's life), the first single from Sobrevivir, is now topping Billboard's Latin radio chart, and the album, which mixes ballads with tango, flamenco and tropical pop and was released in November, is in the top 20 of the Latin sales chart.

''We're trying to say we have a superstar, not just a merengue star,'' says George Zamora, president of Warner Music U.S. Latin. ``An artist with a vision in not just one genre but many genres of music. Her personality captures audiences -- she's a free spirit. I think people feel she's one of them. Certain artists appeal to an elite audience. She appeals to a mass audience.''


Tañón is a Latina archetype updated with a streak of feminism; an independent, passionate woman who goes after what she wants and is not afraid to say so. It sets her apart from the many heartbroken or mechanically seductive female singers in Latin pop and tropical music. Tañón sings about love and heartbreak, but also self-worth and taking control. On A partir de hoy (From This Day On), from Sobrevivir, she proclaims ''I'm going to quit this habit of loving those who treat me badly and thinking about everyone else first.'' She says it's for Puerto Rican women who are victims of domestic violence, who love ``everybody but themselves. You have to love yourself.''

But Tañón's idea of self-love is different from many of her counterparts. ''I love Paulina [Rubio], Shakira, Thalia,'' she says. ''They're divine, but that's their look, their style. It's not me. I don't expose myself. Since I started, one of my biggest problems is journalists and magazines always wanted me to wear bikinis or stuff cut down to here,'' she gestures to her chest. ``That's not my style.''

``Yes, I'm strong onstage. In person too. I'm sexy but not sexual. But to me being feminine has nothing to do with showing your body. It's just being a woman. I love showing off my body, but in a way that's a little more feminine and elegant.''

She idolizes Dominican merengue star Juan Luis Guerra for his dignity and self-sufficiency. ``I wanted to be Juan Luis Guerra as a woman. I don't like him as a man, what I liked was his musical style, his image. He was so cool, but like a normal person, someone that people could touch. I want to be like that -- someone people can identify with.''

''I come from a humble family,'' she says. ''So if I take a different kind of attitude, then it's like I'm negating a wonderful family.'' Her father worked for a furniture moving company, and her mother took care of Tañón and her three older siblings.


At 35, Tañón now lives in Orlando with her daughter Gabriela, ''six years and seven months,'' and husband Billy Denizard, a television and concert producer. ''I'm happy! I'm in love!'' she says, laughing and waggling a large diamond ring. It follows a short, stormy and very public 1999 marriage with Gabriela's father, major league baseball star Juan González. Their celebrity marriage came complete with front-page accusations of infidelity, first when González left a former wife for Tañón, and again when a paternity suit forced him to admit to having another child while married to the singer, who promptly dumped her island's most famous athlete.

But Tañón says the experience left no scars. ''When I end a relationship I basically forget about it,'' she says. ''I think the best thing is to enjoy a relationship when you're in it, and forget it when it ends. I'm not thinking about whether I suffered or not, but how wonderful it is to have my daughter Gabriela.'' A song on her album, Angel de mi corazón (Angel of my heart), is dedicated to her daughter. Still, when Tañón married Denizard, she did it at home. ''I didn't have any helicopters flying over my house,'' she says.

And what Olga wants, Olga does. ``I can't do anything I don't like," she says. ``So I do what I like.''

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