What is the most irritating question that
Jade Esteban Estrada, the first
openly gay Latin pop star, gets asked on a regular basis? "If I think
Ricky Martin is gay," says Estrada with a roll of his mischievous
dark eyes. "You knew I was going to say that, right?"
A former stand-up and a veteran emcee on
the beauty pageant circuit, Estrada has also had gigs as Broadway grande
dame Zoe Caldwell's assistant, Charo's head choreographer, and Backstreet
Boy A.J. McLean's "scratch vocalist" (an industry term for a
singer who records songs for a songwriter so that they can teach others to
sing them), before his own single "Reggae Twist" became a hit on
international Spanish-language radio in 1998. But after being dropped by
his record label Total Envision Records last year, the 26-year old San
Antonio, Tex., native knows he is taking a stand by being out.
"Basically, Envision let me know
when they signed me that they wanted me to be a salsa artist and they
didn't think it was in my best interest to be openly gay. But after my
song hit, I got asked to perform at Brooklyn Pride [in 1999], which of
course is very Latin." Estrada gladly took the booking and one Pride
led to others. In 2000, Estrada played around the country and around the
world for both gay and Spanish-language audiences, but his actual coming
out was not something he planned very carefully. "I don't really
change my set, whether I'm playing a Tejano gig or a Pride gig. I get out
there and I make the audience feel really good. For a Latin crowd, I would
sometimes shout out, `I'm so proud to be a Latino!' So one night--it was
at Pride in Utica, New York--I said, `I'm so proud to be a gay Latino!' It
sort of slipped out, but I meant it. Then I realized I had the opportunity
to represent, so I kept on doing it."
Estrada (no relation to actor Erik
Estrada, though both graduated from New York's American Musical and
Dramatic Academy) admits he was extremely nervous about confronting his
label after outing himself publicly, especially since his debut album was
only half finished. But in August 2000, an hour before his performance at
Diversite Montreal, he got a conference call from record executives, and
the ax fell. "Basically, they said they had no idea what to do with
me, so they offered to let me out of my contract," recalls Estrada.
"I was totally in shock and I go out on stage--almost on automatic
pilot, and suddenly this wave of energy hits me--like boom! Diversite is
huge--the third largest Pride celebration in the world, and I'm standing
in front of the biggest audience I've ever played for, and suddenly I
remembered something Charo had once said to me: [imitating Charo's accent]
`My real family? They don't give a cheet about me--this [the audience] is
my real family.' And suddenly, I knew it was going to be fine. I would put
the album out myself, and the people would be there."
Estrada's own label, Vicarious Records,
in March released his debut CD, "Angel", an infectious blend of salsa and
pop in English and Spanish. Then for the rest of the year, Estrada will be
traveling with his dancers on the Angelika Tour 2001, which includes Pride
festivals in Atlanta, Charlotte, New York, Milwaukee, Washington, D.C.,
and EuroPride in Vienna. "My music influences come from all over--Celine
Dion to Matchbox Twenty, country music to Gregorian chants, but I don't
think I'd be where I am today if it weren't for Ellen [DeGeneres], not
Elton [John]. Ellen came out and took the flak for all of us, while Elton
never really came out--he just eased into it."
And so what does he really think about
Ricky Martin? Estrada smiles wistfully, "He's a good performer, but
Che is the author of Deborah Harry.