A night at the Grammys, a duet with Madonna, and a hot single with ''Loca'' motion has transformed the Latin pop sensation into spring's hottest thing

April 23, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Who says you can’t go home again?

Six weeks after his defibrillating performance at the ’99 Grammys, Ricky Martin is returning to Puerto Rico. It’s a drizzly morning at San Juan’s Aeropuerto Internacional, but bad weather and a police blockade haven’t deterred hundreds of hysterical fans from gathering to watch. Though the swivel-hipped former Menudo member isn’t a household name in America (yet), here he’s a global phenomenon. His four solo records have sold more than 13 million copies; he’s exported Puerto Rican pop to Australia and Europe, filled stadiums in Asia (though he sings in Spanish), and charted in Israel and India; his throbbing showcase at the 1998 World Cup was broadcast to 2 billion people. He’s been blessed by the Pope. Needless to say, the locals are a little excited he’s home.

Suddenly, a rented Learjet pierces the clouds and coasts down the runway. Like a blond-highlighted cross between Tom Cruise and Montgomery Clift, Martin, 27, emerges from the plane, displays what Grammy hostess Rosie O’Donnell labeled ”a cutie patootie,” and is whisked to an idling chopper that will take him to a press conference at the San Juan Ritz. The hotel is a five-minute drive away, but at home Martin must travel by helicopter. ”He has to,” explains Yolanda Rosaly, a reporter with San Juan’s El Mundo. ”Last time there were 20,000 people, and trouble with the police.”

Martin has needed major crowd control since the Grammys. His leather-pants, electro-pelvis version of ”La Copa de la Vida” single-handedly goosed a very dull telecast, earning him a standing ovation and alarmingly predatory glances from such audience members as Trudie Styler (sitting next to husband Sting). The next morning, women and gay men across the nation awoke and wondered: Why don’t I know this guy?

Why indeed? Martin’s fourth record, the Grammy-winning Vuelve, has already gone platinum in the U.S., outselling recent efforts by Van Halen and Phil Collins. The quick answer is, Martin records in Spanish. And in the gringo-centric heartland, you’re no one until Rosie says so. ”You said it, not me. But I don’t want to say I’ve been ignored,” says Martin, citing sold-out shows in New York, L.A., and South Beach, Miami (his current ”Langlo” headquarters). ”Until now, the priorities have been other countries.”

Now the priorities have shifted. Martin is embarking on what The San Juan Star calls an ”aventura en ingles.” In May, he’ll release his first English album, Ricky Martin. This week, MTV and Top 40 radio devoured his new single ”Livin’ La Vida Loca,” an irresistible horn-and-secret-agent-guitar rave-up that could easily be mistaken for the Mighty Mighty Bosstones were it not for the caliente charisma. Ricky Martin has been conceived as a multiple-single pop event complete with a Madonna duet. ”With all humbleness,” says Martin, ”I think we’ll sell 10 million copies.”

Loco? Don’t bet on it. Though his previous CDs were released on Sony’s Latin division, Martin didn’t truly galvanize the brass until the Grammys. He now enjoys the imprimatur of Sony Music CEO Tommy Mottola and Columbia Records president Don Ienner. ”I knew they’d come to me someday,” he says, with characteristic confidence. ”After the Grammys, it was ‘Yo, this is mine!”’

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