This year, La Vida was loca for our little Ricky. From Grammy glory to a boffo concert tour, he shared his faith, reveled in his Latin pride, and (literally) stopped traffic

By Jess Cagle
Updated December 24, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Ricky Martin will turn 28 years old on Christmas Eve—a fitting birth date for a man who, at this particular stage of his career, could change his name to the Second Coming without much argument.

Astounding to think that 12 months ago, most of us hadn’t heard of this Puerto Rican sex symbol and pop sensation—though he was already a superstar overseas. Then in February, the dancing Don Juan suddenly seduced America with his who’s-that-boy? performance of ”La Copa de la Vida” during the Grammys telecast, finally adding us to his international conquests. He did it again at the MTV Video Awards, where he won best dance and best pop honors. As of right now, Ricky Martin, the singer’s first English-language album, has sold more than 6 million copies and spawned three hit singles, including the inescapable ”Livin’ la Vida Loca.” Like the President, he caused traffic jams when visiting Manhattan, and by the end of the year, Saturday Night Live’s Chris Kattan had gotten him down cold.

”It’s been crazy,” says Martin, who began his showbiz journey 16 years ago with Menudo and began strategizing for his U.S. breakthrough nearly a decade ago with roles on General Hospital and in Broadway’s Les Miserables. ”I’ve been working nonstop since I was 12, and intensely for the last three years at least.” At the moment, as he lounges in a Minneapolis hotel suite before one of his 24 sold-out concerts, the hard work shows: A pimple betrays the stress; the voice is deceptively soft. But just one hour later, when he takes the stage at the Target Center, he shakes his bon-bon as if the future of humanity depended on it.

He opens the show by invoking the name of Venezuelan liberator Simon Bolivar: ”One of his dreams was to unite the Americas,” Martin tells the mostly (though not entirely) teenage crowd, ”and we’re going to do some of that tonight.” And this promise, above all else, is why Ricky Martin must hold the title of Entertainer of the Year, 1999.

Let it never be said that Martin pioneered a Latin-music invasion. While he did ignite the current boom (see also Jennifer Lopez, Enrique Iglesias, Marc Anthony, etc.), his particular fusion of mambo, salsa, and pop-rock has been done before by Gloria Estefan and many others. What sets Martin apart is his heartfelt mission: to shatter stereotypes of Latinos, specifically Puerto Ricans, who have been used as a punchline among white Americans for decades (Seinfeld’s Kramer, for one, famously destroyed a Puerto Rican flag for laughs).

”Whatever it is that I have to do to unite Puerto Rico or Latin America with the rest of the world, well, let’s go for it,” says Martin. The mission continues: Next summer he’ll begin work on another album—one that Sony’s CEO, Tommy Mottola, expects to be ”more progressive. He’ll want to try some things and evolve.” Eventually, Martin plans to make his way to Hollywood, though ”we’re not in a hurry,” says his manager Ricardo Cordero. ”We want to establish him as a singer, then we want to try the acting.”