Gloria Estefan isn’t called the Queen of Latin Pop for nothing. Over three decades – and counting – she’s earned it.
Since needing a “Dr. Beat” to control her feet in the ’80s, then as part of Miami Sound Machine, Estefan has amassed seven Grammy awards and released 25 albums (selling over 90 million copies of them worldwide), spawning hits like “Conga,” “Reach” and “Rhythm is Gonna Get You” – which it did, many times over. And it will yet again with “Miss Little Havana,” her first English-language release since 2003 that returns to her Latin-dance roots with producer Pharrell Williams’ urban flair.
The album, though, isn’t just getting buzz for being her long-awaited comeback – but the way it’s being released. Estefan partnered with Target, known for its recent support of anti-gay politics, for the release of “Miss Little Havana” (it’s also available through iTunes). In this exclusive chat, the 54-year-old performer opened up about the deal, why she hopes you’ll give the corporation another chance and just how deep her everlasting love for the gay community goes.
Have you done an interview with gay press before?
Oh yes, many times. (Laughs) That’s my core audience. These are the people that broke me in a lot of clubs. My gay following has always been cutting edge in music and discovered my stuff before it ever became big on radio. The very first remix we did of “Dr. Beat” was done by a guy named Pablos Flores who became huge in the dance market after that, but he used to spin at a gay club in Puerto Rico and we found out he was a big fan. So they’ve always been a big part of my career.
Ever got down and done the conga in a gay club?
Not the “Conga,” because in that gay club we were unknown at that time, but I did a lot of dancing there in Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, for me, I haven’t been able to go to any clubs, period – gay or straight – because I’ve been working since I was 17 in a band, so usually I was the one performing when everyone else was having a good time. But I would love that – they’re the most fun clubs, I’m sure.
Who does a better conga – gay or straight men?
(Laughs) Are you kidding me? You’re actually asking that question? I mean, who dances better, period?!
When you look back at your career – the hair, the fashion, all of that – why do you think you make such a great drag queen?
I don’t know, but I got to tell you: I love it! Every time I see them, I say, “They do me much better than I do,” because I’m the reluctant diva. I didn’t like being the center of attention, but I had different looks that they were able to reenact – the one in the chaps and the “Mi Tierra” dress – and “Everlasting Love” celebrated all those different looks. I just feel fortunate that somebody would want to do me. (Laughs)
It’s been eight years since your last English-language studio album, “Unwrapped.” Why did you decide to step back from music and showbiz, and what prompted your return?
Well, stepping back was easy – I had (my daughter) Emily and I know how quickly time goes by. That’s why my last English album was in 2003 – then in 2007 we did “90 Millas” – and I purposefully only went out promoting in the summer when she was available to go with me, because she really loves school. My son wasn’t too fond of it, so I dragged him all over the world and he didn’t care. (Laughs)
I don’t like to just go into the studio to just go into the studio. I really want to have a musical idea, some creative spark that makes me excited about doing what I’m doing. Pharrell called me – he had written a song for me called “Miss Little Havana” – and he wanted to delve into that Hispanic world and even go further than he already has. It was really a very interesting idea. We clicked so well in the studio that I think this album is a real example of how much we clicked – creatively and on many levels.
After we had done the nine tracks with Pharrell, we took it to the club in the last four tracks with different remixers and producers that are on the cutting edge of the clubland side. I wanted to give fans not just the nine concept-y tracks that we did with Pharrell – although they didn’t start that way, there was a storyline I discovered after we finished the songs – and really take it to hardcore dance.
Zumba fanatics will love it.
(Laughs) While we were doing “Wepa,” Pharrell said, “You have to take it to all those Zumba clubs!” It’s so fast. It’s like a nuclear merengue with the urban sensibility from Pharrell and the drunk guy on trombone in the street festival, so we kept thinking, “They’re going to sweat to this one!”
You said your 2004 world tour would be your last. Have you changed your mind? Are you going to pull a Cher on us?
I don’t have a tour planned. What I’ve been doing is just going to places worldwide, little by little. And I’ll always do something. I never ever said that I was retiring. I said I was just going to stop doing those world tours and that was going to be the last one, and it did end up being that. You never say never, but I really don’t foresee doing that kind of thing again. I will do different, interesting and unique stuff, but it’s like boot camp for me. It’s hard on me.
Your song “Always Tomorrow” was a lifeline for so many people, especially your gay fans – including myself. How does it feel knowing that?
I love that. That’s one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written, so that makes me happy. You know, that was the idea. When I wrote that tune it was like a message of hope. I wanted to celebrate the hero in each of us and the fact that we can survive and be stronger. I’ve had fans tell me they were going to do themselves in and this song came on the radio and they felt better; they actually got through some really tough moments, so that to me is the best reason to do what I do – that I can somehow get into people’s brains and hearts that I may never meet, and get them through.
That’s what music was for me. I had a really tough time growing up and other people’s music got me through those moments, so it means a lot to me that that was good for you, as well.
It’s a song that so many gay kids who were bullied into suicide should’ve heard before they took their own life.
I know. I did a video message for the It Gets Better campaign and I talked about that – that when I was 15 I felt so overwhelmed and everything was so heavy on me that, believe me, I thought about it. Kids think that problems are going to last forever and they need to realize that life changes in a second. I can understand where they get overwhelmed, but we have a short enough time as it is on this earth without having to end it early.
Considering how Target has supported anti-gay candidates and indirectly anti-gay causes, there’s been much controversy in the gay community surrounding your partnership with them for the release of “Miss Little Havana.” What do you have to say to gay fans who might question your support for them?
To my gay fans, I would say this: Always go with your heart and do what you need to do, because I think that every human being needs to stand on principle. But I’ve got to tell you: I would never work with someone who is anti-gay.
I know that they donated to a third party who then donated to this candidate and – I did my homework – since then they donated $150,000 to that candidate. They apologized profusely for having done so, and they have established an actual committee that oversees all political donations to make sure that this doesn’t happen again. They’ve also donated a half-million dollars to LGBT organizations. They’re part of the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. They give domestic partner benefits. They have 300,000 employees that are from all walks of life, and it’s very important for them to be supportive. They’ve extended family medical leave benefits and adoption benefits to their gay employees. They’ve really supported very much their gay peeps.
Believe me, in my own life I’ve gone through a lot of these things. When I had Obama at my house, I got nailed by the Cuban community – even though I’m not affiliated politically. Sometimes the information you want to get out there doesn’t, because the first thing that blows up is what people hear.
So I will always respect what (my gay fans) want to do, but I have a long history with Target. I’ve put out my children’s book, we’ve done programs for the troops – they really have been very supportive, so I would say: Do some more research, check out what Target has done to make up for its gaffe – and they know it was a gaffe. It was lack of information, not knowing everything about everybody that your money goes to. I was actually very surprised when that whole Target thing happened, but I know how these things happen. I’ve been on other side of that. So give them another shot and if not, I respect very much whatever they may want to do or need to do to stand up for whatever principles they’re upholding.
I just want them to know that I’m so supportive of the LGBT community. They’ve been a big part of my success and they’ve always been there for me. I would not want to do anything that hurts them.
Your birthplace of Cuba has evolved a lot in the way it treats gay people. In the ’70s, many LGBT people were imprisoned simply for being gay. What do you remember it being like for gay people?
Well, I was a baby. I came over here when I was 18 months old, so I really have no real memories of Cuba. But I always stay on top of the news from Cuba and I know that Raul Castro’s daughter is gay and she’s trying to do a lot for that community, but Cuba in general – just that macho mentality – was tough even though it was one of the wildest places in the world. They’ve come a long way, but they did horrendous things when the AIDS epidemic came out. And since nobody has rights in Cuba, imagine the gays in Cuba – just regular schmoes have no rights and can be jailed at a moment’s notice, so they were very, very rough.
Do you think it’s harder for a Latino artist, Ricky Martin for instance, to be gay and out?
I think it’s harder for anyone, to be honest. Even though fortunately we are definitely moving forward – you see all these states where it’s becoming legal to marry your same-sex partner, as it should be everywhere – and we’re heading in the right direction. But you have to realize that even the Equal Rights Amendment only happened in 1972 (Editor’s note: It was never ratified), so we’re still trying to grow rights for everyone. I think it’s still tough because there’s still judgmental people, there’s still racism, there’s still homophobia. It’s a human condition. So as we become more and more educated and people become more open, it’s going to go in a positive direction.
So you’re a gay marriage supporter?
Of course I am. I think everyone should be able to marry who they love, and it just should be.
Do you think you would’ve had that mentality years ago, considering you grew up in a very Catholic-conservative home?
I did, and I don’t know if my mom – I think nowadays she would, because my mom has grown a lot, but my mom was also raised in a very restrictive atmosphere in Cuba. She has a lot of hardcore ideas. I’ve never talked to her about this, but she’s very supportive of all her gay friends, and sometimes I go into her house and I tell her it’s like “La Cage Aux Folles” – all her best friends are gay guys! (Laughs) They’re over there always taking care of her and being really sweet with her.
We’re very nurturing.
Hey, listen, the best son a mom could have is a gay son. They’re not going to leave you high and dry, and they always watch their mothers and take care of them very much.
Does that mean you’re going to have more kids until you get a gay one?
Me?! I can’t! Are you kidding me? I would love a grandkid. Listen, the president of my corporation is gay and I see how he is with his mom, and I have a lot of friends who are just fantastic sons.
Very nice to speak with you, Gloria.
Thank you so much. A pleasure as well. Tell all my gay fans I love them.