How Ricky Martin Became One of the Most Influential Artists in the World

It took him years before he was ready to present his true self to the world, but singer and activist Ricky Martin knew that sharing his story would help others who needed to hear they weren't alone.

By Natalie Finn Dec 25, 2021 2:00 AMTags
Watch: Enrique Iglesias & Ricky Martin Announce Joint Tour!

Ricky Martin would be the first to tell you, his vida had its share of loca over the years.

But these days, it's more about la vida inspiradora for the multi-talented entertainer, his husband and their four children.

"I want people to look at me and see a family and say, 'There's nothing wrong with that.' It's part of my mission," the Puerto Rican singer, who's celebrating his 50th birthday Dec. 24, told Out magazine in 2018. "It's part of my kids' mission as well. My kids ask me about having two daddies and I tell them we are a part of a modern family. This is a beautiful sense of freedom."

Martin started his family as a single dad back in 2008, welcoming twin sons Matteo and Valentino via a surrogate and proudly introducing them to the world on the cover of Vanity Fair Spain in 2012. Since meeting Swedish and Syrian artist Jwan Yosef, whom he quietly married in 2017, daughter Lucia was born in 2018 and son Renn arrived in 2019.

But while he's been a committed activist for years, advocating for HIV/AIDS patients, working to combat human trafficking, improving education for children in need around the globe, providing aid after natural disasters and much more, he spent most of his life hiding his real self from the world, afraid of how the truth would affect...

Pretty much everything he had going for him.

Ricky Martin Through the Years

"They would say to me, 'If you have a girlfriend, don't say so, because your fans are going to be disappointed.' Imagine if it had been a boyfriend!" Martin told Vanity Fair Spain in 2012. "This is the mentality I grew up with. I was onstage with Menudo since I was 12 years old. To us, the most successful one was the guy with the most fans. If you moved your hips and the girls screamed, you were getting it right. Who wouldn't want to be like Elvis or Jim Morrison!"

Long before he found solo pop stardom, first in the Latin music world in the early 1990s and then everywhere with mega-hits like "Livin' La Vida Loca" and "She Bangs," sending fans into a frenzy whether he was singing in English or Spanish, Martin successfully auditioned to join the Puerto Rican boy band Menudo when he was 12. Which means he hit puberty and came of age with all the attention he could handle—though in the 1980s, especially coming from a traditionally conservative and macho cultural background, no one needed to tell him that he should only pay attention to the female fans.

Not that he didn't enjoy that attention during his five years with Menudo (whose members, Martin included, competed over who could hook up with the most girls), followed by a role on a telenovela in which he played a member of a singing group, Muñecos de Papel, that also went on tour. He released his self-titled, Spanish-language debut album in 1991 and it was certified gold in four countries, including the United States.

Scott Gries/Getty Images

"Sexuality is one complicated thing," he reflected to People just a few months ago for its 2021 Pride issue. "It's not black and white. It's filled with colors. When I was dating women, I was in love with women. It felt right, it felt beautiful. You can't fake chemistry—the chemistry was there with them. I wasn't misleading anyone."

 He dated not just women, but "lots of women," he was sure to emphasize.

By the time he won his first Grammy in 1999, Best Latin Pop Performance for his platinum-selling Vuelve, he was in a committed relationship with TV presenter Rebecca de Alba and enjoying the greatest success of his career. And yet he was feeling control of his life slip through his hands.

"To a certain extent, being busy all the time meant that I didn't have to think about uncomfortable things," Martin wrote in his 2010 autobiography Me.  

Frank Micelotta/ImageDirect

Remembering that pivotal time, he told Variety last year, "I was sad. I was depressed. I would walk on stage to perform because that was the only way I could balance my emotion is to snap out of this heavy sadness that I was moving in. And then actually there came a moment that I said, ‘We need to stop. We need to stop the tour.'"

When his relationship with de Alba ended, he insisted that the public focus remain on his music, so he pointedly steered interviewers away from his personal life. (A 2000 sit-down during which Barbara Walters asked him why he just didn't clear up the rumors about his sexuality then and there—"I just don't feel like it," he told her—bothered him for years.) But that hardly stopped tabloids from printing whatever they wanted, and the stories usually involved other men.

"In truth, the problem was not so much that there were rumors going around about my sexuality," he wrote in Me. "The real problem was that I myself didn't know how I felt about the subject. Even though I had relationships with men after separating from my first love, I still was not ready to accept myself as gay. My moment had still not arrived, and even though we all know now that the rumors were based on truth, the reality was that in my mind it was still not a fact."

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Moreover, Martin described, he thought that if he came out, "something bad, something truly terrible would happen."

By the late 1990s, the world was changing, but not fast enough for Martin to have missed the days of rampant homophobia—some of which he participated in, admitting to GQ Australia in 2013 that earlier in his life he had bullied gay people, in part because he was so upset by his own feelings that, try as he might, he couldn't make go away.

"I was very angry, very rebellious," he told the publication. "I used to look at gay men and think, I'm not like that, I don't want to be like that, that's not me. I was ashamed. When you're told you're wrong by everyone, from society, from your faith—my self-esteem was crushed. I took my anger out on those around me."

And he used to think, as he recalled in his book, "What could have been more difficult than being Latino and gay" in Hollywood?

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His moment finally came in 2010 when he was 38 years old and the father of two children who deserved a dad who was open, honest and proud to show the world who he really was.

"The word 'happiness' takes on a new meaning for me as of today," he wrote in a statement posted to his website, having discussed his plan first with his parents and his inner circle, all loved ones who fully supported his decision. "It has been a very intense process. Every word that I write in this letter is born out of love, acceptance, detachment and real contentment. Writing this is a solid step towards my inner peace and vital part of my evolution.

"I am proud to say that I am a fortunate homosexual man. I am very blessed to be who I am."

Leo Marinho / Splash News

While "intense journey" may have been putting it mildly, considering the fear, confusion and self-loathing he had to overcome on the way to accepting his truth, his true fans barely batted an eye, just happy that their heartthrob sounded so happy. He wrote in Me that, while he knew he was among the lucky ones, his coming out experience had been "only positive and empowering."

Then it was back to the life of your average global-celebrity dad, walking the tricky balance between being newly open about his sexuality but also still fiercely protective of his family's privacy. He focused on parenting Matteo and Valentino, fell in and out of love a few times before finding lasting happiness with Yosef (whom he exchanged messages with for six months before they met in person), and started advocating for LGBTQ+ rights in his native Puerto Rico. 

"If I have the platform that social media has given me to talk to 75 million people, it would be horrible not to talk about the things that people need to hear," he told Out last year.

Martin announced the birth of Renn, his fourth child, while accepting the Human Rights Campaign's National Visibility Award for his years of good work in 2019. "I love you," he told Yosef, adding, "My beautiful twins, Valentino and Matteo, they're also here. I love you with all my heart, you're my strength, you inspire me every day, you motivate me to keep doing what I'm doing and you guys are amazing kids."

He continued, "I love you. Lucia, my baby girl who is not here with us, she stayed at home with Grandma, but she's also the light of my life."

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Having defied all of his own doubts and fears, Martin has proved a beacon to countless people, especially among the Latinx LGBTQ+ community, many members of which may have come from a religious or cultural background that has historically been slow to accept same-sex marriage and other nontraditional-by-way-of-the-Bible families.

"Today I woke up to this beautiful headline that I know someone out there is in need of," Martin told Rolling Stone last year, recalling the extra motivation he needed to come out, which was that surely someone else could benefit from hearing his story. "The headline was something like, 'I came out. And ever since I've been the happiest.' Something like that, something… My heart is beating faster because I know today a kid somewhere in America woke up needing to hear those words."

That being said, he knew from personal experience that you can't (or at least you really shouldn't) pull someone out of the closet before they're ready.

"It's something that needs to come from within," he explained. "Every time someone forces someone to come out, what you're doing is you're destroying the natural flow of the self-discovery."

Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Rihanna's Savage X Fenty Show Vol. 3 Presented by Amazon Prime Video

And he'll never forget what he and his fellow members of the LGBTQ+ community have gone through to get to this imperfect but infinitely better-than-it-was moment in history.

When he played the role of the titular fashion designer's partner in The Assassination of Gianni Versace, Martin told Out in 2018, "For many months in this series, I kind of went back into the closet. They were not completely out. The fear of being seen holding hands in the streets is not an issue for me anymore, but I relived all of that, and it kinda set me back and gave me a lot of discomfort. But I was playing a part, and I used it. I used that anger and I used that frustration." 

Getting ready to release his 11th studio album, Play, and tour with Enrique Iglesias, Martin told People in June that he's more comfortable than he's ever been in his own skin and, who knows, if it happened now, maybe he would've given Barbara Walters the scoop she so desired.

"It would've been great because when I came out, it just felt amazing," he explained. "When it comes to my sexuality, when it comes to who I am, I want to talk about what I'm made of, about everything that I am. Because if you hide it, it's a life-or-death situation."

(Originally published Oct. 9, 2021, at 3 a.m. PT)