Charles E. Cohen
April 22, 1991 12:00 PM

It’s 10:30 P.M. in the VIP lounge of L.A.’s Roxbury nightclub, and all eyes are on the guy with the bandanna partially covering his long, jet-black hair. His leather jacket, with the words LATIN TILL I DIE on the back, is open to expose his shirtless torso, and his tight-as-a-tamale blue jeans hang suggestively low in front. Two young women saunter by, pausing just long enough to plant kisses on his cheeks. He crams a hand into a pocket to pull out a crumpled napkin someone has given him at the bar. “She says she remembers me from a long time ago,” he says, eyeing the name and number written on it. “I don’t really remember her.”

Who can blame him? Now that his sexy bilingual single, “Rico Suave,” is No. 7 on Billboard’s pop charts, Gerardo Mejia—known to his fans simply as Gerardo—would need an elephant’s memory to keep tabs on the women buzzing around him. The song’s hypnotic video, an MTV fave, features gyrating, shirtless Gerardo stroking the legs of women and mouthing lyrics like “We’ll be back early/ Five, six, or seven in the morning/ Your daughter is in good hands.” The chorus, “rico, suave”—which Gerardo translates as “smooth and tasty”—is delivered in a rich, insinuating Spanish accent and is in danger of becoming a catchphrase of the moment, this season’s “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”

The 25-year-old native Ecuadoran, who embarks on a 35-city tour this summer and will appear April 22 as a teenage Casanova in an NBC teen romance movie For the Very First Time, claims—in all seriousness—that the song was not his gift to women. “‘Rico Suave’ was written mainly for the Spanish male,” he says. “We’re the Latin lovers!”

Born in Guayaquil, Gerardo moved with his family to Glendale, Calif., in 1976. Two years later, they moved to Walnut, about an hour cast of L.A. Gerardo says he was just a typical suburban kid, taking home badminton trophies and doing well enough in high school—until the summer before his senior year. “Then I got wild,” he says. “It all started happening, the women and stuff. I didn’t want to deal with books.” Still. Gerardo managed to graduate and planned on becoming an accountant like his father, until he started winning dance contests at local clubs. “He came to me and said, ‘I want to dance,’ ” Gerardo Sr. recalls. “I said, ‘You want to dance?’ ”

After winning both the Dance Fever and Solid Gold contests in 1985, Gerardo found an agent, but one of the first casting directors to approach him wasn’t interested in his dance moves. “He asked me if I had ever acted before,” says Gerardo. “So I lied, of course, and said, ‘Yeah, I’ve done lots of acting.'” His reward was a small part as a tough motorcyclist in Winners Take All, a 1987 movie. That same year, he played a football player in the teen flick Can’t Buy Me Love, with Patrick Dempsey, which led to the bigger role of Bird, the gang member who kills Robert Duvall in Dennis Hopper’s 1988 movie, Colors. “I heard through the grapevine that [Hopper] was going through the streets looking for real gang members,” says Gerardo. “So I went to the audition like I was some guy off the street and scared the crap out of them.”

Offscreen Gerardo sang for a while with a reggae band but soon returned to Spanish-influenced rap. He put $9,000 of his movie earnings into the video demo tape of “Rico Suave.” Then, last August, a recording engineer passed along an audio demo to song producer Michael (Flashdance) Sembello, who helped Gerardo land a recording contract a month later. His album, Mo’Ritmo (ritmo means rhythm), was released in January.

Gerardo’s aversion to shirts, he insists, is not a Hollywood put-on. “Believe it or not, I’ve dressed like this for the last three years,” he says. “That’s my look.” (He does throw on a tank top for dinner, “out of respect for my parents,” he says.)

Gerardo says his life hasn’t changed much in the past few months. He still lives with his folks, in his old bedroom, and he says he is still afraid to ask women to dance. “I get so depressed when they say no,” he explains. And he still doesn’t have a girlfriend—well, not one, anyway. “My mother’s very protective,” he says. “I bring girls over, and they’re always trying to be nice to her. But when she sees someone too often, she starts giving them looks. I’m like. ‘Mom, be nice!’ ”

—Charles E. Cohen, Andrew Abrahams in Walnut

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