By Alex Tresniowski
December 04, 2000 12:00 PM

Even a soaring pop star like Ricky Martin has to plummet back to earth occasionally. In October, for instance, while strapped to the back of a diving instructor during a tandem jump, Martin tumbled out of an airplane cruising 12,000 feet above New Zealand, where he was on tour. It was his first time skydiving, and before he was through, Martin took the plunge four times. “I loved it,” he says. “I love heights and I love to be in control, so I said, ‘Let’s go up and see how this feels.’ It’s the closest thing to flying; you have the sensation that you own the world.”

If anyone should know what that feels like, it’s Ricky Martin, the Puerto Rican heartthrob whose global conquest began at the 1999 Grammys with a passionate thrust of his pelvis. With astounding speed, Martin, now 28, sold 17 million copies worldwide of his self-titled first English-language album, detonated the lucrative Latin music explosion and pushed the phrase “Livin’ La Vida Loca” into the lexicon. Yet the guy had barely found a spot for his best Latin pop performance Grammy in 1999, when that September Chris Rock suggested at the MTV Video Music Awards that if Martin didn’t have another hit soon he’d be “Livin’ La Vida Broka.” Now that his new, much-anticipated follow-up, Sound Loaded (see review on page 49), and its steamy hit, “She Bangs,” are making cash registers ring, it’s a good time to wonder: Is the sexiest hip swiveler since Elvis here to stay or just another flash in the pants? “I don’t envy him because a lot of people are depending on him having another hit record,” says Billboard talent editor Larry Flick. “But I think Sound Loaded is probably the best record he’s ever done. He sounds a lot more confident.”

Certainly he doesn’t sound worried. “Everyone felt that pressure but me,” Martin says. “I don’t want to make my music into a science project, and I don’t want to compete against myself. This album was done by a completely different person. Spiritually speaking, I’ve grown.” Indeed, coping with the white-hot intensity of Rickymania, coupled with the experience of seeing the world while touring for 17 months straight, “has changed Ricky for the better,” says Emilio Estefan Jr., who produced several of Martin’s new songs and, with his wife, Gloria, is well-versed in the Latin music scene. “He’s so much more relaxed and appreciative about life now. And he knows what he wants.” Martin has his own take on how fame has transformed him: “I’ve become more stubborn. I know myself better. Before, I had the need to be liked by everybody. But now, if the phone is ringing, I’m not going to pick it up. And I’m going to feel good about it.”

Some of those calls are surely from reporters curious about Martin’s sexual orientation, which—since he refuses to confirm or deny rumors he is gay—remains a persistent part of his story. His standard response to inquiries suggests he’s comfortable appealing to gay and straight audiences alike. “I can’t get hung up on people whose lives are that empty,” he says. “I’m an artist and you can fantasize about me however you want.” That such a major star feels so little urgency to define his sexuality “is a major turning point” in pop culture history, according to Judy Wieder, editor-in-chief of The Advocate, the national gay magazine that featured Martin on its cover last year. “He’s responding without squelching the rumors or immediately running around with a woman. And it doesn’t seem to have impacted his sales at all.”

Most recently linked to Mexican TV presenter Rebecca de Alba, 31, Martin says they are now just friends and insists he isn’t seeing anyone else. Hypothetically speaking, though, “I would love to get married,” he says. “I would love to walk into my house and trip over a toy and have a bunch of kids running towards me saying, ‘Daddy, Daddy!'” Rosie O’Donnell, an unabashed admirer, says Martin “is amazing with children. We had a little Make-A-Wish girl in a wheelchair here when he was on the show [Nov. 24]. She was quite challenged, and he spent a lot of time with her. And he has all these nieces who are very close to him.” Actually, close isn’t the right word; Martin is plumb loco for his four nieces. “Three of them are 10 and one of them is 7,” he says. “I just sit in a chair and let them do anything they want to me. They pull my hair, they slap my face, they make fun of me. They are so beautiful. I miss them so much.”

For 10 years Martin also missed the love and company of his father, Enrique, 52, a San Juan psychologist. In 1985 Martin—whose parents split when he was 2—legally changed his name from Enrique Jose Martin Morales IV to Ricky Martin; that same year he moved out of his father’s house and went to live with his mother, Nereida Morales, now 54. The decisions caused a rift between father and son, who stopped speaking for a decade. Finally, in 1995, after the silence became unbearable, Ricky reached out and reconciled with his father. “It was hell,” Martin says of the estrangement. “I was in pain. If you think your parents are wrong, practice compassion and make amends. Now I talk to him a lot and it’s really cool. He’s retiring in December, and I want him to come on tour with us.” Martin has always been close to his mother, an accountant who along with Fernando Fernandez, 35, one of his two half-siblings, handles Martin’s finances; another brother, Angel Fernandez, 33, is his stage manager.

Ricky Martin, or “Kiki” as his relatives and close friends call him, was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Christmas Eve, 1971. Despite their divorce, both of his parents encouraged him to chase his dreams of performing. A veteran of 30 TV commercials, he was 12 when he landed a spot in the perpetually changing Latin boy band Menudo, a wild five-year ride that temporarily soured him on the music business and its controlling managers. Still, his two-year stint playing a sexy bartender on the soap General Hospital and his role as Marius in the Broadway musical Les Miserables in 1996 did not prevent him from returning to the music industry and launching a solo career. His fourth Spanish-language album, 1998’s Vuelve, featured the rousing anthem “La Copa de la Vida” (“The Cup of Life”), which Martin performed at that year’s World Cup soccer finals and at the Grammys the following year.

Ah, yes, Feb. 24,1999: the day Martin became a global phenomenon. His electrifying performance blew the doors off the Grammys and led jaded industry types such as Madonna to stand up and stomp wildly to his beat. “I’d seen one of his videos, and when we saw him at the Grammys I said to [my wife] Trudie, ‘You’re going to like this guy,’ ” remembers the singer Sting, who has since befriended Martin. “And, of course, she flipped. She was the one who led the charge to the stage.” Which, Sting says with a chuckle, “put me in a difficult position, since I’m supposed to be the sex god.” Trudie Styler admits that she “got caught up in the whole performance. But I looked over at Madonna and she was completely spellbound as well! He can really dance and really sing and he’s extremely handsome, which is a very lethal and winning combination. He really turned everyone on.”

That May, Martin released his first English-language album, Ricky Martin, and promptly embarked on a 17-month world tour that wrapped in October. Remarkably, he has remained not only a nice guy but the nicest guy-by most accounts. “I’ve never really heard him diss anybody,” says Rosie O’Donnell. “Like, ‘Oh, so-and-so is such an idiot.’ I’m guilty of that. But even when he’s tired, the guy is not grouchy, not angry, not mean. He sees the best in everyone.” Watching him interact with his worshipful fans reveals “a different sort of fanaticism than I normally see,” says Carson Daly, the host of MTV’s popular music video show Total Request Live, which has featured Martin as a guest several times. “Ricky is really hands-on with his fans. He walks up to them, puts his two hands right on the sides of their faces, brings his face close to theirs and kisses them on the forehead, almost like the Pope giving them his blessing. And they nearly faint. You just look at the girls’ faces and they are really losing it. It’s like Jesus Christ or Buddha walked up to them.”

Martin himself knows the power of that: Raised a Roman Catholic, he has been avidly practicing Buddhist rituals since a visit to Thailand three years ago. At least once a day, for anywhere from 20 minutes to several hours, he slips into the lotus position and practices Kriya yoga. “I just ask people, ‘Can I have 20 minutes for myself so I can just breathe?'” he says. “I turn off the radio and television and just sit there and breathe five seconds in, five seconds out. Just to find my center.”

Sometimes, though, things just find him. Take Gala, a stray Yorkie who recently followed Martin home while he was out for a stroll. Gala joined Icaro, a golden retriever, and Titan, a chihuahua, as Martin’s only roommates at his five-bedroom Mediterranean-style house in Miami Beach (he also owns an apartment in Los Angeles and a house in Puerto Rico). “I start making phone calls,” says Martin, recalling the day Gala joined the family, “and the guy [at the pound] says, ‘My friend, the dog is yours.’ But she was in heat, so now I have four dogs because she and the chihuahua got together. And the chihuahua was very happy.” Who says Martin doesn’t speak frankly about sex?

Aside from the new puppy, Martin has not acquired many new possessions since becoming a megastar. He furnished his Miami home with state-of-the-art recording equipment and kicked off a DVD collection (he has popped in one of his favorite flicks, Life Is Beautiful, more than 20 times). An enthusiastic surfer, Martin also splurged on a few new boards. But that’s about it. “I love shopping,” he says. “For clothes, for shoes, for watches. But I don’t really buy stuff for me. I buy stuff for other people.”

He does, however, indulge his wanderlust, relishing trips to his favorite destinations, India and Nepal. “I love Nepal because you can walk for miles and never get anywhere,” he says. “I go trekking in the mountains, and I will walk for seven days in a row. When I come back, people are like, What is it? Are you in love?'” Martin has spent the past three Christmases in the East, traveling with backup singers, dancers, makeup artists and any other friends who show an interest. This holiday, though, “I’m going alone,” he says. “I’ve not found anyone who wants to go with me.”

In truth, it’s hard to keep up with Ricky Martin. “He has more energy than anyone I know,” says songwriter Desmond Child, his friend and the coproducer of “Livin’ La Vida Loca” and “She Bangs.” “Maybe he’s flown 18 hours from Asia, but he comes in and sings vocals for 10 hours. He lives exclusively in the moment, and whatever he does, he gives 100 percent.” That need to feel his life, even as it spins wildly around him, is what led the singer to jump from an airplane—and to persuade his pals to jump too. “The next morning, the entire band and crew did it,” says Martin, flashing his famous, seductive grin. “And everybody was so happy afterwards. For me, I love the adrenaline. I guess I’m addicted to it. There’s this need to go places, emotionally speaking.”

Of course, following up on phenomenal accomplishments, Martin realizes, can be a tricky business. Now that he has tried skydiving “I am pretty much screwed,” he says. “What am I going to do next? Climb Everest?” Hey, he should feel right at home on top of the world.

Alex Tresniowski

Sue Miller in New York City