August 11, 2003 12:00 PM

When Thalía, Mexico’s singularly named Latin pop and TV soap queen, wed music mogul Tommy Mottola in New York City two years ago, thousands of fans thronged Fifth Avenue not to ogle guests such as Jennifer Lopez, Michael Jackson, Ricky Martin, Bruce Springsteen and Robert De Niro, but to cheer the bride. “It was such a surprise,” she says. “They had signs saying, ‘Thalía We Love You!’ Some of them flew in from Brazil, from Spain, from everywhere.”

Which precisely pinpoints Thalía’s fan base: everywhere but here. Not satisfied with an audience that includes most of the Spanish-speaking world, Thalía, 31, has now set her sights on the U.S. pop charts with her self-titled English debut album, as well as her own apparel line (see box). “It’s going to be great!” says Thalía, whose accented English—she began studying it four years ago—fails to dampen her bubbly enthusiasm. “Before, I wasn’t too confident in my English. Now I feel like so happy. I feel perfect.”

“She really wants this in a big way,” says producer Cory Rooney (J.Lo, Destiny’s Child), one of several top-rank collaborators enlisted to navigate Thalía’s crossover attempt. “And anything she’s really, really determined to do, she ends up doing.”

It’s a determination forged by early trauma. Born Ariadna Thalía Sodi Miranda in Mexico City, the youngest of five daughters of Yolanda Miranda, a housewife, and Ernesto Sodi, a famed Mexican criminologist and forensic pathologist, she was 5 when her beloved father died. “I didn’t talk for one whole year,” says Thalía. “Then my mother said, ‘Look, baby, we’re just girls in this house. We are in a society of men. You have to be stronger than them. You have to have a man’s heart in you.'”

Inspired by her actress sister Laura Zapata, Thalía pursued her own dreams of stardom, joining a kiddie pop band at 9 and earning fame as a star of the hit Latin teen group Timbiriche. At 17, she appeared in her first soap opera; she later starred in a wildly popular trilogy of soaps or telenovelas that her producers claim have been seen in syndication by 1 billion people in 180 countries. These days she shares homes in Miami Beach and Manhattan with Mottola, 55, whose five-year marriage to Mariah Carey ended in divorce in 1998.

But Thalía’s idyllic life turned nightmarish last year when Zapata and another sister were kidnapped and held for ransom in Mexico City. They were later freed unharmed, and three suspects believed connnected to the kidnapping were arrested in April. “I’m very thankful,” Thalía says of the ordeal’s bloodless resolution. “Millions of people prayed for us.”

Now, as she prepares a world tour to promote her new album, Thalía says it’s time to pay back fans for all the success she’s enjoyed. “So many people have opened their hearts for me, now I want to make them dance, be happy and have a good time.”

Steve Dougherty

K.C. Baker in New York City