The cover star of PEOPLE's second annual Pride Issue, the King of Latin Pop — back with a new album — says he's "more comfortable in his own skin than ever before"

By Jason Sheeler
June 02, 2021 08:00 AM
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Ricky Martin is busy. At home, he's a husband, married to the Syrian-Swedish artist Jwan Yosef since 2017. He's a dad, with four kids under the age of 13. There's a new album out soon — Play, his eleventh — after 70 million records sold. (The first single drops June 10.) Now 49, he promises the new album is filled with up-tempo, danceable songs, and let's be honest, don't we all need to dance to Ricky Martin right now? "Especially during Pride!" Martin — who covers this week's issue of PEOPLE — agrees. In the fall, he'll tour with Enrique Iglesias. And he says no slow songs there either. 

It's been over two decades since Ricky Martin arrived into American pop culture, Venus in leather pants on a clamshell. An approachable raconteur, he shook up the American pop establishment at the 1999 Grammy Awards with a thrust of his hips, a wave of his hands, and the invincible chorus of "Livin' La Vida Loca" pulsing at 180 beats per minute. Women wanted him. Men wanted him. Madonna wanted him. (They recorded a duet.)

"But I'm really insecure, to be honest," Martin admits, getting comfortable in his chair in a Los Angles hotel suite last month. He fiddles nervously with the hem of his silk shirt. "I'm super socially awkward but today, well the difference is that I know I'm socially awkward. So, I don't go anywhere that causes me anxiety. I'm at peace with performing in front of 30,000 people and feel like the king of the world. But then I walk into a small room at an intimate gathering, and someone will say, 'Hey Rick, sing a song for us!' and that creates such anxiety." 

Watch the full episode of People Cover Story: Ricky Martin on PeopleTV.com or on the PeopleTV app.

ricky martin
Ricky Martin
| Credit: Matthew Brookes

Until he came out in 2010, anxiety was part of his daily routine. He'd been a child performer, moving from local commercials in Puerto Rico to Menudo, the phenomenally successful boy band, in 1984. Throughout the '90s and 2000s, he dated women publicly and at times men privately. 

"A lot of people have said, 'Rick, you were trying to prove yourself, because of fame and being a sex symbol.' Well yeah, it could be. I don't know. Everyone knows you don't have to be a gay man to know that love is complicated. Or to know how confusing attraction can be." Before he came out, he was confused, he says. "Am I gay? Am I bisexual? Am I confused? What am I?'" Then, he mostly dated women. "Lots of women," he corrects. (He dated the TV presenter Rebecca de Alba for seven years, from 1995 to 2002.) 

"Sexuality is one complicated thing," he says. "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."

ricky martin
Ricky Martin
| Credit: Matthew Brookes

Still, rumors persisted about his sexuality. Like a lot of LGBTQ people, an unspoken question — "Are you…?" — hovered in the air all the time, in every interaction. Sometimes anticipated, sometimes inferred, sometimes imagined, sometimes self-interrogated, it was just there — an invisible cinderblock teetering on the edge, ready to fall.

Martin lived with the question until he was 29. Then, in 2000, Barbara Walters asked it on national television. This was a year after the radio dominance of "Livin' La Vida Loca" and 10 years before he came out publicly on his website. "You could stop these rumors," Walters implored. "You could say, 'Yes I am gay or no I'm not.'" Martin was visibly stunned. He finally retreated, answering with "I just don't feel like it." 

Listen to more of PEOPLE's Pride cover story interview with Ricky Martin below on our daily podcast PEOPLE Every Day.

He says the moment still haunts him. "When she dropped the question, I felt violated because I was just not ready to come out. I was very afraid." Martin's entire body shifts. He clears his throat and takes a deep breath. "There's a little PTSD with that."

"A lot of people say, what would you do differently?" He wonders too. "Well, maybe I would have come out in that interview. It would've been great because when I came out, it just felt amazing. 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."

ricky martin
Ricky Martin
| Credit: Matthew Brookes

LGBTQ mentorship was lacking in Martin's adolescent years and he thinks about it a lot.

"There are many, many kids out there that don't have someone to look up to. All they have around them is people telling them, 'What you're feeling is evil.'" He pauses. "But, you can't force someone to come out. But if you have an egg and you open it from the outside, only death comes out. But if the egg opens up from the inside, life comes out."

For more from Ricky Martin on the cover of PEOPLE, pick up our Pride Issue, on newsstands everywhere Friday.