Superstar Status, Humanitarian Heart
Gloria Estefan shares with A&U’s Dann Dulin how she pushed on the limits of modern medicine, her belief in the power of positive thinking, and her prescription for HIV prevention for the Gen Y and Latin Communities.
Gloria Estefan is no Diva. Though encircled by her lively entourage, including a hair stylist, makeup artist, personal assistants, and a film crew, as soon as her eye catches me entering her Beverly Hills Hotel cabana, she abruptly tears herself away. Bounding toward me, Gloria extends her hand and says warmly, “Hi, so very nice to meet you. I’m sorry that I’m running late.” She invites me to the private terrace where she will conduct two short TV interviews. Before the cameras roll, Estefan is concerned that I have a seat. She’s friendly and gracious to everyone. Watching Gloria during the tapings, she radiates honesty, humility, intelligence, and passion. One interviewer even asks her to repeat her answers directly in Spanish, and Gloria changes gears with ease and composure. Afterwards, I touch her shoulder and say, “Now you can relax?” thinking she had to be “on” for the camera. Surprised by my comment, she politely, yet assuredly responds matter-of-factly, “Oh, no. I am relaxed.” Gloria?s a no-bull kind of woman—secure and comfortable in her own skin.
As I set up for the interview in the living room of her lavish Mediterranean-style bungalow, I flashback to November 1999 when I first contacted her for an interview. It’s been a long road, which included three polite and thoughtful rejection letters from her longtime manager due to scheduling conflicts. Finally, just a month ago, an interview date was set in Miami (her home)—airline tickets purchased, etc.—but several days prior to my departure, Gloria had to cancel. Feeling bad about it, Gloria offered to pay for my flight and invited me to partake in an upcoming “media day,” to promote her long awaited, personal album, Unwrapped. Unfortunately, I developed an infected tooth and couldn’t accept! Weeks later, her friendly and efficient assistant, Zeida, called and said excitedly, “Gloria’s going to be in L.A. for a few days, can you see her then?!” Here I am.
As I collect my thoughts, Gloria walks in from the terrace and sits down next to me on the large comfy sofa. Behind us stands an extraordinarily huge floral arrangement set in a faux Romanesque ceramic urn, the kind you usually see in the lobby of a five-star hotel. Gloria is clad in a casually elegant outfit—a long, black skirt with four-inch black boots, and a cobalt blue long-sleeve t-shirt. Her beautiful flowing locks are in ringlets, bouncy and shiny. There is an unusual motif on the shirt, and she later explains that it was designed by Carlos Betancourt (who also created the artwork for Unwrapped) and is the Taino symbol, which represents Cuban Indians. At forty-six, Gloria has a youthful glow, a spirited personality, and is poised and centered. And yes, she is short!
The five-time Grammy Award winning singer, songwriter, and actress (1999’s Music of the Heart with Meryl Streep), Estefan has been an AIDS activist from the start, participating in such benefits as LIFEbeat’s Beat Goes On II, and the New York Toys ‘R’ Us Event (to help HIV-positive kids, and babies affected by crack cocaine). She has participated in the Miami AIDS Walk, and has shot several PSAs. Gloria and her husband of twenty-five years, Emilio, are co-chairs of Miami?s Community Alliance Against AIDS, which provides care to people with HIV and AIDS, and educates youth about prevention. Her other humanitarian interests include anti-violence campaigns, arts education, child welfare, American Red Cross, United Way, and paralysis research (she is chairwoman for the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis). In 1992, the Estefans staged a concert that raised $3 million to help South Florida residents who were devastated by Hurricane Andrew.
“I’ve lost a lot of friends to AIDS. It?s been tough. We do as much as we can,” she says demurely then adds, “When a hospital needed a specific machine for the Pediatric AIDS unit, my foundation bought one.” Since 1997, The Gloria Estefan Foundation reaches out to those who struggle outside the safeguards of society by promoting education, good health, and cultural development. “It’s important to keep talking about AIDS. What happens is that with new medications extending life, young people tend to forget the dangers and they are loose on protection. Miami’s Community Alliance Against AIDS keeps awareness out there. It?s so important.”
Gloria practices what she preaches. At home, she maintains open lines of communication with her children, Emily, nine, and her son, Nayib, twenty-three, a filmmaker. Nayib recently completed a documentary of his mother putting together her CD, Unwrapped—a musical photo album of her life that was inspired by the five-year hiatus from her career in order to hang with her family. (For the first time in all of her twenty-two albums, Gloria wears the producer’s hat. She wrote most of the songs and the introspective soulful/pop CD features duets with Stevie Wonder and Chrissie Hynde.) “When Magic Johnson came out, we were in Australia and Nayib was about eleven. He started asking questions about AIDS, so I took the opportunity to talk to him about condoms. We had already had the talk about sex so that was already under the belt. After the conversation, I went to take a shower. I guess he had been a little embarrassed to ask more questions then, so he sat on the toilet, like being in a confessional, and said, ‘Mom, you said to ask you more questions?’ And then he laid into me with questions like you would not believe. I was sweatin’ there in the shower!” she exclaims, recalling the incident.
“But I’ve always been very honest and normal about these things because it’s important. I said to him, “‘Fatherhood is a responsibility of yours—don’t ever leave it up to only the girl. Because regardless of whether you love this woman or not, that baby is going to be yours and you’re gonna have to take care of it. It’s going to be your family for the rest of your life.'”
Along with pregnancy, Gloria made sure that her son understood that disease can also be a by-product of an intimate relationship. “If you don’t take care of yourself on a wild night—you’ve had a couple of drinks, you’re not worried about anything—that night can come back to haunt you. And you will have to deal with it. It’s a choice you make. It’s always a choice. Don’t ever blame it on anything else, like, the liquor, a drug, that night, another person. No. You have to make the choice before you get into that situation,” she emphasizes.
At that moment, as if on cue, Emily and Emilio enter, laden with packages, apparently returning from a shopping spree. Gloria sweetly shouts “hi” to Emily and informs Emilio, “We’re doing an interview.” An enthusiastic Emily darts toward Gloria to show the boxed shoes they bought for her Las Vegas appearance (Gloria replaced Celine Dion for one week in October), but daddy sweeps Emily along. “I can’t wait to see them,” Gloria asserts. “You’ll show me right when I’m done. All right, baby?” Emilio apologizes for interrupting, then he and Emily depart. “She’s so good. She’s really a joy,” Gloria boasts, as she scoots forward on the sofa. (Gloria wrote the song You for her daughter, which is on the new album.) “AIDS or sex hasn’t come up yet. Believe me, once she has any curiosity about it, I will most definitely deal with her as well. She’s very mature and responsible, so I know that that conversation will go a long way. I think women tend to grow up a little faster.”
Cuban-born and Miami-raised, Glorita (as her dad called her) was just two-and-a-half when her mother and father fled Cuba on one of the last freedom flights. Shortly afterwards, her father, Jose Fajardo, returned to Cuba as a freedom fighter in the Bay of Pigs invasion. He was captured and jailed in Havana. After his release, he returned to Miami, enlisted in the American Armed Forces and fought in Vietnam. After the war, Jose became seriously ill from the effects of Agent Orange, and was confined to a wheelchair.Gloria, eleven at the time, took care of her ailing father, even picking him up when he failed to remember that he couldn’t walk. She also looked after her younger sister, Rebecca, while her mother taught elementary school.
Music was Gloria’s escape, and singing in her bedroom kept her sane. Music was a staple in her life. Even as a baby, her mother would sing to her as she changed her diapers. Gloria’s father was later hospitalized and diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Gloria was devastated. In 1978, Gloria graduated summa cum laude from University of Miami with a major in psych, and married Cuban-born bandleader, Emilio, whom she met several years prior at a wedding where he was playing. Emilio coaxed a shy Gloria to join his band, The Miami Sound Machine (formerly called the Miami Latin Boys but renamed after she joined), pushed her to center stage, and boosted her confidence (think Karen Carpenter, who is also one of Gloria’s all time favorite singers, hiding behind those drums). In another interview, upon meeting Gloria, Emilio has said, “She was sad because of her father. The only moments I saw her happy was when she sang. Her eyes would come alive.” In 1980, after years of sickness, Gloria’s father died at home. Near the end of his life, he barely recognized the daughter who cared for him.That same year, Nayib was born, and the Miami Sound Machine signed their first record contract.
In 1990, at the peak of her career, a road accident nearly claimed Gloria’s life. Her tour bus collided with a semitrailer on a snowy Pennsylvania highway. She was paralyzed from her injuries. It was an arduous road to recovery, including an operation to place two steel rods into her spine, and a yearlong agonizing physical rehabilitation.
Throughout her recovery, memories of her father flooded Gloria’s mind and of her experiences having a terminally ill person in the home. Even though she believes that she gained strength from that experience and that strength aided her in her own recovery, Gloria didn’t want to burden her own family. Her prognosis was very bad. The doctor confided to her: “This is definitely what medicine says, but as a human being, I’m now going to tell you that I think it’s up to you. Depending what you decide will be the outcome.” Gloria was determined to do the maximum in terms of healing to regain her independence and to save her family the pain of caring for her. She tried practically everything, including alternative medicine to heal herself. She took herbs, received massages, meditated, ate healthy, and so on. “I’m a very independent person, and people had to sit me up, lay me down, turn me, and it was like, how am I going to get through this?! Thanks to my husband, who was incredible. He would have to walk me, since I couldn’t walk by myself. And I couldn’t sleep for more than forty-five minutes because the pain was really bad. Emilio would be up every several hours to comfort me,” Gloria says reverently, then declares, “I almost threw a party four months later when I put my underwear on myself. I wanted to celebrate!”
Estefan spent five to six hours a day in rehab. “I would talk to myself daily into getting up and moving those extra five feet because the next day it’d be harder. It’s a process. It’s not easy. You just stick with it. You get down, you cry. It comes to the point where you say, Okay, I got it out, I cried, but now I’ve got to go forward. You have to move ahead,” attests Gloria, “How can I make this better? You take it one day at a time.” She thinks a moment and with a measure of self-assurance continues: “Had it worked out another way, then I would have played sports in a wheelchair or have done my writing. I would have kept going. I’m a person that always looks forward. But I tried as hard as I could.”
But Gloria triumphed. Today, her doctor is dumbfounded. “My doctor still believes it was miraculous, since they said I?d never walk again. He says, ‘I operated on you! I saw what was there.’ Two girls were in rehab with me who had the exact same thing wrong with them, and they are still in wheelchairs. All my life I had that fear because of my dad being in a wheelchair. But I always had the feeling it’s going be okay, plus I’ve been a little physic here and there. That?s all I kept thinking ‘I’m gonna be fine. It has to be.'”
What advice would she give someone who is facing a medical challenge? “First of all, medicine is in its infancy, so you take it with a grain of salt. Thoughts create reality and we have amazing powers to heal ourselves. Every seven years, every single cell in your body is totally new and different. What does that mean? With meditation and conscious awareness you can steer yourself. You can affect your health in a negative way or in a positive way. If you’re not going to be smart enough to say I’m tired, I need to rest, your body will zap you down and make you sick. It’ll give you what you need,” explains Gloria resting her head on her hand, with an elbow on her knee. “If you’re ill, you go inwards—it doesn’t mean you don’t take medicine, you do—but you can accelerate the healing. Sometimes if you are strong enough in your thought processes, you can replace a lot of medications. Don’t fall into the trap of believing what they tell you is the status quo.”
“I learned that we all have amazing discipline, each of us, whether we know it or not. I learned to have patience with myself, and about the incredible power of prayer. I could feel it around me. The response was worldwide. I received tens of thousands of cards and letters,” she says elatedly. “People were on their knees praying in the lobby of the hospital. I could feel it as a physical energy around me, and I sucked it in. I meditated and used it in my recuperation. I’m a cynic; I need some kind of proof. So many people wanted to help. I saw the goodness in people. The outpouring of love was great. It?s as close as you could be to seeing your own funeral, quite honestly. And I read every letter and card. It was beautiful.”
The effects of this unfortunate event are evident today. “It’s very hard to stress me out, quite honestly. It’s all relative,” she says sternly with commitment. “When I compare any problem I may have—career or life—to starting over from scratch, what it took to get past something like that, it doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t. I think, Why am I going to get upset about this little problem?! This is nuts. This is nothing. I can walk, I can talk, get up and get water. I can run. I can make music. I wouldn’t want to go through it again,” she says with deadpan humor then reveals in a solemn mode, “but I would not change it.”
Death has clouded Gloria’s life many times over the years. How does she deal with the pain of loss? “I feel that death is a transition and you are simply growing into a different experience. We may not be able to communicate with the tuning in [device] that we have right now, though some people can and psychics too can pick it up. It’s like tuning in a radio, if you don’t have a radio that can tune into a certain station, you won’t pick up the information. When people pass on to a different realm, it’s a growing experience, an evolution,” she states. “I focus and say, This person is out of life temporarily but at some point we’ll meet up again. I really do believe that. It’s not the end. For them it’s a new beginning, and somehow you will meet up again in a different place.”
To Gloria, one’s concept of an afterlife depends upon the belief system or religion in which one was raised. “Like I said before, thoughts create reality. After death, you go into a different experience perhaps you are still in this physical cycle and you may come back; perhaps you don’t. I certainly don’t know. To me, our soul is like a tree,” she explains. “The roots are having a different experience than the leaves but it’s still a part of that tree. Perhaps this life is one leaf on that tree, and simultaneously you’re having many experiences as part of that soul. And your soul memory is attached to God and everything. Time is just an illusion; in fact, there’s a song on the current album about time (Time Waits). Time could be existing parallel, or whatever.” She throws her hands up.
Another song, a #1 hit, Coming Out of the Dark from her 1991 album, Into The Light, co-written by Gloria, Emilio, and Jon Secada (A&U December 2000) was meaningful to many PWAs and others too. Estefan sang this ballad on The American Music Awards, her first appearance since her accident:
Though life is never easy the rest in unknown
Up to now for me it’s been hands against stone
Spent each and every moment
Searching for what to believe
Coming out of the dark, I finally see the light now
It’s shinning on me
Coming out of the dark, I know the love that saved me
You’re sharing with me.
“A lot of my seriously ill friends listened to it and it gave them strength,” she says.
“For me, music can change things. I always consciously think about that when I’m writing. In some way, I want to empower the person that’s listening or let them express themselves emotionally because that’s what music did for me when I couldn’t do it. This is the best thing about what I do.” Gloria pauses to think of more AIDS-related songs that she has been associated with. “Oh, several years ago, Liza [Minnelli] called me at home. She was at the studio recording a song for an AIDS charity. She asked me to write Spanish lyrics for it. I did, talked her through pronunciation, and she recorded it on the spot. I have a Spanish heart, and an American head,” she says proudly.
As a role model for Latinos, and a trailblazer for performers like Christina Aguilera, Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony, and Shakira, Estfan has been instrumental in introducing Latin music to a worldwide audience. She has successfully promoted AIDS awareness in the Latino community, as well. “I’ve done PSAs in Spanish where I talk about HIV and advise the parents to talk to their kids. Education is the number tool in the fight against AIDS, and we need to start early so that this awareness becomes a part of their lifestyle.”
Unfortunately, there has been a rise of HIV infection in the Latin community. How can she address this? “It’s probably because we don’t like to talk about it,” she says in a straightforward manner. “Hispanics, they love having relationships! They’re sensual; they’re sexual but talking about it, that’s tough. Parents don’t talk to their kids early enough. A lot of guys venture out and don’t let their families know what they’re involved in, so they can’t talk to them even if they wanted to,” she notes. “Then there’s a lot of embarrassment about it. It’s a culture thing. Information is a big part of AIDS prevention, and the macho mentality gets in the way. Information is the only tool. Fortunately, as generations go by, we tend to get more into the melting pot and become more apart of the American culture thus weakening that macho mentality. People like us, who are bicultural and bilingual, we deal with our kids differently than our parents did. My mother would have never talked to me about any of that. She’s still embarrassed about it. I kid her like crazy and make her very uncomfortable.”
Yikes, the interview is coming to a close, and I feel as though I didn?t get enough of Gloria Estefan. It?s nearly 10 p.m, and although her day has included an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and numerous other interviews—even now a wardrobe fitting beckons her in another room—Gloria gently escorts me to the door. “Hopefully they’ll soon be a cure. And once there is a cure you will see cures for other diseases like multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s—anything that is neuron-related.” Because of her celebrity, Gloria feels it is her responsibility to use the media attention for the public good. She uses her platform wisely. Bidding farewell with gratitude, Gloria sums up: “It’s imperative that we continue the dialogue about AIDS, especially with the younger generation.”
Gloria is preserved (her likeness) both in wax, and in concrete: at London’s Madame Tussaud’s, and on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Where is you favorite place to disappear to? Where do you go to recharge your batteries?
Our beach house. It’s very private. It’s a couple of hours north of Miami, right on the Treasure Coast. We found it about a year and an half ago. The whole family meets there and spends quality time with each other. We’re either at the beach or in the pool all day. [She ponders.] And we have great dinners together!
When they make a movie of your life, whom would you like to play Gloria Estefan?
I hope I’m not around. I’ll be dead, so who cares?!
Out of the many people you have met, is there one in particular who stands out who impressed you or inspired you the most?
[She thinks.] That?s difficult. Meryl Streep.
What would you most like to change about yourself?
I wouldn’t mind having a little more torso. Taller, maybe, even though I have long legs. Not that I feel short but apparently to everyone I go by, they say, ?She?s so tiny! She?s so tiny!?
On Connie Francis with whom she is co-writing a screenplay about Connie’s life, and who also will portray her in the movie:
Connie is a brilliant lady—so funny and so much to offer. I want her in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I?ve been working with her for two years now. She had the best contracts in Hollywood at that time. What an amazing businesswoman, and an amazing person.
Gloria gives her reaction to these people who have touched her life
Ricky Martin: sexy, and very spiritual
Mandy Moore: so cute, young, fresh, smart
Enrique Iglesias: very loving, warm, and a flirt
Shakira: incredible energy, talented writer, consummate performer
Celia Cruz: the most remarkable human being I?ve ever met, quite honestly
Marc Anthony: sexy, and a bit shy
Name one word to describe Gloria Estefan: Honest.
Dann Dulin is Senior Editor of A&U.