Interview: Gloria Estefan

Simon Button

The superstar singer talks to us about the new musical based on her life story, revisiting her near-fatal bus crash and sticking to her artistic guns

RD: On Your Feet is your life story on stage but how much artistic licence has been taken with it?

The only artistic licence that’s been taken is that my husband Emilio never had a six-pack. [Laughs] He never had washboard abs, except maybe somewhere under there. The chronology of songs has been changed in places because when they’re featured in the show to dramatise certain events they might not have been written by then. And my mother, who was also a singer, did perform in Cuba but obviously she didn’t perform one of my songs. Everything in the show is pretty true to life, though. Our first kiss was the same, except we were at a gig rather than in a restaurant.

RD: So it’s true that your mum won a contest to be Shirley Temple’s vocal double?

That is true, yes. My grandmother was a stage mother and she’d take my mum all over Cuba performing in radio shows and whatnot, and that’s how she won the contest to do the Spanish dubbing for Shirley Temple’s films, but her father wanted her to have an academic career instead.

RD: What are you most proud of about the show?

That people are very surprised by it. They go in expecting one thing and they come out feeling everything we’d hoped, which is a connection and having been on an emotional journey besides just the pure entertainment of the music and what they already know about us.

RD: And what are you most proud of about your career?

Number one, the length of it. I’ve been so fortunate. I’m also really proud of the fact that we didn’t have to lose ourselves and our identity to become famous. On the contrary, in fact. We’ve always stuck to who we are and our cultural mix. We’ve been so happy to carry that flag and to see how much people love the music.

RD: Is it strange seeing yourself played by someone else?

It was weird, I’ve gotta say, at the beginning but since the leading actress is playing an early version of me it’s cool. I’d never say, “Hey, do it this way”, I just give as much backstory as I can rather than have someone try to clone me. I’m probably the worst judge of who I am because I’m inside myself, not on the outside looking in, and so I don’t know how I come off to other people.

RD: Have you encountered any drag queen Glorias over the years?

Of course! I love them. They’re far more fabulous than I ever could be and far more out-there. The other day in Miami a friend of mine had her bridal shower at a drag brunch. When we walked in, the drag queen who was headlining went, “Oh my God, the patron saint of drag queens has just walked through the door”. That’s one of my favourite introductions ever. We ended up doing the Conga with them and it was a blast.

RD: What’s the most fun number in the musical?

There’s a couple of really big numbers. The opening number, Tradicion, is spectacular and then of course there’s Conga, where you literally see how it grows and grows, then explodes in joy and includes the audience in it.

RD: Was it emotional for you revisiting the 1990 bus crash that could have ended your career?

It’s strange because I remember more the aftermath than the actual crash. I’ve spoken to a lot of people who have also been involved in accidents and they agree there must be some mechanism in our brains or our spirits where you remember before and after but you don’t remember the actual moment of impact. I was awake for it and afterwards, as I lay on the floor, I was in so much pain I was praying I’d faint but I never did. I remember everything except the actual breaking of my back.

RD: How did the fans react?

It was like I could feel all the prayers that were coming my way. It was momentous and earth-shaking, like I was plugged directly into it. My family would walk into the hospital room and I’d be saying, “I’m gonna be OK”. They were probably thinking, “Poor thing, she’s delusional” but I was convinced because I could feel everyone’s prayers and I would channel them and meditate and imagine the nerves reconnecting. I know now that’s called visualisation but at that time it hadn’t been given a name. Now they use it for cancer patients and people who are going through physical and emotional problems. I remember that more than the tough stuff, going through rehabilitation and what have you. When I see the crash recreated on stage it’s traumatic but the hospital scene afterwards is far more emotional for me.

RD: You and Emilio have been together since the start. What’s the secret to such a long and strong personal and professional bond?

I wish I could impart some wisdom of the ages but the bottom line is we both chose well. We didn’t get married right away. He was my boss for a year, then we dated for two years so by the time we did start dating we were both sure we wanted it. And we balance each other so well. I pull him back in when he’s working too hard and he pulls me out of my contentedness. We’re a good mix. Another thing that’s important is that we still consider each other boyfriend and girlfriend. [Laughs] I still make an effort to shave my legs. Also, our priorities and our values are the same and we rarely argue about business or music. That helps. The fewer arguments you have the better.

RD: Is there any new music in the pipeline?

I have an album I’ve recorded. It’s kind of new because it’s a reimagining of all our biggest hits recorded in Brazil with Brazilian musicians. There are four new songs on it too and it was great fun to make.

 

On Your Feet! The Story Of Emilio And Gloria Estefan is at the London Coliseum until August 31 and tours the UK from September 3. Visit onyourfeetmusical.co.uk for more information and tickets