If you think that the Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake nipple shield flash and Michael Jackson's child molestation trials are the biggest scandals in entertainment right now, then you obviously haven't tuned in to Spanish-language television recently. While the Jackson family exercise the Anglo media with their travails, Univision and its competitors have breathlessly followed the latest battle in a drawn-out Mexican diva war, which began in 1985 when thirteen-year-old Thalía Sodi and twelve-year-old Paulina Rubio -- then bandmates in the now-defunct girl group Timbiriche -- got into an onstage scuffle during a show. "We were rolling all around on the floor," Paulina recounted during a Maxim interview on the release of her 2002 crossover bid Border Girl. "The audience didn't know it was a real fight, but it was. I was little, but I was fast, and I won. I really wanted that microphone."
Nearly two decades later Paulina is still little but fast -- and she still really wants that microphone. At least that's the impression she gives when she shows up unexpected -- and, according to Thalía, uninvited -- at the CD launch party for Thalía's Greatest Hits during the new Monday gay night Fuego at Bongo's Cuban Cafe.
Thank God she does. For hours the club is held hostage by fans glued in place, afraid of losing prime dance floor real estate and not getting a close look at Thalía when her show gets under way. A handful of television crews try to orchestrate footage by dispersing sassily dressed on-air personalities into the masses and urging everyone to raise a ruckus. The Fuego crowd obliges, gamely screaming at nothing as though their pants were in fact on fire, then go back to nursing outrageously priced drinks with bored looks on their faces as soon as the cameras turn away. Four or five fabulous drag queens in getups that run the gamut from Celia Cruz to Barbara Eden do their part by sashaying up and down the club's central staircase, but even they get tired after a while. The master of ceremonies promises a Thalía look-alike contest, but when the time comes there really isn't anyone who resembles her. The first contestant looks like a linebacker in hoop earrings and lip gloss. The second isn't even trying to be a woman, let alone Thalía. He just wants to lip-synch a David Bisbal remix. The contest fizzles out. Two personalities from dance station Party 93.1 (WPYM-FM) try to rouse everybody with a homosexed version of the old club saw, "Where my (gay) fellas at? Where my (gay) ladies at?"
Suddenly a commotion erupts at the front door. Lights, cameras, Thalía. Oh, wait, what's happening? The face peeking out of the media pileup looks exactly like Paulina Rubio. It is Paulina Rubio. What's she doing here? Is she coming to claim her crown in the Thalía look-alike contest? The MC doesn't care; the party is saved. "Pau-lina, Pau-lina," he chants, and the audience joins in. Now she sashays up the stairs. The drag queens are disoriented. The dance floor is abuzz. Everyone is hoping for a catfight. Necks crane to catch any action on the balcony. In the far corner of the VIP section there are the faintest of silhouettes of two stick-thin bodies with impossibly big hair.
The mind fuck continues. A woman is carried onstage who may or may not be Thalía. Her hair looks very la chica dorada; even the oversized retro shades she sports could have come from Paulina's wardrobe. Is the golden girl going to open the show? No, the glasses come off to reveal Thalía's baby doll smile. As she and her dancers heat up the stage with her signature hip-hop lite moves (is there anything cuter than Mrs. Mottola throwing up a gang sign?), memories of her blond adversary fade. A post-op beauty in a sheer black lace bodysuit jumps onstage and is gingerly returned to the dance floor by a grim bouncer. Towering behind the pop star is a quintet of drag artists in enormous Technicolor Afro wigs. The audience is aching with desire just like the victim/lover in her S&M-flavored video for "Gracias a Dios" ("Thank God").
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The dulce dominatrix teases the Fuego faithful by pretending to leave the stage before she performs her club anthem "A Quíen le Importa" ("Who Cares"). That will never do. The gay circuit broke that hit, thanks to a savvy push by Fuego promoter Joe Granda. So after she has made them suffer long enough, the beat begins again and Thalía dares the world to criticize her in the Weimar Berlin snarl she reserves for this song. A strategically placed wind machine lifts her long locks. Who cares what I do? she demands as the Technicolor queens ejaculate en masse, dousing the crowd with champagne. Who cares what I say?
Apparently El Gordo y la Flaca (Fatso and the Skinny Girl) do. Not willing to take the chance of being upstaged by her girlhood rival, Thalía insists that her publicist get her a live feed to Univision's popular gossip show on Tuesday morning. So momentous is her commentary on Paulina's appearance that her interview runs for sixteen minutes, right over the scheduled commercial breaks. "I have no idea what she was doing there," Thalía complains.
"It was just a natural thing to do," Paulina explains in a follow-up interview with the show's hosts. Later there are mutual apologies, and Thalía reportedly sends Paulina a box of chocolates. At press time, though, fans were still voting at www.univision.com on whether Paulina's appearance had been an effort to steal the spotlight.
Maybe the stunt, though, was an attempt to make sure there's a spotlight in the first place. Neither Paulina nor Thalía is remarkable for her music. Each superstar pumps out pleasant, highly processed pop. Without all the backstage drama, these divas would be as forlorn and forgettable as a drag queen without her wig.