Stars are Born

Three pretty little Latin girls growing up in the United States watch all the variety shows on Spanish-language television and dream of appearing on Sabado Gigante like Gloria Estefan, or on Siempre en Domingo like Paulina Rubio and Thalia in their Timbiriche days. The message is clear: Go to Miami, meet Emilio Estefan, and be a star.

Guatemalan-American Lorena Pinot grows up tall and blond and sends her demos to the producer to no avail. She moves from Jersey to Miami, and finds herself working out at the same gym as Los Estefan (before wannabe star/psychopath Juan Carlos Diaz stalks the couple and shuts down the open workouts). I didn't know you could sing, Emilio says one day. He sends her into the studio with Jon Secada.

When Sohanny Gross moves to the Magic City from Rhode Island, the guy delivering her furniture turns out to be Dominican, too. Of course, Sohanny's mama has to boast that her daughter is a singer. The delivery guy says, My wife is gonna kill me, but. ... Next thing you know, the delivery guy's wife's boss, Frank Amadeo, who happens to be the president of Estefan Enterprises, is Sohanny's manager.

Carla Ramirez grows up in Miami. Whenever her dad sees the producer Kike Santander on TV he points at the screen and says, He's Colombian like us. He's a great man. But when Carla goes on a trip to Italy, she takes her mom's advice and lights a candle in every church, saying the prayer, Please Lord, let me work with Emilio. Back home she auditions to join Lorena and Sohanny in the reconfigured Miami Sound Machine (fashionably reduced to the acronym MSM). She's in.

Now all three girls are laying tracks at Estefan's Crescent Moon Studios. The debut, MSM, released in Spain in 2002, is a small-country success at 80,000 copies sold. This month the second album is out stateside, named after the term of endearment bestowed upon the girls by their Spanish fans: Las Miami. With Emilio as titular producer and such Crescent Moon stalwarts as the Gaitan brothers, Archie Peña, and Pablo Flores adding elbow grease, Las Miami is indeed the typical Miami sound. Impeccable production values. Catchy pan-American rhythms infused with pop sensibility. Fresh faces for a familiar formula: Thalia and Paulina without the retouching. One of the girls even sounds uncannily like Gloria Estefan with pitch.

Out in West Kendall, another pretty little Latin girl pays no attention to Spanish-language television at all. She listens to ZETA (WZTA-FM 94.9) before it has a Latin rock show on Sunday nights. She watches MTV and VH1 in English. She dreams of being Thom Yorke or Kurt Cobain or even Courtney Love, more proof that growing up in the Hammocks is just like growing up in every other suburb of the U.S., except with better coffee.

Natasha Jeannette Dueñas knows she wants to be a rock singer. She gets herself into the arts program at Coral Reef Senior High, takes up guitar at age fourteen, and starts a garage band called Wrewind (with a W) with a girl friend. Their only audience is neighbors who come over to tell the girls to keep it down. Still her vocal coach tells her mom, She's good. She should make a demo.

Natasha's dad can't keep quiet about his daughter's music at Willy's Hair Designers, his hair salon in the Hammocks. A client volunteers to take a copy of the demo to her next-door neighbor, Jorge Pino, head of EMI Music U.S. Latin. It's 10:00 p.m. when the client goes to the house. Mr. Pino has just come home from work and his house is torn up from renovations, so he has to listen to the thing on a battered little boombox. But he likes what he hears. He wants Natasha and her parents in his office the next day.

There is just one small problem: All of Natasha's songs are in English. This is EMI Latin. Oh, says Natasha. She never thought about writing in Spanish, but there's no reason why she couldn't. She talks to her Argentine father in Spanish all the time.

Grownups rearrange their lives to promote the newly christened JD Natasha, the great bilingual hope of the Latin music industry. The project coordinator moves to Miami from L.A. The photographer shoots extra rolls for free. The video director makes two videos instead of one. The producers deliver extra tracks. An agent from William Morris is so charmed he signs her before the album is complete. AOL invites her to perform for the online AOL Sessions that helped break another adorable punkster, Avril Lavigne. Her eyes rimmed in dark charcoal and framed by shocking red extensions, the sixteen-year-old ingenue is amazingly poised in her jeans and marked-up sneakers.

Recording her debut album, Imperfect/Imperfecta, at Crescent Moon, producers Gustavo Menendez and Sebastian Krys hear Natasha's voice mature day by day. Can you take that up an octave, at full voice? they test her. No problem. She is a sponge, soaking up the influence of Elsten Torres from Fulano and Martin Chan from Volumen Cero, two of the co-writers Menendez recruits for her at his day job as head of Warner-Chappell publishing. I never knew Latin music could be so cool, Natasha confesses. Krys notices that she absent-mindedly taps out parts for drums, bass, and keyboards on her guitar during down time at the studio. I hear the whole song in my head, she explains. So the producer lifts many of the arrangements directly from her.

This is the Miami sound, too. Not everyone is trying to hear it, though. When JD Natasha previews Imperfect/Imperfecta at Hoy Como Ayer during the songwriter showcase Esencia last month, she is second on the bill before the headliner Kike Santander. As the sixteen-year-old sings, the great man sits in the front row, talking on his cell phone.

Wearing a black top hat with three abstract tear drops drawn next to her right eye, JD Natasha looks more like a character from A Clockwork Orange than the impeccably proper stars Kike produces. Not Thalia. Not Paulina. Not even a Sabado Gigante spokesmodel. JD Natasha is pretty in a punked-out Debbie Harry way. I'm not a Barbie made out of plastic/I have a soul, she sings in Spanish on "Plastico." Tossing her voice from her head to her chest, she veers from a screech to a whisper. Her complete control sounds like utter abandon. A typical teen, she shifts from defiance to despair, asking in English on the title track: What if I didn't scream in public? What if I were perfect?

If she were "perfect," JD Natasha would never reach the legion of young teenage Latinos who ignore Latin music because they think it has to be overly sentimental and cheesy. But as Imperfect/Imperfecta proves, you can be a Latina and still rock out.

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Celeste Fraser Delgado