Betty Cortina
November 26, 1999 AT 05:00 AM EST

Punctuality has never been one of his strengths. It’s 5 p.m. and Enrique Iglesias is keeping the photographer waiting—along with a reporter, the singer’s publicist, his manager, and a trayful of now-frigid chicken fingers. But Latin music’s latest offering to the American Gods of Pop is MIA in Miami. In fact, two hours—and the pink coastal sky that was to be the backdrop for the pictures—pass before Iglesias, 24, finds his way to this South Beach hotel suite. ”My mother and my sister just arrived today from Spain for a visit,” he offers in a charming and fluent, if not necessarily sincere, apology. ”I’ve been running a little behind.”

Timing, it seems, is something of an issue for Iglesias. To understand why, go back a year, to the fall of 1998, and take a look at the lineup of Latin hunks who were then only dreaming the crossover dream: There was Ricky Martin, who’d not yet begun to shake his bon-bon and was focusing his pop-en-español efforts on Europe and Asia; Marc Anthony, whose driving salsa albums were popular primarily among East Coast Caribbean Hispanics; and Iglesias, who was the only one among the three with a Grammy, a pedigree (his father is Julio, famed Casanova and crooner of ’80s cheese), and appearances on both Leno and Letterman.

When he launched his career four years earlier, Iglesias became a force in the Latin market faster than you can say rico suave. In fact, since the September 1995 release of his Grammy-winning, self-titled debut album, there are few Latin charts on which he has not had a top 10 hit. Ask any fervent follower of Latin pop—as opposed to those bandwagon muchachos who boarded only after a certain Grammy broadcast—and they’ll likely admit it was Enrique, not Ricky, who was poised to wear the mantle of pioneer.

So what happened? We’ll get to that. But first let’s concede that timing may not matter much now that Iglesias’ debut English-language single, the flamenco-infused ”Bailamos,” has danced its way to gold status, topped Billboard‘s Hot 100 chart, and helped him land a six-album, $40 million deal with Universal Music Group, one of the most lucrative contracts ever signed by a Latin recording artist. His Spanish-guitar-driven new single, ”Rhythm Divine,” is in heavy rotation on radio and helping build anticipation for Enrique, his first, and just-released, English-language album. ”I can understand why people think I’m following up on Ricky,” Iglesias says, tanned, chiseled, and kicked back on a couch with his manager and publicist nearby. ”But a record company won’t give you a deal like the one I got if they think you’re nothing more than a onetime follow-up act.”

And yet, the questions remain: Is there really room for another hip-swiveling sensation in 1999? And come the new millennium, will teenage tastemakers tag Latin pop as sooo 20th century? ”There can’t be just one Latin singer out there,” argues Iglesias. ”Just like there can’t just be one black female artist or one male R&B artist.” Most music-biz prognosticators agree, pointing to the growing number of Hispanics in the U.S. (they’re expected to be the biggest minority group in America by the year 2015) and likening the movement to rap, which not long ago was a niche genre but now dominates the pop charts. ”It’s an insatiable market, and it’s only getting bigger,” says Maribel Schumacher, vice president of marketing at Warner Music Latin America and one of the execs who lost in a months-long, multi-label bidding war for Iglesias.

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