News Article

Miami Nice

With two hit albums, the Miami-based singer describes how life has changed

Amnesia is the hottest club in Miami's South Beach — an elegant maze of sculpted stairways and sloping white walls open at its center to the wide Florida sky. And when the city's newest pop star arrives for a party celebrating the release of his second album, he looks right at home. He's wearing Versace, an elegant and expensive outfit with a top that looks like a playful mating of a polo shirt and a muscle T. At his side is a striking companion with skin like burnished hardwood and smart, aloof eyes — a woman who just has to be a model.

Yet things aren't what they seem for Jon Secada, 32, the Afro-Cuban- American whose eponymous 1992 debut album, buoyed by the massive hit ''Just Another Day,'' sold close to 3 million copies, plus nearly half a million more when it was rereleased in Spanish. Take the woman he's with. Yes, she's a model, but she's hardly Secada's date. She's Ingrid Casares, who shows up in gossip columns as Madonna's former paramour and k.d. lang's current flame. She's here as Secada's image consultant, fellow Cuban, and, as it turns out, pal. ''He does everything I say,'' Casares says, dissolving into giggles.

And the guests? Most of the people here aren't trendy South Beach celebrities; they're Secada's fans or friends. Near the door is a beaming man with a mustache, who turns out to be Miguel Morejon, Secada's frequent songwriting partner — and also his high school buddy. ''Jon always had his homework done,'' Morejon remembers.

The local media, of course, are buzzing after the star, whose new album, Heart, Soul & a Voice, has already spawned a runaway single, ''If You Go.'' Since this is Miami, a city more than half Latino, TV interviewers quiz Secada in Spanish. ''He's one of us,'' agrees Mauricio Zeilic, a Cuban-born entertainment reporter for Univision, the Spanish-language TV network. ''We sense that he's...proper. He's humble. He hasn't forgotten his roots.''

When Secada steps out on stage, humble is exactly how he seems. ''To friends and all of you here, thank you,'' he says, in English, so shyly he seems almost to be shuffling his feet. Such is the paradox of Jon Secada: If he weren't wearing Versace, you'd swear he was the kid next door.

Just before noon the next day, Secada is home, making sweet Cuban coffee and apologizing for getting up late, as if having fun at his own party were an indulgence. Right now he's living in a modest two-story rented house, unobtrusively tucked on a dusty side street a block from the ocean in Miami Beach. But he'll be moving soon, since he bought an oceanfront home. That's why things look a little bare; except for a grand piano and weight-lifting gear, his living room is empty.

Secada takes his coffee out to the patio, where he's told something Morejon said about him — ''His heart is the same'' — at the party. Secada laughs with delighted surprise. ''That's a good answer. Because it's true. My heart hasn't changed. But my life has changed. I didn't know what to expect when I sold all those records. I thought, man, I'm going to be rich. But the fame! You touch peoples' lives. I had no idea how much.''

Secada traveled a long road to achieve that fame. He was born in Cuba and came to Miami with his parents, Jose and Victoria, when he was 8. His parents, who speak no English, went into business operating coffee shops. (They still can't speak the language, he says, but have learned to pore over Billboard: ''They have very strong opinions about which singles to release from my album.'') Secada earned bachelor's and master's degrees in voice at the University of Miami. He taught singing in the university's famous jazz program, then sang backup for Miami's other Cuban-American pop star, Gloria Estefan. Soon he was writing songs for her, helping create her 1991 No. 1 hit, ''Coming Out of the Dark.'' From the moment he started his solo career three years ago, he has been guided by Estefan's powerful husband and manager, Emilio, whom, almost reverently, he still calls ''Boss.''

Secada's history, in other words, is respectable. But now that he's wearing Versace — and Armani and Calvin Klein — will he plunge even deeper into pop-star glitz and start dating models? ''Let me tell you,'' he sighs, ''there's a lot of beautiful breathtaking girls out there.'' Divorced a year ago — after five years of marriage to makeup artist Jo Pat Cafaro — he nonetheless backs off from any new intrigues. ''I can't plunge,'' he says, without even a hint of regret.

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