''Are you here to see Mrs. Mottola?''
I'm shaking out my umbrella at La Houppa on Manhattan's tony Upper East Side and apparently giving off reporter vibes. I've come to interview Thalia, the international superstar from Mexico. Her albums sell millions in Latin America, Europe, and Asia. She has starred in some of the most popular TV shows in the Spanish-speaking world. Now, at 31, the diminutive diva is beginning her assault on the American mainstream. Her single ''I Want You,'' with rap star Fat Joe, became a hit on U.S. radio in recent weeks, and her first nglish-language CD, ''Thalia,'' debuted on the Billboard 200 at No. 11.
Her full name is Thalia Sodi, but to the maitre d' she's Mrs. Mottola, wife of former Sony Music chief Tommy Mottola, Mariah Carey's ex-husband and Michael Jackson's devilish oppressor.
But Thalia is much more than the missus. She started singing with Mexican pop group Din-Din at age 9 and acting in tele-novelas at 13. By the time she released her solo debut at 17, she was already a star. ''She's a legend in the Spanish market,'' says Bronx-born MC Fat Joe. ''My grandmother knows about her, my little cousins know about her. Everybody knows her.''
Everybody, it seems, except the staff at La Houppa. And the rest of non-Spanish-speaking America. Nonetheless, Thalia is undeterred. ''I've been starting in new places year after year after year,'' says Thalia, who has recorded music in French, Portuguese, and Tagalog. ''It's just like when I went to Greece or the Philippines. I love when people think I'm a new artist. It's a chance to start over.''
Besides, Thalia has endured worse trials than anonymity. After the completion of her self-titled solo debut in 1989, her producer, fiancé, and first love, Alfredo Díaz Ordaz, died of liver disease. A few years later, amid a grueling schedule of shooting soaps all week and touring on weekends, she collapsed from exhaustion on the set and had to take a year off. Last year, her two older sisters were kidnapped in Mexico and released only after Thalia reportedly paid a $1 million ransom (it's never been confirmed). ''I've been through hell,'' she says, fairly. ''The darkest experiences in a human being's life allow that person to either go deeper and stay depressed or get the strength to stand up stronger than ever, and that's my case.''