As the Salsa music started playing, I stepped out onto the dark stage, my arm linked with that of a beautiful blonde woman dressed in a sexy, sparkly white dress that simultaneously showed off her boobs and butt. We walked toward center stage, the lights came up, and the woman began dancing around me.
"She's into superstition. Black cats and voodoo dolls," I sang, pointing at the girl with gunshot fingers and throwing her an awkward wink. "I feel a premonition. That girl's gonna make me fall."
She ran off stage, and I was left alone, gripping the microphone, timidly shaking my hips, and unintentionally showing off the fake leather wristbands that constituted my costume.
I wasn't alone for long, as four new girls, sporting the same white dresses, circled around me. They rested their hands on my shoulders. They happily spun themselves around me. Hell, they pushed and pulled me down. They were, to say the least, livin' la vida loca.
And I was, naturally, performing as the incredibly heterosexual Ricky Martin, the Puerto Rican pop sensation who famously combated gay rumors in 1999 with a declaration that "I love women and sex."
Of course, in March 2010 Ricky came out of the closet as a "fortunate homosexual man," settling long-running media rumors that while he may love women and sex, he also digs dudes.
My performance was part of the Carnival Legends show, a variety show where guests on the Carnival Pride, a cruise ship on a seven-day excursion to the Bahamas, impersonated 11 pop music sensations. The calculated attempt to save Carnival Cruise Lines a few bucks on its entertainment budget tied in with its daily karaoke schedule. That is, guests are encouraged to sing during the karaoke hours for a chance to perform on the main stage as their favorite music "legend."
Ricky Martin is honored as a "legend" thanks to the cruise line's clever bid for culturally diverse entertainment offerings. He's counted among Elvis, Elton John, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Britney Spears, Madonna, Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks, Frank Sinatra, and Gloria Estefan (another benefactor of affirmative action entertainment) as a music sensation. As a young, thin, dark-featured man - and, in the absence of any real male Latino karaoke enthusiasts on our ship - I won the role of Ricky for the show.
During the rehearsal for the show, I resolved to proudly represent one of the most prominent gay celebrities around by rocking a rainbow smiley-face shirt. I was surprised, however, when I was greeted with hot female dancers who explained the choreography for my three minutes of "Livin' La Vida Loca" fame. They seductively danced around me while I sang mildly chauvinistic lyrics about how once you live her crazy life, it'll make you go insane - like a bullet to the brain (come on!).
My jokes about the absurdity of the situation didn't go over well. When I turned to my dancer / babysitter for the show and mentioned that it was funny such beautiful women were dancing around "Ricky Martin," of all people, she responded with an annoyed, "What?" And when I told my fellow male Legends that it struck me as comical that the choreography for the Elton John and Ricky Martin numbers included several strikingly attractive female dancers, the dude playing Elvis piped up, "Elvis has dancers, too." Elton John's doppelganger, meanwhile, laughed uncomfortably and defensively said, "I'm married." Garth Brooks, Frank Sinatra, and James Brown ignored my comment.
My attempts to somehow preserve Ricky's gay identity were additionally undermined by my lack of comfort on stage. When I finished my rehearsal of the number, the 50-something Frank Sinatra turned to me and laughed, "Damn, I wish I got all those hot girls to dance around me. I saw you making eyes at them! You're in heaven!" In reality, I was nervous I would accidentally throw an elbow at one of the dancers, and so I was repeatedly looking at them to get a feel for where they would be moving.
I was failing at my quest to clarify that Ricky Martin was a "fortunate homosexual man" and was instead reiterating the singer's years-long, false obsession with how much "she bangs." By only presenting this portrait of a man transfixed by a beautiful woman, was I helping everyone forget Ricky's post-closet identity?
The sexy female dancers and the girl who would make you take your clothes off and go dancing in the rain were products of Ricky's closeted era of trying to make it big as a macho crooner. And, in fairness, the Carnival Legends show was developed quite a few years ago and has stayed in that same incarnation of packaged, "meh" entertainment ever since.
Still, I imagined how I could correct the situation. Pull one of the sexy male dancers, still wearing the very short jean cut-offs and tight, M-emblazoned T-shirts from their Madonna dance, out onto stage with me? Tear off my silky, black, button-up at the end of the song to reveal a "Likes Boys" shirt, a lá Kurt in Glee? Or, at the end of the number, take the microphone hostage and yell into it, "Just so we're all on the same page, I'm gay, and so is Ricky Martin!"?
None of them seemed like viable options.
Maybe I wasn't entirely to blame for my discomfort with the scenario. After all, I was portraying a 1999 version of Ricky Martin, one that preceded his open endorsements of marriage equality, gay-themed music videos, public affection for his boyfriend, and desire to sing love songs with male pronouns. This Ricky Martin was one who saw staying in the closet and pretending he was straight as the only way toward commercial success.
The period where Ricky Martin didn't accept his sexuality - at least not publicly - must have felt hollow and false, like he was living a lie. I suppose it made sense, then, that my experience posing as Ricky Martin from 1999 felt similarly hollow and false - like I was complicit in straight-washing a gay man whose current vida is just too loca for cheap cruise ship entertainment.
(Cross-posted at The Good Men Project)