NEW YORK Thalia, already a star among Latin music and television fans, is facing one of the biggest challenges of her career as she tries to transplant her success to American airwaves.
Yet ask the Mexican beauty if she's nervous about the ''crossover'' of her English-language debut, and the 31-year-old singer-actress shrugs with a smile.
''To me, a big crossover was what happened to me years ago, like bringing my music in Spanish in Europe, or Asia. To me, that's a crossover because Spanish is not a language that everybody talks,'' says Thalia, who first gained fame in her native country at age 9 and is now married to music mogul Tommy Mottola.
''It was double or triple the work, so I think that's a crossover,'' she said. ''This is just expanding my music.''
So far, the expansion plan seems to be working. Thalia, who learned English four years ago, has tapped producers who have crafted hits for Jennifer Lopez, Christina Aguilera and others for her self-titled disc, a mixture of pop, R&B and soft rock. The first song, ''I Want You,'' featuring rapper Fat Joe, is already a growing hit on urban and pop radio.
The collaboration, which uses a hook made popular by Fat Joe protege Big Pun on ''I'm Not a Player,'' has drawn comparisons to J. Lo. Even the video is reminiscent of J. Lo's hit ''I'm Real.'' But Thalia is quick to point out that she isn't trying to follow anyone else's career path.
''I always focus on myself in what I want, where I want to go, who I want to reach, which message I want to put out, how I want to dress,'' says Thalia, wearing a casual ensemble of jeans, a black hoodie and a trucker cap. ''I don't waste energy thinking, 'What the other girl is doing?'''
She's had plenty of success following her own instincts. Born Ariadna Thalia Sodi Miranda in Mexico City, she grew up wanting to emulate her older sister, Laura Zapata, who was in Mexican soap operas.
But Thalia's first break would come as a singer in an children's pop group, Din-Din. Later, she would reach stardom in her country as part of the teen pop band Timbiriche. But the experience wasn't entirely positive for Thalia.
''They really literally tell us, you have to dress this way, your attitude has to be this one, you have to think that, and you are going to dance this way,'' she says. "It was like, 'Hold on, what about me, what about what I want to do?' So, since then, when I literally said, 'I just want to be me, and I want to just record my first album,' then I had all my control.''
In the 1990s, Thalia became a million-selling solo artist with her own discs, and also gained even more fame as a star of several Mexican soap operas.
As her star continued to rise, her record company, EMI Latin, began pushing her to make an album in English. But even as other Spanish-language artists became household names in the United States with their English albums Ricky Martin, Shakira and Enrique Iglesias among them Thalia felt she wasn't ready, partly because she didn't know English (although she now has a strong accent, it's barely detectable on her album).
She also hit a personal milestone: In 2000, she married then-Sony Music Chief Tommy Mottola, who not only was one of music's most powerful executives, but helped launch the English-language careers of several Latin stars, including Martin and Shakira.
He also was once married to his protege, Mariah Carey.
When Thalia wed Mottola in a star-studded ceremony, some started comparing Thalia to Carey. But Thalia dismisses the speculation.
''When we met, he was Tommy Mottola, and I was Thalia. He did not make me, I didn't arrive with a tape in my hand 'Hey, I'm a singer,''' she said, referring to the well-known story of Carey's discovery by Mottola. ''I had eight albums on the market, I had a whole life.''
Her album was completed in a little over a year. Thalia was midway through recording the album when her two sisters, Zapata and Ernestina Sodi, were kidnapped in Mexico for $1 million ransom. Both were released, separately, after several weeks. Ransom was paid, although it's not clear who paid or how much.
Thalia doesn't like to discuss the kidnapping. ''They're dealing with that, and I'm dealing with it,'' is all she'll say.
During the ordeal, she stopped working on the album, unable to focus. ''Too much confusion.''
Yet once the situation was resolved, she was able to come back to the project with a ''good vibe'' that's reflected in the album's overall mood.
''I've always been able to transform happiness and pain and sorrow and tears into positive energy,'' she says. ''And when I went back into the studio, it was like fresh air, and all the songs suddenly became like, positive and nice, and happy and love and life.''
With the early success of the album's first single, it seems Thalia may replicate her success among Latin fans. In addition to her album, she will also debut her own line of Kmart clothes, accessories and jewelry in August (she's already had Thalia eyewear and lingerie lines in Latin America).
But whether she becomes a breakout star remains to be seen. Latin superstar Paulina Rubio had only a mild response when she made her English-language debut last year.
''You have to appeal to a different group of people with different sensibilities,'' says Leila Cobo, Latin music editor at Billboard magazine.
''Things that can be really appealing for a Latin audience may not be so appealing to a non-Latin audience, but the single is certainly doing well.''
Thalia is aware of the challenges but she's looking forward to them.
''I feel like I'm starting all over again, and I'm loving it,'' she says. ''There's nothing more addictive or incredible in life than reinventing yourself, and allow yourself to be different every day.''
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