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Sep 26th 2006, 12:36 AM
'I gotta be me,' says Mario Vazquez
So why did he quit?
That's what everyone wants to know from Mario Vazquez.
Of course, they're interested in his self-titled album, being released today on J Records. They want to know about his hit summer single, Gallery, and label chief Clive Davis' plans for Vazquez to give J a foothold in the hot Latin pop market.
And they'll politely nod and chat and dance around the question before finally gritting their teeth and getting to it:
Why did the now 29-year-old Bronx native, he of the trademark newsboy caps and Atlantic Ocean-deep dimples, walk away from a coveted spot in the Top 12 during the 2005 season of American Idol, the nation's foremost televised fame Olympics?
After more than a year of speculation, rumors and a vague cover story that Vazquez now admits was goofy, he's finally laying it on the line — the keys to the Idol kingdom would have required signing an iron-clad contract that would have negated any control he had over his music for the foreseeable future.
And it was tempting — man, was it ever.
But in the end, being the American Idol wasn't worth it, if he couldn't also be Mario.
"The public knows about that contract (with the show's 19 Entertainment company), that it's hard," he said a few months ago, as he cheerfully picked over a food-court lunch at the Mall at Wellington Green.
"The music they do was not up my alley. They wanted me to do a European-type album, that was not Mario," Vazquez explains. "I wanted to do edgier, grittier stuff, much more street, where I came from. I come from dance, R&B, Motown... But Idol has things down to a science. They do safe pop music."
And that's not who Mario is. Of course, there are many singers hungry enough to cede some of that control if it's going to get them in the public consciousness long enough to make their own mark and go their own way. It worked for Idols Kelly Clarkson and Clay Aiken, but not so well for some other winners and finalists.
But the public speculation that the kid was crazy, that he was a cocky little ingrate foolish for biting the hand that may have fed him handsomely, appears, for the moment, to have been wrong. In fact, he wound up at the same label that the Idol winners usually sign with anyway. And no one's more relieved than the kid himself.
"I've accomplished what I wanted to by leaving the show," he says. "Thank God it worked."
It sure did, so now Vazquez is working hard. He was in Wellington as part of the Teen People "Rock n Shop" tour, along with singer Ak'Sent. Later that afternoon, he would do Gallery and other songs from the album at a stage set up down the hall from the food court, surrounded by hordes of screaming teens bearing signs, homemade T-shirts and much devotion.
And with every appearance, Vazquez seems to be getting signs that stepping away from the Idol factory didn't mean giving up his fans. Days after his Wellington appearance, a fan named Yari U posted this on Vazquez's MySpace blog — "I love u Mario! I got to meet u on Saturday in Palm Beach! You were so cool! And I have always loved u my friends all love u too! Thanks to me! And I say ur my future Hubby! Hehe... Always gonna show u love!"
Vazquez, for his part, seems to be enjoying this trip into the spotlight as much as his fans are.
While performing in Wellington, he was staying in Miami, which he admits is "dangerous" to a guy with a busy schedule and those dimples.
"I'm a social butterfly," he says. "Maybe it's a Puerto Rican thing. When I'm coming to a great city, like Miami or Chicago, I have to remember that I'm working. Especially in Miami. Everybody's on the beach... We went to a spot called Nobu starting at 7, dinner at 9, the clubs start pumping at 11 or 12..."
Not that he's beating himself up.
"As a new artist, I have to enjoy every moment. It's a lot of work, but I want to enjoy myself," he says. "People do stare sometimes, recognizing me, and that's when it's time to go. 'Oh, he's drunk!' You don't want that."
Always the same question
What those people want to know from the kid who quit Idol is: Why?
They were asking that the minute Vazquez announced in March 2005 that he was surrendering his coveted spot in the Final 12. There was some vague talk about "personal issues" having to do with family problems that he needed to address. Of course, when you release statements like that, it helps to have let your family in on the story first.
"Yeah, my family heard about it on the news, and they were like 'Huh?'" he says. "Oops!"
Went to the 'Fame' school
Oh well. Live and learn. The thing is, Vazquez was initially thrilled to be on American Idol. A former student of New York's La Guardia School of Music and Art and Performing Arts, the Fame school, he'd been performing all his life, had been shopping his demo around town, and had actually looked into Idol in previous seasons before the age limit was raised to 30.
He had been annoyed at being labeled too old but decided to go to the Las Vegas auditions anyway — "I got over (being insulted) when I saw what a phenomenon it was. I thought 'If I don't make it, what the hell, I'll just go party in Vegas," he says.
But after getting through "many, many" preliminary auditions with producers, he found himself on-air and face-to-face with Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and guest judge Kenny Loggins. "I like Kenny Loggins," he says, "but I was like 'Damn! I couldn't even get Brandy?' (The singer was a celebrity judge at other audition sites.) I was feeling Brandy."
Fortunately, Loggins and the others were feeling him, and Vazquez was called back to the Hollywood auditions the next winter. And immediately, things went well. From the moment Vazquez first sang alone during the early rounds, where the singers were still separated by gender, the judges singled him out.
"They were really liking me, and I was, like, 'I can't believe what they're saying,' " he remembers.
But once past the initial rush, Vazquez says he found himself "turned off" by the crazy schedule, a 9-to-5 cycle of photography sessions and rehearsals. He was also nervous about the contracts contestants had to sign each time they got closer to the top. Each contract, he says, was more restrictive and required more exclusivity than the last.
"What scared me was that, with that contract, everything was hired for us. I would have had no control. Basically, the show is plucking people from around the country who never had an opportunity on such a big level," Vazquez says. "For myself, I really lucked out. We saw the money... But I couldn't sign it. I'd have been (screwed.)"
'You gotta be smart'
At the same time, Vazquez says he became aware "through the grapevine" of people who wanted to work with him. Of course, actually signing anything while under contract with Idol would have been contractually stupid. But Vazquez was eventually contacted by Jess Rosen, the attorney who got Clay Aiken out of his contract after coming in second in 2003.
"I started (hearing) that people were interested in meetings and so forth," he says. "You gotta be smart. I couldn't tell anybody. But once I got my lawyer, I was (sure) something was gonna bite."
Vazquez realized he was going to have to quit the show, a decision he didn't take lightly. After all, he was a non-famous David to Idol's mega-powerful Goliath, but he says Rosen assured him that he'd be fine. So he went to the show's executives, including Nigel Lythgoe, and told them he was quitting.
"They tried to get me not to. They weren't cool about it at all," he says, shrugging. "It actually helped the show with their ratings."
The minute he left, and was replaced with singer Nikko Smith, Vazquez knew "I had to get a deal. I would have looked like the biggest idiot. But I had no idea where I was gonna end up. It's funny."
Meanwhile, he found that when you don't give the media all the answers, they have a way of making them up for you. The rumors, he says, were everywhere — "I was gay. I was in a porn movie. I had signed with Puffy," he says, ticking off the speculations, all of which he insists are wrong, wrong, wrong. "People still think I'm Corey Clark sometimes and say, 'You slept with Paula, right?' But it kept people thinking."
Gracious to his fans
As if on cue, a teenage girl wearing a homemade T-shirt with Vazquez's name on it spots him in the food court. She freezes, then mouths to her similarly clad friends "Did he see me?"
Yep, he sure did. This happens a few more times during lunch, and each time, he's gracious.
"It's surreal," he says of the attention. "It's good. I like it more when I perform, but this is my personal time. It's OK. That makes everything 10 times better."
For all the screaming fans, Vazquez insists that he's "laid-back and chill. As much as I'm part of the scene, I'm still doing what I love to do."
So in the end, the risk, the rumors, all of it paid off, thanks to Clive Davis, who knows a thing or two about funny twists of fate. The Arista founder founded J Records after being ousted by his own company and now, as chief of BMG US, runs it again anyway. He has said that Vazquez is "a multi-talented young American-born Hispanic singer with a voice and charisma that we've been trying to find for a long time."
As "the first young Latino artist on the label," Vazquez says he knows there's a lot riding on his slender shoulders. But he's up for it. And even though he and American Idol parted ways, he's still grateful for the experience.
"You gotta step out in a big way," he says. "People say it was all a part of some strategy. I wish it was.... Idol gave me this exposure, and it prepped me for this business, taught me to be smart about not trusting the wrong people, and to not let people make decisions for you. Because this business will eat you up and spit you out."
But taking that risk, he says, is just part of being Mario. Which is all he ever wanted to be.
"I am so still me," he says, those familiar dimples flashing.
Sep 26th 2006, 12:36 AM
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Sep 26th 2006, 7:07 AM
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aww thanks for posting!!!
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Sep 26th 2006, 12:01 PM
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