Tommy Pygmalion Has a New Project
New York – October 12, 2003
“EVERY day, I’m in my own vortex of a hurricane. She’s the only thing that can stop that, so that my hurricane doesn’t consume me.”
Ms. Sodi can match Mr. Mottola’s flair for the operatic pronouncement, tone for tone. “Being with him is like jumping onto a runaway horse,” she said, turning a liquid gaze in his direction. “You never know where he is going to go.”
Mr. Mottola, it may be recalled, is that New York street kid turned pop music impresario, who in his long reign atop Sony Music Entertainment displayed a gift for shaping raw talent and moxie into polished blockbuster acts. “You know, I am the one who discovered Gloria Estefan,” he said. “I discovered Jennifer Lopez.”
Like the Pygmalion of myth, Mr. Mottola, 54, has sometimes been so dazzled by his own creation that he has fallen in love, most famously with Mariah Carey, whom he married in 1993. During their five-year union, he transformed her from a backup singer into a white-hot hit machine, and the couple built their own 14-bath mansion, Xanadu, in Bedford, N.Y.
In 2000, Mr. Mottola married the Mexican-born Ms. Sodi, who was already a star in the Latino community in the United States and who, at 31, bears more than a passing resemblance to Ms. Carey. Her musical career is handled by Virgin Records, a label Mr. Mottola has no hand in. Yet his wife is very clearly his next big project, and his challenge is to make her a household name while avoiding being overly controlling — a trait Ms. Carey once complained wounded their marriage. To hear Mr. Mottola tell it, Ms. Sodi has the potential to eclipse his many past triumphs — and not incidentally, to help him reinvent himself after his ouster in January from Sony, which had lost many millions of dollars during his last year. “A kid from the Bronx and a girl from Mexico — what could be better?” he said.
“It’s our shared vision to have a really broad brand in all categories,” he added.
Last summer, he engineered a deal for Ms. Sodi to produce a line of clothing, accessories and home products in 335 Kmart stores. The collection, which bears Ms. Sodi’s sexy, vibrantly colorful imprint — sparkly logos, Aztec symbols and other south-of-the-border imagery on skinny T-shirts and the like — is just the latest to put the name of a pop star on clothes. (Eve and Gwen Stefani are two others.)
Next February, Thalia, a monthly magazine, is planned to arrive on newsstands, published by American Media, which owns The Star, The National Enquirer and a roster of titles aimed at the Hispanic market. Ms. Sodi will top its masthead as editor in chief, Mr. Mottola as creative director. “I don’t know Thalia,” said David Pecker, the chief executive of American Media. “But I have great faith in Tommy as a businessman who knows how to market a celebrity better than anybody and how to promote a magazine in other forms of media.”
Evidently intent on following the model of Ms. Lopez, whose first fragrance, Glow, is a mass market hit, Mr. Mottola and his bride have also developed a perfume to be sold at Kmart, Thalia, its packaging highlighted by an imprint of Ms. Sodi’s pillowy lips. “It’s a work of art, like a Dali piece,” Mr. Mottola said as they sat in a conference room in Midtown. Mr. Mottola declared,”We’re going to make Thalia the Hispanic Martha Stewart.”
Why not? Mr. Mottola is, after all, the man who plucked Ms. Carey from obscurity after listening to a demonstration tape that Ms. Carey, then an 18-year-old waitress, slipped him at a party. He provided musical guidance and also helped choose her skirts and lipsticks.
Eventually, the marriage soured. Ms. Carey later said she found her relationship with Mr. Mottola, 20 years her senior, confining, if not downright oppressive. In an interview with Barbara Walters six months after the divorce, Ms. Carey, then still under contract to Sony, charged Mr. Mottola with concealing film offers from her, adding that he was so overbearing she feared to venture out with friends at night, lest she incur his wrath. Mr. Mottola, who discredited her claims at the time, declined to comment on this chapter in his life.
Mr. Mottola’s latest storm was his dismissal from Sony amid reports of strained relations with Howard Stringer, chief of the Sony Corporation of America, and other music division executives who were said to have balked at his extravagant spending and his maverick management style. His departure in January after 14 years with the company fueled speculation that his career had plunged into an irreversible decline.
But Doug Morris, the chairman and chief executive of the Universal Music Group, and an old friend of Mr. Mottola’s, rescued him, asking him to revive the Casablanca label at Universal. Mr. Mottola seized the chance.
He promotes his wife as one poised on the cusp of megastardom, needing only a bit of grit (hers) and a sprinkling of diva dust (his) to become a household name — at least in the realm of style. If hip-hop music could permeate fashion and pop culture, why shouldn’t Thalia’s Latin-flavored rhythms do the same, Mr. Mottola asked. “She’ll become the new young fashion out there,” he predicted with some heat.
Such fervor fuels the popular image of Mr. Mottola as a puppet master pulling the strings of young pop stars or, in a darker view, turning those he loves and weds into bankable commodities.
“He is like a director who looks through the lens of the camera,” said Benny Medina, who managed Ms. Lopez, working closely with Mr. Mottola at Sony. “Ofttimes the muse on the other side becomes the object of his affection.”
But others say that the notion of Mr. Mottola as overly controlling is an exaggeration.
“There is no Svengali thing here,” Mr. Morris of Universal insisted. Mr. Mottola does not conflate his personal and professional passions, he said. “Tommy wasn’t married to Celine Dion or Shakira,” he said, referring to other acts he guided. As for rumors that he dated Ms. Lopez while grooming her for stardom, “I know those to be untrue,” Mr. Morris said crisply.
Rene Angelil, Ms. Dion’s husband and manager, who worked closely with Mr. Mottola after she signed with Sony, called Mr. Mottola passionate, “but passion is part of the business,” he added. “Sure we talked about her music, and we talked about image — as a friend and colleague, you talk about a lot of those things, and you don’t necessarily always agree.”
“With us, it was a very sane relationship,” he said.
A former Sony colleague who worked with Mr. Mottola day to day recalled him as often irascible, his character stormy and riddled with complexities. “But I don’t think this is a man who finds these women and needs to exploit them,” the former colleague said. “He seems very respectful of Thalia and probably wants to do the right thing. Does that mean he will sit back with his hands folded,waiting for other people to make the creative decisions? I don’t think so. It’s in his nature to be involved.”
Especially where image is concerned. Posing for a photograph for this article, Mr. Mottola told a photographer sharply, “I don’t want to be shot leaning back, slumping.” Then he seemed to catch himself. “We don’t want to tell you how to conduct your business,” he told the photographer, coloring slightly. “But this is our business,” he added, drawing an arm around his wife. “We’ve been doing this a long time.”
Perhaps Mr. Mottola has mellowed. “Was he controlling?” Mr. Morris said. “If people say so. If so, he paid the price. Probably he learned from his past.”
If Ms. Sodi is to become a star on the order of Ms. Carey, Ms. Lopez or Ms. Dion, she must show more success in the one area that Mr. Mottola does not control — her recording career. She has yet to conquer the charts as a crossover artist. Her first English-language CD, “Thalia,” released by Virgin in July, is No. 148 on the Billboard Top 200 chart. A single, “I Want You,” briefly inhabited the top 10.
Her slow ascent has prompted some to suggest that in pushing Thalia, the brand, Mr. Mottola has placed the cart before the horse. “In Thalia, Tommy sees someone very much like his other artists — beautiful, obviously poised, definitely with some talent, and to him that is enough,” said Craig Marks, the editor of Blender, a music magazine. “Unfortunately, in branding, to conquer the field you need to start with the music. Then you sell the bedsheets, the magazines and the perfumes.”
Mr. Mottola waved off the concerns. Ms. Sodi’s stardom in a series of soap operas on Univision, the leading Spanish-language television network, has given her a solid platfrom, he said. “She’s been in the homes of many American families for many years,” he said. “She’s ingrained in their lives, and that makes all the difference.”
Virgin is sanguine about Ms. Sodi’s future. “There is incredible promise,” said Hillary Shaev, the company’s head of promotions. Ms. Sodi’s best-selling Spanish album, “Amor a la Mexicana,” has sold 1.3 million copies worldwide since 1997. “But every artist is a gamble,” Ms. Shaev conceded. “We’re just at the beginning of this project. Our hope is that the second single takes her to the next level.” Last month, Virgin released the single “Baby, I’m in Love,” a pop song with a rock element.
No fragile ingenue, Ms. Sodi has performed in her homeland since the age of 8, engineering a career trajectory that has taken her from lead singer of a hit Latin teenage group to fame as an actress. At 17, she appeared in her first telenovela, or soap opera. In the next two months, she will beam her charms to non-Hispanic viewers of “Tonight” and the Ellen DeGeneres show, a publicist for Ms. Sodi said.
Encased in a tight-fitting T-shirt and jeans, smiling with a practiced effervescence, Ms. Sodi does not strike one as putty in anyone’s hands. “I did not arrive in this country with a tape in my head, saying, ‘Make me famous, make me famous,’ ” she said, darting a glance at her husband.
His hand clasped in hers, she pointed out that she began her first apparel venture, a lingerie line, more than a decade ago in Mexico City.
Toward Mr. Mottola, however, she shows an unswerving consistency, reaching for his hand and punctuating their conversation with endearments. He seems to thrive on the display, flushing at one point as she gazed into his eyes and murmured, “Mi vida.”
His current wife has acted on him like a tonic, Mr. Medina observed. Regardless of the tempest thathas swirled around him in the past, “he has seemed so happy since they came together,” Mr. Medina said. “There is no doubt he seems younger and hotter. There’s a new pep in his step.”
Silver Threads Amid Gold Albums
Thalia Sodi is just the latest pop star to have fashioned a sideline as a designer, with big hopes of extending the brand. Here are some others intent on trading on their fame to sell everything from high heels to hand towels.
Source: The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2003/10/12/style/tommy-pygmalion-has-a-new-project.html?pagewanted=all