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Montenegro, Pilar

Pilar Montenegro


Singer


Many top stars of American popular music, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera being recent notable examples, began their careers when they were very young and entered the spotlight during their teenage years. As teen-oriented pop gained a foothold in the Latin American world, several Mexican singers have recently found success by following a similar career path. Pilar Montenegro is one of those singers, and she has gone on to adult stardom—something that has eluded many youthful performers.

A native of Mexico City, Montenegro was born María del Pilar Montenegro López. Her first appearance on stage came at age eight, when she played the lead role in the Mexican premiere of the stage musical Annie. She was such a success in the role that her initial appearance turned into a three-year stint. After that, Montenegro appeared on a children's program on Mexican television and then formed a musical group, Fresas con Crema (Strawberries with Cream).

That proved to be a smart move, for producers in several Latin countries in the late 1980s were on the lookout for performers who could duplicate the runaway success of Menudo, the Puerto Rico-based teen group that set a pattern for the genre with its perky romantic themes and well-scrubbed, middle-of-the-road visuals. In 1989 Montenegro joined a Mexican group called Garibaldi, one of Menudo's most successful and durable competitors, thanks to backing from Mexico's powerful Televisa network. She spent seven years with Garibaldi, touring such countries as the United States, Germany, Spain, and Morocco, in addition to the Latin world.

That period turned into an educational one for Montenegro. The elaborate, television-friendly choreography of Garibaldi's performances helped her develop her dancing skills along with her vocals. And she learned to feel at home in front of the camera, whether she was performing or dealing with the voracious members of Mexico's tabloid press corps, although she has generally deflected writers' questions about her personal life. "I learned the discipline required to do tons of promotion," Montenegro told the Miami New Times.

All these things helped Montenegro move on to television stardom, a step that many Mexican teen performers have attempted as their vocal-group careers neared an end. In Mexico, building a television career often meant landing a role on one of the country's telenovelas, romantic Spanish-language television dramas that are generally comparable to the soap operas on U.S. television. Montenegro took a complete course of acting lessons to prepare herself, and then made her debut in the telenovela Volver a empezar (Back to the Beginning), which starred the well-known single-named performers Yuri and Chayanne.

Montenegro also released a solo CD, Son del corazón (Song of the Heart), on the Fonovisa label in 1996. With a variety of styles ranging from dance pop to Dominican merengue to romantic ballads, and even featuring a bilingual version of Neil Sedaka's "You Mean Everything to Me," the album seemed to be trying to cover all the bases in the Latin pop world. It went nowhere commercially, so Montenegro focused on her acting career for the next several years. In the late 1990s she landed roles in various telenovelas, including the international hit Gotita de amor (Little Drop of Love). Often she was cast in the role of an evil woman, something she didn't enjoy. "It's harder to be the villain than the good girl," she told the Spanish edition of the Orange County Register. She finally got the chance to portray a positive figure in the early 2000s series Te amaré in silencio (I'll Love You Silently), the first telenovela launched by the American Spanish-language network, Univisión.

Meanwhile Montenegro kept one foot in music. She returned to the musical theater stage with the lead role in a 1999 Mexican production of the Disney musical Mulan, and she participated in a Garibaldi reunion tour and recorded a new album with the group. The reunion came with a side benefit: one of Montenegro's Garibaldi colleagues introduced her to the wealthy businessman Jorge Reynoso, who became her manager and, on February 16, 2001, her husband. Together, the two plotted the relaunch of her musical career.

Montenegro recorded a new album, Desahogo (Release), for the Univisión label, but at first it seemed destined for the same oblivion as the singer's debut. The album, which itself was Univisión's first offering, was hamstrung by its street date of September 25, 2001, two weeks after the devastating terrorist attacks carried out in New York City and Washington, D.C. The album's lead-off single, "Cuando estamos juntos" (When We're Together), failed completely, and record stores began shipping the album back to distributors. But then Univisión president José Behar suggested "Quitame ese hombre" (Get That Man Away from Me) for Montenegro's next single release. That was fine with the young singer, who had liked the song since she was a girl.

"Quitame ese hombre" had earlier been recorded by (among others) Puerto Rican vocalist Yolandita Monge, in a version produced by Cuban-American studio wizard Rudy Perez, who had also produced Desahogo. It was Perez who hit on the idea of tailoring the song to the diverse Latin radio market by recording it in multiple versions: as a ballad, as a tropical dance-club number, as a ranchera, and as a norteña cumbia—a sort of countrified Colombian dance rhythm enormously popular with listeners on both sides of the Mexican-United States border. It was the latter version that became a runaway hit, and although the arrangement was her producer's idea, Montenegro herself could claim the lion's share of the creative credit: she worked hard to adapt the song's vocal part for its various remixes, and she had the versatility to sound convincing in the norteña (northern) style, to which the Mexico City native had little direct connection.

The multiple release gambit succeeded beyond anything Montenegro might have imagined. "Quitame ese hombre" spent a record 11 weeks at the top of Billboard magazine's Hot Latin Tracks chart, eclipsing the longest reigns of such artists as Selena, Jennifer Lopez, and Ricky Martin. Other record companies rushed artists into the studio to record alternate versions of their hits in regional styles, and Montenegro walked off with seven nominations and three wins at the 2003 Billboard Latin Music Awards. Although her list of recordings was short, she seemed to have forged a bond with ordinary Latin music listeners. "She has what we call a 'voz de pueblo' ['a voice of the people']," Perez told the Miami New Times.

For the Record . . .

Born María del Pilar Montenegro López in Mexico City, Mexico; married Jorge Reynoso, February 16, 2001.

Appeared for three years in title role of Spanish-language version of musical Annie, beginning at age eight; formed group Fresas con Crema; joined group Garibaldi, 1989; appeared in television dramas, including Volver a empezar, Marisol, and Gotita de amor; released album Son del corazón, 1997; appeared in Spanish-language version of musical Mulan, 1998; released Desahogo, which included international hit "Quitame ese hombre," 2001; released Pilar, 2004.

Awards: Three Billboard Latin Music Awards for Desahogo, 2003.

Addresses: Record company—Univisión Music Group, 5820 Canoga Ave., Ste. 300, Woodland Hills, CA 91367. Website—Pilar Montenegro Official Website: http://www.pilarmontenegro.com.

Montenegro sustained her career momentum with several new projects in 2004, including the release of Pilar, the CD followup to Desahogo. The title, Montenegro claimed, referred not only to her own name but also to her hopes that the release would become a pillar of success for the new label, Golden Music Group, that she and Reynoso were launching ("pilar" means "pillar" in Spanish). The album featured "Prisionera" (The Prisoner), a Perez-composed song that became the theme for a Telemundo network telenovela, and "Love Is All You Need," an English-language track.

"I'm not trying to start a competition with Britney Spears," Montenegro told the Mexico City newspaper El Norte, affirming that Spanish-language music remained her top priority. Montenegro and Reynoso moved to Los Angeles, the center of the rapidly growing United States-based Latin recording industry, and in the fall of 2004 she was featured with Colombian dance diva Gizelle d'Cole on the duo album Euroreggaeton, as well as on the soundtrack of the film Shall We Dance. The former child and teen star, it seemed, was on her way to still bigger things.

Selected discography

Son del corazón, Fonovisa, 1996.

Desahogo, Univisión, 2001.

Pilar, Golden Music Group, 2004.

(With Gizelle d'Cole) EuroReggaeton, Líderes, 2004.

Sources

Periodicals

Billboard Bulletin, February 13, 2003, p. 1.

El Norte (Mexico City), April 21, 2004, p. 9.

Forbes, July 7, 2003, p. 94.

Houston Chronicle, February 10, 2002, p. 7.

Miami New Times, June 13, 2002.

Orange County Register (Spanish ed.), March 26, 2004, Calendar page.

San Antonio Express-News, February 3, 2002, p. H3.

Online

"Biography of Pilar Montenegro," Univisión Music Group, http://www.univisionmusicgroup.com/article.php?artistid=34&type=BIO (October 25, 2004).

"Pilar Montenegro," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (October 22, 2004).

"Univision Music Group Achieves Record Sweep at 2003 Billboard Latin Music Awards," Hispanic PR Wire, http://www.hispanicprwire.com/news_in.php?id=506&cha=7 (October 25, 2004).

—James M. Manheim

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