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Miami's GOLDEN GIRL; She turned down the film role of Evita. But rags-to-riches music queen Gloria Estefan has an even more dramatic tale to tell...

Latin lovely Gloria Estefan once ate Spam and cheese cooked in Coca-Cola to survive in a ghetto.

Now the queen of spicy rhythm can preside over banquets at three palatial homes on her multi-million dollar estate.

It's part of Miami's Star Island - the exclusive retreat of America's biggest celebs. Gloria's neighbours include Madonna, Sylvester Stallone and Julio Iglesias.

But, in this neck of the woods, the feisty Cuban is more famous than them all.

She receives mail addressed to "Gloria Estefan, USA". And no postman from Key West to Alaska has any doubt where it should go.

Gloria, 40, has achieved this kind of status not simply through her glorious talent to entertain. She's now Big Business, too.

She and her shrewd husband, Emilio (Estefan is Gloria's married name), head a pulsating financial empire.

They have transformed their band, Miami Sound Machine, into an enterprise with a global reach.

The figures are mind-boggling. They've already sold 70 million albums and their latest, Gloria!, is out next week.

They own a state-of-the-art recording studio - used by Madonna and Whitney Houston - a TV production company, a ritzy hotel, and two restaurants.

The influential American business magazine, Forbes, has now listed Gloria as the 31st highest-earning entertainer on the planet and estimated Estefan Enterprises to be worth pounds 200 million - and growing fast.

Gloria shrugs when talk turns to her big bucks and says: "I have an American head and a Cuban heart."

She credits Emilio with the entrepreneurial skill, saying: "He is a restless man who likes to work in many different fields. He has a great capacity for everything."

That certainly includes spending.

One of the Estefans' Star Island homes is pounds 18 million Mediterranean-style mansion, which is actually two giant houses joined together.

One has a gym, a movie theatre, and party rooms. The second is for the family. Their third home is more modest - just a pounds 4 million, 11,000 sq ft guesthouse. The compound is private and peaceful, although tourist boats in Biscayne Bay sail as close as they're allowed to get, with guides pointing out the celebrity homes.

Gloria is also regarded as Miami's unofficial mayor by the proud and patriotic Cuban community. So she always attracts extra attention.

When she and Emilio choose to go out on the town, they also OWN many of the places they go to.

They're bosses of the posh Cardoza Hotel, an art deco masterpiece. And their two restaurants are hot news. They got into THAT business when they were customers who loved the grub made by a pal called Quintin Larios at a down-at-heel cafe.

Out walking on South Beach one day, the rich couple spotted an empty building and decided it would be perfect for an eatery. They snapped it up, handed a stunned Larios the keys and gave him a half share in the place.

Recently, they opened Bongos Cuban Cafe, in Disney World, Orlando.

Its theme conjures up a steamy night in the tropics, complete with mambo dancers and smouldering Latino waiters.

It's been such a hit that the Estefans are now planning to branch out with franchises around the States. But Gloria doesn't forget her Coke and Spam days...

Her OYE! (Opportunities for Youth Employment) foundation channels grants to children's charities and she often sings for good causes.

But this gal who turned down the film part of Evita (later landed by Madonna) has experienced a rise just as meteoric as Madam Peron's.

When she was two, Gloria Fajardo was whisked out of Fidel Castro's Cuba by her teacher mum and her dad - who was a bodyguard for deposed President Batista.

Her father took part in the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion bid and later fought in Vietnam - where he was crippled and left unable to provide for his family.

Survival became a struggle. Then, at 17, Gloria's life was turned upside down - at a wedding party.

Emilio, then 20, was playing with his band, the Miami Latin Boys. He invited Gloria up to sing and she was a sensation!

She joined the outfit, which was renamed Miami Sound Machine. They took the Latin charts by storm, then became famous worldwide with the hits Dr Beat and Conga.

Emilio became Gloria's first - and only - boyfriend.

The Estefans have now been married for 19 years and have two kids - son Nayib, 18, and three-year-old Emily. How does she keep this amazing showbiz marriage fresh?

"You get creative," she laughs. "There's a million places other than the bedroom, you know."

The same mischievous sense of humour has helped her through dark moments. While on tour in 1990, her bus was hit by a truck in a blizzard. Gloria's neck was broken and she was told she might not walk again. Doctors permanently inserted two eight-inch titanium rods in her spine. Two months of painful therapy later, determined Gloria was back on her feet. She wanted another child. But she found that her crash injuries had damaged her internally.

She needed surgery before she could conceive Emily. It seemed the sun had come out again. But, two years later, another disaster struck.

A teenage holidaymaker crashed his jetski into the Estefans' yacht and was badly cut by the powerful propellers. Emilio dived into the shark- infested waters to keep the boy afloat but he bled to death.

"That was even tougher than my own accident," shudders Gloria. "But it pushed me to change the boating law." She lobbied Florida state politicians successfully for new rules requiring youngsters to be trained before using water craft. Since then, the Estefans have poured their energy into building the business empire.

Their Crescent Moon record label is one of the most profitable independent companies in the US. Their TV company dubs Latin soaps into other languages for export.

And the songbird - who said she wasn't ready for Evita - is NOW set to spread her wings into acting.

"There's nothing left for me to do in music," she says simply. "I've done everything that fulfils me."

Her extraordinary career already encompasses the Olympics song - and performing at the Vatican.

She confides that crooning for the Pope was a tough gig.

"There were bishops, cardinals and nuns listening to me," she laughs ruefully.

"And, when you grow up going to Catholic schools, that's a pretty tough crowd!

"The Pope was right next to me. I kept saying to myself: `The Pope! What am I doing here? I'm just a pop singer'. But he seemed to like it. He nodded his head."

She pauses briefly for comic effect and adds: "Well, I didn't really expect him to conga!"

Don't worry, Gloria - he almost certainly WANTED to!
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Bissett, Matt
Publication:Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:May 24, 1998
Words:1111
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