Book cover: Catapult

In June 2017 I inadvertently began what became a long-running thread of Ricky Martin photos. I was fascinated with the Puerto Rican pop superstar’s increasingly thirsty content and took it upon myself to haphazardly catalog it. The first photo I cribbed from Instagram and cross-posted to Twitter was admittedly abstract. Taken from above, it only featured Ricky’s feet. Oh, and a pair of black Calvin Klein briefs, which you had to imagine had previously, perhaps even just moments before, been pulled down. So casually were they strewn around his ankles. A rainbow refracted above his toes completed the image. Caption: “Up close with this rainbow,” followed by a rainbow emoji, foot emoji, and “#nofilter.” For the next two years, I’d screenshot Instagram Stories where he grabbed his crotch while trying on some pants or showcased his bod in just a pair of white shorts in a mirror selfie, and I’d add the pic to the thread.

The practice became a kind of distraction. But also an unprompted examination of Ricky’s persona. I eventually stopped, though on occasion I do repost some of his more delectable photos to my own Instagram Stories, a way to find kinship with others who are as likely to revel in Ricky’s own revelry. One of my recent favorites is a black-and-white photo where Ricky is wearing only a pair of black briefs.

Standing slightly to the side, Ricky may be in a dressing room but it’s clear the dressing part has yet to take place. He looks, there’s no denying it, impossibly fit. His pectorals, accentuated by the room’s overhead lighting, are lovingly defined. As are his abs. His shoulder and arm tattoos, distracting as I’ve long found them, here add some welcome texture to his body; such is the beauty of black-and-white photography. The shot has the air of a candid. Yet it’s so perfectly framed that I have to imagine it was painstakingly staged. As was the companion pic posted alongside it. In the first he’s pulling a pant leg onto (or off, maybe?) his right leg. The pair of images had been posted as promo for his appearance at the 2020 Latin Grammys (“let’s do this!!!” read the caption). When you run an account that reaches more than sixteen million followers, every post is a marketing strategy, every image a PR move, no matter how candid it may appear.

What was being sold here? What was being advertised? Well, Ricky’s body, for starters, as stand-in and synecdoche for his entire performance persona. But it’s not as simple as saying, “Sex sells.” For while these images are projecting and depending on the erotic pining of Ricky’s fans, they are also asserting the star’s ownership of his body, which he’s giving away freely, knowing full well the effect it’ll have across our feeds. As his caption suggests, there was an egging on here, a wish for us to follow him from the dressing room onto the stage where, in characteristic fashion, Ricky would play the role of the swoon-worthy crooner he’s long nurtured. Dressed in all black, with a plunging neckline that hinted at those pecs he’d showcased on his Instagram, he sang “Recuerdo” (with Carla Morrison, in all white) and “Tiburones” on an empty stage where his whispered lyrics better echoed from that audience-less pandemic awards show into our living rooms. Away from the image of the fiery, gyrating “Livin’ la Vida Loca” Ricky many fans around the world still picture him as, this stripped-down (pun intended) version of Ricky is one that’s both novel and strangely familiar to those of us who grew up with him as a boy-band member, as a telenovela star, and yes, as a solo artist whose ballads made our teenage selves blush.

As my share of that Ricky pic suggests (“You’re welcome,” I added cheekily, acknowledging how much of a gift this was to my own followers), I am somewhat obsessed with Ricky’s playful forays into thirst-trap territory. This somewhat recent phenomenon feels decidedly different than the sexualized imagery that first structured his crossover success at the turn of the century. It may serve the same purpose, but the agency here strikes me as novel. His “Livin’ la Vida Loca” era seemed designed to box him into the role of a fiery, excitable young man. Articles at the time kept running out of ways of telling us he was “muy caliente,” playing into every stereotype about what a Puerto Rican superstar could and should be. Moreover, while his Y2K aesthetic was all coy smiles (directed, if not exclusively then implicitly, at women), his winking thirst traps feel all the more revealing. These images, disseminated through social media, get at the way we’ve come to commodify our bodies in virtual spaces, as well as the rippled effects they have across the web.

The linguistic acrobatics at work, carefully fine-tuned in the past few decades, are a thing of beauty. To call an image of yourself that is erotically suggestive—never explicit; you can’t bait with what you freely give away, only with what you withhold—a trap is the kind of delicious wordplay I live for. And then there’s thirst. As euphemisms go, the idea of desire being collapsed into such a bodily function sometimes keeps me up at night. Unlike the more straightforward concept of horniness (whose own mythic visual iconography is rife for analysis), thirst is more visceral, a physiological need. To feel parched is to risk dehydration. You don’t merely want water. You need it. Or, rather, your body needs it. To thirst after someone, it follows, means to have a similarly instinctual reflex. The desire is framed as the kind that’s hard to escape and harder still to deny. Yet the agency involved in a thirst trap, then—of those who post them, of those who enjoy them—gets ever murkier when we are dealing with a public figure, like a certain Grammy-winning artist who has come to deploy them with such gusto.

As someone who’s always known a world with Ricky Martin as a pop superstar (he joined the trailblazing boy band Menudo the year I was born), I was knocked sideways by that feet post when I first encountered it back on July 25, 2017. If only I could tell my thirteen-year-old self, the one who swooned over Ricky’s Vuelve album, that his celebrity crush would be baiting his fans to imagine where his briefs had just been (where they may yet end up!) and thus picture his chiseled physique with no CK-branded underwear to get in the way. Well, he’d lose his fucking mind.

With good reason. The Ricky I’d grown up with was a tousled-haired waif of a soloist who crooned his way through my early teenage years with slow-tempo ballads. I was much too young to have experienced the frenzy that was Menudo, so it was only once the former boy-band member transitioned into telenovela stardom that he first caught my eye. As a star in 1991’s Alcanzar una estrella II, Ricky played Pablo, a member of the fictional pop group Muñecos de papel, which served as the main storyline for the musically inclined television series. With shoulder-length hair, oversized shirts, and an eighties fashion style to match, Ricky was clearly leaving his teenybopper years behind and stepping onto more leading-man territory. To coincide with the hit TV show, Martin released his first solo album, a self-titled collection that similarly branded him as a coy lovelorn figure. His first single, “Fuego contra fuego,” like “Juego de ajedrez” (which was featured in Alcanzar una estrella II’s soundtrack compilation), set the then-twenty-year-old singer as a soulful, romantic lead akin to contemporary acts like Luis Miguel. At age twenty-one in 1991, Luis Miguel was already releasing his eighth album, the soon-to-be-megahit Romance. In his own songs, Ricky was pining over new crushes or aching over lost loves. Such emotional excess was a hallmark of his early work, and every new song released built on these kinds of lovesick narratives.

Ricky’s music constantly asked him to bare his soul with emotionally raw lyrics. In “A medio vivir” he’s calling up an ex to tell them how much he still misses them, how much his life now feels half-lived. In “Volverás” he regrets losing someone he loved more than he loved himself. In “Te extraño, te olvido, te amo” he bemoans how little his lover prepared him to bid them goodbye, acknowledging he’s lost his sense of self entirely since they left. Even in the slightly more up-tempo “Me amarás” he sounds desperate as he promises (threatens?) his interlocutor that they will love him—even if he has to humiliate himself and exhaust them in turn.

It wasn’t just his twinkling keyboard sound, ready-made for Friday night ugly-crying sessions. Nor his intentionally corny lyrics, which surely became fodder for plenty of breakup letters. To watch Ricky’s videos from his first three solo albums is to encounter a lissome young man who was more matinee idol than hunky heartthrob. An artsy kid who’d serenade you at prom rather than the gorgeous jock who’d leave you hanging. His long flowing locks had a lot to do with this, drawing out his soft features so he looked like a beatific angel. This wasn’t a hippie look nor was it a grunge one—it was much too neat and well-kept to fall into either category. But it did set him apart from those telenovela hunks whose clean-cut looks all but made them clone versions of one another. Which is all to say, early-nineties Ricky, the one I grew up with, was probably the furthest away from the swaggering, hip-swaying, thirst-trapping pop superstar we now know and love (and lust after). Witnessing this journey in real time over the past few decades has been nothing short of revolutionary, offering both a template and a warning for many of us gay boys who have grown up alongside him.

Click here to read a conversation between Manuel Betancourt and Madeleine Janz about The Male Gazed.

Excerpted from The Male Gazed: On Hunks, Heartthrobs, and What Pop Culture Taught Me About (Desiring) Men  © 2023 by Manuel Betancourt. Reprinted by permission of Catapult.

Manuel Betancourt is a queer Colombian culture writer and film critic. He is the author of Judy Garland’s Judy at Carnegie Hall (Bloomsbury Press, 2020), and a contributing writer to the Eisner Award-nominated graphic novel series The Cardboard Kingdom (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2018 & 2021).