Machisma to the Max

updated 09/27/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/27/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

PEOPLE DAVE GATHERED, 1,500 STRONG, ON THE BEACH OF SAN JUAN TO celebrate the feast day of their patron saint—but only by the most Bacchanalian standards could what they are witnessing be called a religious experience. Dressed in a smattering of spandex, her legs writhing in black stockings that are a road map of runs and rips, 23-year-old pop singer Gloria Trevi is showing how she earned the nickname La Atrevida (literally "the bold, insolent one"). One moment she drops to her knees in front of a musician, her mouth gliding up and down the wire leading to his guitar. The next, she drags up a man from the audience, pulls down his pants and offers the crowd "an eyeball taco"—her decidedly Mexican term for the mooning.

Holy this may not be, but the emergence of Gloria Trevi as probably the biggest pop star in Latin America is something of a miracle. "Never before," says her publicist Amparo Lemus, "would a Latin woman talk about sex in the open air." Or earn 2.6 million a year doing it. Since 1990, Trevi's trio of albums—which she describes as "soft heavy-metal"—have sold nearly 5 million copies, and the two teen movies in which she has starred have broken all Mexican box office records. Her sell-out calendars, featuring such photos as one of Trevi garbed in a diaper, hang in gas stations from Tijuana to Santiago. Behind Trevi's flash of flesh, she says, is a core of feminism: "Men have physical strength, women's weapons are our bodies," Sound like another female pop icon? "Madonna is a businesswoman," Trevi bristles. "I am more sensitive." Thoughtful, too. She presented a pair of her panties—"unwashed, of course," she says—to the 250,000th buyer of her new album Me Siento Tan Sola ("I Feel So Alone").

Small wonder Trevi feels alone. She hasn't had the time—or inclination—to have a boyfriend, she says, since her romance with a gynecologist ended four years ago. She met him when she was 16 and he was 32. "I told him I couldn't marry him," says Trevi. "He told me to go." Behind Trevi's wariness ("I'm afraid that if I fall in love, I'd have to throw everything else away") are memories of her emotionally trying childhood in Monterrey, an industrial city in northeastern Mexico: the bitterness of her parents' divorce when she was 10, the sometimes tough love of her mother, who struggled to raise Gloria and her four brothers alone. Every time she brought home a poor grade, claims Trevi, her mother. swatted her 25 times. When she flunked eight subjects, Trevi hid a rope outside her house. "I thought suicide would save my mother the trouble," she jokes.

Instead, Gloria Sr. drove her daughter to Mexico City, were the 13-year-old lived in a boardinghouse and set out to become a singer. They both wept, but, says Trevi's mother, "it was what she wanted." Within a year, Trevi was performing with an all-girl version of the teenybopper band Menudo, formed by promoter Sergio Andrade. When the group disbanded, Trevi sold tacos from a roadside stand and sang in bus terminals before she hooked up again with Andrade and recorded a song she had written called "Dr. Psychiatrist." And the rest is historia—or maybe hysteria.

Next, Trevi hopes to conquer the U.S. Anything else? "I'd like to be an astronaut some day," she says, chewing on a double wad of bubble gum. "And after that, the first female president of Mexico."

MEG GRANT in San Juan

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