Emanuela Bellezza isn't from L.A., but she decided a long time ago this was where she wanted to be. Born and raised in Italy, she'd dreamed of making music here since her teenage years in Rome, when she first started writing original songs. Now, four years into her L.A. life -- with two albums under her belt and a full band backing her up -- Bellezza is on the verge of stardom.
But it hasn't been a traditional ascent. She's played some festivals around town and a few clubs here and there, but she's only barely toured in the U.S. and never played a single show in Latin America. Her rapidly-growing fame has more to do with her recent television appearances on networks like Univision, Telefutura and TV Azteca. That and earning the personal endorsement of Juanes, arguably Latin America's biggest pop star of the past decade. It's a story Bellezza can barely believe as she tells it to us at a strip-mall Starbucks in Sherman Oaks.
While traveling with her band mates in Venezuela in January, Bellezza heard that Colombian singer Juanes had put a call out for performers to submit a video covering one of his songs. He would pick a winning artist, who would then be invited to record with him on his long-awaited MTV Unplugged album. Bellezza had two days before the submissions were due, and wasn't exactly prepared.
She had to quickly memorize the melody and lyrics to Juanes' popular song "Fotografía," originally recorded as a duet with Nelly Furtado. Her crew stepped up as well -- one friend lent her an electric guitar and an amp, another manned the video camera, and she improvised a capo using a pencil and a rubber band. Then she sang her heart out and uploaded the file.
"They called me after two weeks and they said, 'Are you free to go to Miami during this period? Because you won the competition,'" Bellezza recalls, sighing. "I was so happy I was almost crying."
Less than a month later, Bellezza was in Miami rehearsing and recording with Juanes. The album and an accompanying DVD are scheduled for release in late May or early June. Bellezza expects the exposure to be huge for her career.
In person, Bellezza, her manager and guitarist Jean Luis Contreras already appear far too fabulous for their surroundings. Bellezza wears a flowing red fur-trimmed coat, and her makeup is perfect. Contreras' long hair and mirrored sunglasses shine, and the two have a compelling stage presence -- even amidst honking cars and chain-smoking coffee addicts.
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"The thing that really gives me --" Bellezza pauses to ask Contreras to translate a word. "-- goosebumps," she says, giddily, "is that Juanes was so happy about me as an artist, my performance."
Contreras shrugs, recalling that he had a good feeling about it all along. He'd met Juanes once before, and he sensed that the two might hit it off. He's being cool about it all while Bellezza bubbles with excitement.
Still, she says, she's just happy to be living the dream as a working musician. "It was something that started with me when I was very young -- this big passion. It's wonderful to have this gift of music and to live it every day."