A teen Latin pop star Former Union City resident featured on MTV’s ‘Making Menudo’

When Menudo was well on its way to becoming the first truly big-name group among the pop boy bands of the 1980s, Henry Escalante wasn’t even thought of.

But back then, Escalante’s mother, Jacqueline Cubillos, was a huge fan of Menudo when she was growing up in her native Union City.

“My mom loved Menudo,” Escalante said. “She used to go to the Menudo concerts and jump up and down and cry. She told me a story that she was at a concert and even fainted once. It was pretty funny. She was really into it.”

But the 18-year-old Escalante was relegated to learning about the Latin pop sensations, the group that launched the performing career of Ricky Martin and Marc Anthony, by watching old videos on television.

“I’ve seen videos and heard their music,” said Escalante, a North Bergen resident and a recent graduate of Union Hill High School. “I didn’t know much else about them.”

Little did Escalante know that he would be among the 15 finalists vying to become a member of the new version of Menudo, as part of the MTV reality show “Making Menudo,” which debuted last week on the music cable network.

Nationwide search

MTV went on a nationwide search to find the five best Latin teens to become a new version of the recording group. The final members of the new Menudo will be rewarded with a recording contract, a record deal and a worldwide tour.

The “Making Menudo” show will air every Sunday morning for the next 10 weeks, with the exploits of the 15 finalists, featuring Escalante, shown every week from a headquarters in Miami. They are shown rehearsing, performing, with personal interviews, much like many of the other reality shows that MTV offers.

Escalante is not permitted to speak about how the show turns out, but he admitted that he is part of the filming throughout the full run of the show.

Escalante, who was a child performer, then walked away from performing for a while, decided to give show business another try when he read an advertisement on Craig’s List for the upcoming MTV show last April.

“There was an article and an ad for the show,” Escalante said. “I was really nervous at first. I hadn’t sung in a long while. I didn’t even tell my parents that I was going to the audition. I just went on my own without them.”

The first auditions were held at a shopping mall in Queens for young Hispanic males ages 13 through 19.

“There were about 200 people there for the audition,” Escalante said. “Of the 200, they said they were only picking about 12 to move on to a second call the next day.”

Much to Escalante’s delight, he made the second call.

“They narrowed it down to seven and I made it again,” Escalante said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Looking for a star

Escalante then made it to the final 15 and he was quickly whisked to Miami for the filming of the show, which began in June.

The finalists took part in a singing and dancing camp, run by manager Johnny Wright (NSync, Backstreet Boys), vocal coach David Coury and a team of choreographers who tried to mold and shape the Menudo hopefuls into possible superstars.

Each week, selected finalists will be grouped together and must learn a song and dance routine, which they perform in front of a live audience. Then Johnny Wright and his team of judges will decide who stays and who goes.

“They gave us some time every month to come home, but then I had to go back again,” Escalante said. “It was all new to me, because I had just gotten back to singing and dancing.”

Performed as a child

Escalante, who got his break in show business as an infant, doing diaper commercials with his twin brother, Giovann, also did the famed Welch’s grape juice commercial that always featured little kids.

While he was growing up, Escalante took singing and dancing lessons, with the hope of becoming a performer. But when he reached his teens, Escalante walked away from performing.

“I just wanted to concentrate on my studies for a while,” Escalante said. “I left it for a while. If I was going to come back, it had to be the right moment. After I graduated from high school [in 2006], I wanted to give it another try.”

The audition for “Making Menudo” was the first real attempt that Escalante made to return to show business. “I just wanted to find myself as a performing artist,” Escalante said. “This was a golden opportunity.”

Escalante said that he was initially shy when the filming of the show began.

“But after a while, I just broke out of my shell,” Escalante said. “It all just came back to me. I think when I made it down to the final 15, then that’s when I realized that I must be doing something right. I doubted myself before I made it.”

After Escalante was told that he was indeed a finalist and was headed to Miami for the filming, that’s when he broke the news to his mother.

“I didn’t want to tell my parents until I knew for sure,” Escalante said. “When I told her, she was so excited. She couldn’t believe it. She was such a big fan of Menudo way back when.”

Baby face

Escalante was worried that his age might play against him, because at 18, he would have already been too old to be a member of the original Menudo. Once a member hit his 18th birthday, he was replaced.

“But I don’t look 18,” Escalante said. “I look very young. I was worried that I wouldn’t get picked because of my age, but my biggest worry turned out to be nothing. They said they were really looking for the young look and that I had it.”

Escalante had already begun taking classes at Bergen Community College, but withdrew when he was selected as a finalist for the show.

“I put the school on hold for now,” Escalante said.

Regardless of what happens over the next few weeks, Escalante said that he’s had a blast.

“It’s been a great experience,” Escalante said. “It’s already changed my life for the better. I know I can be a performer now. I’m already getting recognized by people who know me from being part of Menudo and I didn’t even make it yet. It’s really been a lot of fun so far.”

But any hint of the final result?

“So far, so good,” Escalante said. “Maybe I can become the next Ricky Martin. My life is definitely going to be a lot different from now on.”

“Making Menudo,” featuring North Bergen resident and Union City native Henry Escalante, airs on MTV every Sunday morning at 9:30 a.m. For more information about Escalante and the show, log on to http://www.mtv.com/ontv/dyn/making_menudo/series.html

Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at either OGSMAR@aol.com or jhague@hudsonreporter.com


© 2000, Newspaper Media Group