Recognized for her music as well as her spellbinding sex appeal, Ana Bárbara skyrocketed to celebrity in Mexico in the mid-'90s and was quickly crowned "La Reina Grupera," for she not only dominated the grupero movement, but she was one of the driving forces behind the style's realization. Bárbara's music is often categorized as ranchera, which is indeed a key component of her style, but grupero is a more apt description, because it accounts for the many other aspects of her music, including elements of norteño as well as Latin pop. In particular, it's common for Bárbara's music to be awash in synthesizers, with the drums and keyboards accented electronically, and while accordion is a staple of her songs, so are guitars, strings, and horns. As is characteristic of grupero, Bárbara's songs are almost always romantic and are intended to be catchy, sometimes to the point of being written off as "ear candy" (and she herself as "eye candy") by some critics. Regardless of such criticisms, her music is popular, without question, as Bárbara has proved herself to be one of the few regional Mexican acts to garner an international following that extends beyond Mexico and the United States. Her popularity peaked in the mid- to late '90s, particularly with the albums La Trampa (1995) and Ay, Amor (1996) and hits like "No Se Que Voy a Hacer," "Me Asusta Pero Me Gusta," and "Ya No Te Creo Nada." Bárbara then experienced a resurgence of popularity in 2004-2005 with Loca de Amar, an especially successful album for which she won a Latin Grammy (Best Grupero Album). In addition to her success as a grupero figurehead, Bárbara remained a fixture of celebrity gossip because of her sometimes scandalous personal life. Tabloids documented seemingly every sighting of her with a man, not least of all because of her tall, slim, salacious, and simply striking looks as well as her lack of a husband. In particular, she caused a huge stir in 2005 with José María Fernández, with whom she began a romantic relationship only three months after the tragic (and bizarre) death of his wife, Mariana Levy, a beloved Mexican telenovela actress, singer, and television show host. Much of the Mexican public felt the ordeal was terribly insensitive to Levy's family as well as her memory.
Born Altagracia Ugalde Mota on January 10, 1971, in Río Verde, San Luis Potosí, Mexico, Bárbara took interest in music at a young age. She was particularly influenced by her older sister, Viviana Ugalde, who was a popular singer locally. As an impressionable child with a strong will and a desire for attention, Bárbara was awe-inspired by her sister's performances and decided she wanted to be a singer herself. At age eight, she began singing backup for her sister, who would later become her manager. Before Bárbara became a successful singer, however, she became renowned for her beauty, which was evident from an early age. For instance, she won a contest for the title of Señorita San Luis Potosí, and this emboldened her already strong sense of self-esteem. Bárbara's tenacity pushed her forward and she began to sing professionally at a variety of events and festivals. For instance, in 1990 she seized an opportunity to tour Colombia and consequently enjoyed her first taste of widespread success as a singer. In 1993, Bárbara was bestowed the title of El Rostro del Heraldo de México, due not only to her beauty but also her burgeoning reputation as a promising ranchera singer (for which she was bestowed another title that same year, La Embajadora de la Canción Ranchera). As Bárbara's celebrity grew, so did her audacity. According to one famous story, she was invited to perform at the Vatican for Pope John Paul II after she became "the ranchera ambassador" of Mexico. But when Mass neared its close and she still hadn't been given her chance to sing, she decided to interrupt the proceedings so that she could command the attention of the Pope, for whom she began to sing. Amused, no doubt, the Pope blessed her and wished her luck with her career.
Bárbara's career took off the following year, when Fonovisa, the music division of Mexican television giant Televisa, released her debut album, Nada (1994). Produced and largely written by Aníbal Pastor, Nada spawned a couple hits (i.e., "Nada," "Sacúdeme") and sold over 100,000 copies (gold certification in Mexico). This debut success led to a pair of prizes (El Heraldo Como Revelación, El Trofeo Furia Musical), as well as a Premio Lo Nuestro nomination, which confirmed her status as a grupero star on the rise. Her follow-up, La Trampa (1995), also produced by Pastor, elevated her star even higher, with a long run of hits including "La Trampa," "No Se Que Voy a Hacer," "Amor de Luna," and "Me Asusta Pero Me Gusta" — all of which charted stateside as well as in Mexico, where many were crowning her La Reina Grupera (i.e., the Queen of Grupero). In addition to Pastor, Felipe Barrientos and Jaime Velázquez wrote several songs each for La Trampa. Ay, Amor (1996), produced by Jorge Avendaño for a change, continued the hit parade: "Ya No Te Creo Nada," "Y Siempre," "No Llorare," and "Ay, Amor." Velázquez again penned a number of the songs, along with Avendaño. Prolific songwriter Manuel Eduardo Castro only wrote one song, "Ya No Te Creo Nada," but it ended up being one of the album's biggest hits, breaking into the Hot Latin Tracks Top Ten and the Regional Mexican Airplay Top Five. "No Llorare" proved just as popular stateside.
Next Bárbara worked with Fonovisa labelmate Marco Antonio Solís, who wrote and produced Besos No Se Dan en la Camisa (1997). Solís, a regional Mexican star himself, had recently written and produced a hit album for merengue superstar Olga Tañón, Nuevos Senderos (1996), and his Midas touch worked for Bárbara, who scored a massive hit in Mexico with a cover of "Cómo Me Haces Falta," previously performed by Los Bukis. However, that was the only major hit from Besos No Se Dan en la Camisa, and though it was greeted rapturously in Mexico, a stronghold for both Solís and Bárbara, the relatively slow-paced, ballad-laden album wasn't nearly as commercially successful stateside as Ay, Amor had been — or even La Trampa, for that matter. Around this same time, though, Fonovisa released the lively hits collection Lo Mejor de Ana Bárbara: En la Monumental Plaza Mexico (1997), perhaps in acknowledgement that the Solís album wasn't going to satisfy everyone, especially those who wanted straightforward grupero. Tu Decisión (1999) was a return to form, with Pastor back at the helm as producer and contributing songwriter. One of his two songwriting credits, "Engañada," became the album's most notable hit. Tu Decisión is also notable in songwriting terms because it marks Bárbara's debut as a writer, with four of the album's dozen songs credited to her. Also in 1999, Bárbara debuted as an actress, starring in the made-for-TV film Todo Contigo; executive produced by mogul Miguel Kahan, the film was intended for stateside consumption, via Univision.
Around this point in time, the accolades were coming fast and furiously, most notably a 1998 Premio Lo Nuestro for Regional Mexican Female Artist of the Year and a 1999 Latin Grammy nomination. She stepped out of the limelight in 2000, however, for a maternity leave that resulted in the birth of her first child, Emiliano. This joyous occasion was offset by a tragic turn of events the following year, when her sister Marissa died in an automobile accident on October 22, 2001. Concurrently, Fonovisa released Te Regalo la Lluvia (2001), a special album for Bárbara because it fulfilled her wish of one day recording a straight ranchera album. She wrote a few of the album's songs herself, but all others were written by Fato, who like Solís is a talented songwriter as well as a popular singer. Te Regalo la Lluvia quickly became a favorite among fans, and those critics who had written off Bárbara as a grupero novelty built chiefly upon sex appeal consequently took her and her music a bit more seriously afterward. Among the album's singles, "Te Regalo la Lluvia" became a particularly big hit and marked her return to the top of the charts after nearly two years of silence. Fonovisa capitalized on the buzz with not one but two back-catalog compilations: 15 Exitos (2002) and Necesito Olvidarte (2002).
With her recording career reestablished and her name back on the charts, Bárbara didn't relent. Her next two albums, Te Atraparé...Bandido (2003) and Loca de Amar (2004), were among her best work to date, featuring the production of Carlos Cabral, Jr. and boasting heavily aired singles such as "Bandido," "Deja," "Loca," and "Lo Busqué." Fonovisa kept the product line running steadily with yet another greatest-hits compilation, Un Mujer, un Sueño (2004), this one generously compiled, with 20 well-considered selections, most of them past favorites. Public interest in Bárbara's personal life remained insatiable during this period, not only because of her fatherless child, but also because of her romantic entanglements with fellow celebrities. For instance, she set the tabloids afire when reports surfaced in 2005 that she was intimately involved with José María Fernández, aka El Pirru. This was scandalous because the man was the widower of Mariana Levy, a beloved Mexican telenovela actress, singer, and television show host who had died only three months earlier. Her death had been both tragic and bizarre, for she was only 39 years old and seemed in good health when she reportedly died of a heart attack while stopped at a red light in the Mexico City neighborhood of Lomas de Chapultepec. Her husband was with her at the time. The details of what exactly happened remain sketchy, because of differing witness testimonies that were compounded in their complexities by innumerable conspiracy theories.
The Mexican public in general was offended that Bárbara and El Pirru would become romantically involved with one another so soon after Levy's death. Levy's mother, Talina Fernández, a pioneer of Mexican television, made her views public, and they were far from supportive. Quite the opposite, actually, as she lamented what would happen to her grandchildren. In fact, few seemed supportive of Bárbara's latest celebrity fling, except perhaps the media, who were seeing dollar signs. Part of why the Mexican public turned against Bárbara was because of her poor track record, which includes past romantic entanglements with comedian Julio Sabala, boxer Jorge Kahwagi, and singer José Manuel Figueroa, not to mention the unnamed father of her son. Moreover, Bárbara's well-established reputation for brandishing her physical attributes publicly, in a clearly titillating manner, didn't help public perception of her personal character, which was often deemed unscrupulous in light of her relationship with El Pirru. Nonetheless, he proposed to her in October 2005 and they married a few months later. Then they announced that they were expecting a child. Needless to say, Mexicans were quite in shock about the whole series of events as it played out in the media, and Bárbara's recording career seemed in question. But often bad publicity isn't necessarily bad per se, and indeed Fonvisa kept its product line running on overdrive. The label released a pair of well-selling compilations, Confesiones (2005) and Mas Confesiones (2006), which paired the greatest hits of Bárbara with those of similarly attractive tejano star Jennifer Peña. There was also a new album, the Grammy-nominated No Es Brujeria (2006), and yet more compilations, including La Trampa y Muchos Éxitos Más (2006). ~ Jason Birchmeier