Rebecca Valadez inspects her freshly manicured, pale-pink fingernails with a frown. “My mom said I had to get them done,” she says. “This is just going to chip off when I play the guitar.” It’s just one of many contradictions in her career, which she’s talking about in a North Side coffeehouse, days before leaving for California. There, she’ll be looking for work as a glamorous pop singer — backing up a big star, fronting for a band, or (best case) as a solo recording artist.

She’s done all three and more. Valadez is also a songwriter, working out melodies on the guitar she learned to play a few years ago, after discovering she could write songs as well as sing them. Before that, “If it had anything to do with singing, I’ve done it,” says Valadez.

She’s not kidding: Only midway through her 20s, the San Antonio native has worked her way through a pretty complete catalog of musical job opportunities: backing up a pop diva on a world tour, singing with the house band on a television variety show, appearing in some commercials, playing the title role in a touring production of Selena Forever, competing (twice) on Star Search and teaching voice to teenage hopefuls.

Valadez got her own start in show business long before she hit her teens. There were musicians — mariachi, Tejano and gospel — on both sides of the family. The first public performance she can remember is “getting up on the stage my Uncle Louis ran at Market Square and singing a Tiffany song,” when she was 7 or 8 years old.

The family’s entertainment gene must have kicked in, because from there, Valadez went on to become a member of Showstoppers, a children’s musical troupe, and signed with a local talent agency. That led to her first commercial, an international McDonald’s spot in which she and actors portraying her parents rode bicycles through downtown San Antonio.

By the time she was 11, she was out in California, getting paid for a succession of weekly appearances on Star Search, where she made her way to the finals in the international children’s category, and came in second to a Korean-American girl.

Valadez, positioned as a Mexican-American, sang Dos Arbolitos, decked out in a little mariachi suit. It was a clear identity, but it wasn’t exactly hers. At the time, she says, “I didn’t speak a word of Spanish. My mom had to teach it to me phonetically.” Her parents, Marshall and Sandy Valadez, grew up on San Antonio’s South Side, but had moved to Bulverde, where they spoke English around the house. While their daughter was growing up, the house soundtrack came from her mother’s favorite ’70s albums — by Earth Wind and Fire, Tower of Power and other English-language funk artists.

Until Valadez went to a predominately Anglo elementary school, she says, “I didn’t know I was Hispanic. I just thought I was American.” Like so many other Americans, her heritage is mixed: “We’ve got Mexican, Irish, French, German, Apache, Comanche, Canary Islander and Castilian Spanish,” she says, ticking off each ethnicity on her well-tended fingertips. “That’s American, right?”

Her mother’s ancestors “were in Texas before it was Texas,” Valadez says. Her mother, a green-eyed blonde, is a member of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, the lineage organization for descendants of pre-revolutionary Texans that cares for the Alamo. With dark hair and eyes, “I take after my father’s side,” she says, laughing. “We look like Aztecs.”

For a while, Valadez wasn’t sure she liked her looks. In middle school, she says, “I had a bad self-image. So my mom put me in beauty pageants.” For a couple of years, Valadez trained like an athlete to wear clothes well, to move gracefully onstage and, most important, to hold an audience. “It’s not enough to look good and sing well,” she says. “You have to identify with an audience seconds after meeting them. You have to project a certain amount of personality.”

In a succession of frilly dresses, Valadez mastered the pageant game, winning contests for Little Miss Rising Star and Junior Miss Bexar County, finishing in the semifinals of one state contest in which she was the youngest of 50 contestants. Lessons learned, mission accomplished: “My mom said, ‘You’re pretty, OK?'”

During her preteen pageant years, Valadez says, “We would go to Payless, and I’d try on high-heeled shoes and say, ‘They fit, see? They fit!’ — with the back of the shoes sticking out way past my heels.” She might have been glad to wait, she says, “if Iknown that by the time I was 13, I’d be singing in nightclubs, wearing a beaded gown and standing in high heels for four hours at a time.” Her grandfather arranged for her to sing at the Oak Hills Bar and Grill — “one of my family’s hangouts” — where she belted out Celine Dion tunes, mixed with a little salsa and merengue. Customers sent her Shirley Temples to sip between sets. “I didn’t realize it could get any better than that,” she says, smiling.

But it did. Another family member told her that Grupo Mazz, a long-successful Latino band, was looking for its first female vocalist. Valadez, at age 14, got the job, which led to full professional status, work with other bands and, eventually, a share in two Latin Grammy awards. By day, however, she was still a student at Smithson Valley High School. “I would have liked to have been a cheerleader,” she says wistfully, “but I was told that yelling could hurt my voice.” Roles in school musicals also were out, since rehearsals might conflict with band commitments.

“I wanted to go to college,” she says. “I thought I would go.” But a tip from a hairdresser, “who does a lot of the Tejano stars’ hair,” sent Valadez to an audition that turned out to be her graduation to the next level of success. Instead of going to college, she went on a world tour as a backup singer for Janet Jackson, who would be promoting her comeback album, The Velvet Rope.

Touring from 1998 to 1999 behind the triple-platinum selling record, Valadez learned a lot by being part of a big-time show. At first, she says, “I couldn’t believe I was onstage, singing songs I’d danced to with my brother (Chris, now a vocalist/keyboardist for 10Stick, a rockabilly band) when we saw the videos on TV.” Sharing the stage with a bona fide pop superstar, “I had to remember: ‘Don’t look at Janet. Look out at the audience.'”

When The Velvet Rope tour stopped in San Antonio, her family threw a party for her, a barbecue to which she invited friends from the show. Except for Jackson, who found out when a drummer asked her if she was going to the party. “What party?” asked the diva.

“I never thought she would come!” says Valadez, still mortified at the memory. “I thought she’d be doing interviews, going to bed early in the hotel.” Hastily issued an invitation, the star — then known for an ascetic fish-and-rice diet — showed up at the barbecue. “There she was, doing shots of tequila with my family, all 500 of them,” Valadez says, laughing.

The Jackson tour gave her the credentials to try her luck in California; for the last seven years, Valadez has divided her time between Venice Beach (where she stays with a friend from her “Texas-Hispanic Brat Pack” days) and San Antonio, where she comes to rest up, write songs and reconnect with family.

When she pauses, it’s not for lack of work. Valadez might not be a household name, but if you hadn’t heard of her, you may well have heard her sing. Back on Star Search in 2003, she made it to the semifinals for female vocalists. A couple of years ago, she sang with the house band for a season of The Wayne Brady Show, an ABC-TV variety show. Valadez played slain Tejano star Selena Quintanilla Perez in Selena Forever, a tribute show that opened at Municipal Auditorium and toured the country. She’s been a musical guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Rosie O’Donnell Show and Cristina, and she recorded vocals for a Fisher-Price lullaby CD and recordings heard on Radio Disney.

Even when Valadez is back home, she stays busy, acting as a judge (along with local jazz singer Beverly Houston) in a Gimme the Mike talent contest hosted by actor/singer John Schneider and recording her first, self-titled CD with San Antonio-based AMI Records. Most recently, she was senior vocal instructor for the Network of Young Artists, San Antonio Chapter, a nonprofit organization that provides young people with opportunities to develop and showcase their talents as singers and dancers.

“You learn from teaching,” Valadez says. “It makes me think about the different ways there are to get into an audience’s heads.” For instance, she has found that performing gives her a “huge adrenaline rush that makes you take in more air and sing louder.” To start at that high-energy level, she tells her students to “do a few jumping jacks before you go onstage, jump for joy.”

These days, songwriting is what makes Valadez happy. She discovered her own talent as a lyricist three years ago, when she got a job recording demos for the Creative Collective, which sponsors an annual Songwriters’ Summit and Songposium in Toronto, Canada. Her role was supposed to be to record only the participants’ songs, but after she’d offered a few suggestions to a writer, another workshop group asked for her help. Soon she was writing her own songs, and she has returned to the event twice as a writer.

Songwriting may be less visible than performing, but it has its advantages. “I’ve always struggled with my identity,” she says. A record-label executive once told her, “You can’t do tropical Latin (Cuban and Puerto Rican musical styles)” and recommended that she try for a Tejano sound.

That could be hard, since Valadez still can’t speak Spanish fluently. It’s a problem for her to be interviewed on Spanish-language radio and television shows, where she’s stuck answering in memorized phrases. “I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish or listening to Spanish-language music,” she explains. “I have great respect for Hispanic entertainers who speak Spanish, but that’s not me. I don’t want to base an entire career on something that’s not in my heart.”

Going by her looks and her last name, casting agents keep sending her to auditions for roles in telenovelas. “My (Spanish) pronunciation is perfect,” she says. “I don’t have an accent, but the last time I read for a part, the casting director said, ‘You don’t have any idea what you’re saying, do you?'” When she sees Hispanic actresses such as Jessica Alba becoming successful without much reference to their ethnicity, she says, “I want to call them up and ask, ‘How did you do it?'”

As a songwriter, she says, “My music speaks for me. It doesn’t matter who wrote it if you like the song.” Most of the songs on her debut album are co-written by Valadez; they draw on pop harmonies and Latin rhythms, and some even have a country flavor. All the lyrics are in English. “I’m just trying to be myself,” she says. “I want to be American, just American. I can sing in Spanish, sure, but why can’t I sing pop and R&B? That’s the music I grew up with, the music I like.”

This time out in California, Valadez is going to insist on the identity she chooses for herself: a singer who writes some of her own material, a Hispanic-surnamed Texan who sings whatever she pleases. “I’m going back,” she says, “because I’m ready for the next step.”

Author: Paula Allen

Photographer: Janet Rogers