Most fans know Panamanian actress/singer Daphne Rubin-Vega for her role as Mimi, the free-thinking doomed lover in Broadway's Tony-winning musical Rent. Before the big-belting New York City resident was an actress, though, she took a pop-star turn in the all-girl band Pajama Party, which released two little-noticed albums, Can't Live Without It and Up All Night, on Atlantic and shot to the top of the dance charts with the single "Yo No Se" in the early '90s. Though those efforts offered a glimpse at what Rubin-Vega was capable of vocally, it was the way she kicked off her career -- by approaching David Bowie producer Arif Mardin as a starry-eyed teen and pleading with him to let her record a song on the soundtrack to the 1986 George Lucas film Labyrinth -- that spoke loudest of her star-quality presence and gift for turning the charm on high.
Rent, which came along in 1994 after Rubin-Vega's attempt to establish herself as a solo vocalist post-Pajama Party with several dance singles on the Maxi label, found her through her regular gigs at Caroline's Comedy Club alongside fellow members of the Latino theater troupe El Barrio, USA. After a series of impressive performances with that outfit, casting directors recruited her to audition. By 1996, with the role of Mimi firmly in her grips and earning her raves -- her costumes, plucked from her own closet, defined the character and eventually spawned a line of Rent-derived clothes in Bloomingdale's -- she moved with the play from off-Broadway to very much on. And by the end of her name-making Rent run -- Rosario Dawson replaced her as Mimi in 1997 -- she had scored nominations for both a Tony and a Drama Desk Award.
With Broadway stardom out of her system, Rubin-Vega again directed her attention toward a singing career in 1997 with the release of Souvenirs on Mercury Records; it was met with mixed reviews. She also turned in performances in a number of forgettable films, including Wild Things and Flawless. But by 2001 she was back on Broadway, causing eyes to bug out in her role as Magenta in the all-star musical The Rocky Horror Show, based on the cult Tim Curry film. If that show marked a return to daring, free-spirited theatrical form, it was cemented in 2004 with another Tony nomination, this one for her performance in Anna in the Tropics with Jimmy Smits. Two years later she released a collection of pop, Latin folk, rock, and reggae songs titled Redemption Songs. The album hit the shelves right as she was making her debut as Fantine in the Broadway revival of Les Miserables. ~ Tammy La Gorce