SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - Television astrologer Walter Mercado, whose glamorous persona made him a star in Latino media and a cherished icon for gay people in most of the Spanish-speaking world, has died. He was 88.
Mercado was known throughout Latin American for the melodrama of his daily horoscopes, delivered on internationally broadcast networks such as Univision with an exaggerated trilling of the "r''. He favored colorful brocaded capes and huge gemstone rings, which he flashed while pointing at viewers.
Mercado never publicly discussed his sexual orientation but his screen presence was a source of comfort for many people in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual communities throughout Latin American and Latin communities in the U.S., said Alex Fumero, a Los Angeles-based producer who has spent two years working on a documentary about him.
"This is a culture that's been dominated by machismo and homophobia for a very long time," Fumero said in a phone interview. "He was really brave."
Fumero said Mercado's silence on his orientation may have allowed him to keep the adoration of LGBTQ fans and maintain acceptance from conservative Latinos who could have rejected an openly gay television star.
Fumero said one LGBTQ activist told him, "You don't ask about what you can see," adding that he believes that was the attitude held by many from Mercado's generation.
"It's the plausible deniability that chauvinist or homophobic audiences need in order to give Walter the pass that they needed...to enjoy the message he was sending them," Fumero said.
Fumero said he grew up watching Mercado and recalled his grandmother shushing him every time the astrologer delivered his predictions: "If Walter was on TV, everybody had to be quiet."
Hospital spokeswoman Sofía Luquis told The Associated Press on Sunday that Mercado died from kidney failure at the Auxilio Mutuo Hospital in San Juan late Saturday. He had been living in the suburb of Cupey and had spent several days in the hospital before his death.
Mercado was born in Ponce, one of Puerto Rico's largest cities. Although he took university courses in pharmacology, psychology and pedagogy, he became a well-known dancer and theater actor and also appeared in several soap operas.
He worked briefly for TV stations based in the U.S. Caribbean territory before moving to South Florida, where he joined Univision.
Mercado, whose popularity began to soar in the 1980s, had a collection of more than 2,000 capes, including some with feathers, precious stones and unique embroideries.
His best-known catch phrase was "Above all, lots and lots of love."
"He is one of those people who used his celebrity and power to reach millions in order to inspire people with good messages," said Aida Levitan, who helped organize an exhibition in August at the HistoryMiami museum to honor Mercado.
She said hundreds of people showed up and wanted to meet him and take pictures, and he agreed to it all.
"It's not easy at the age of 88 to face 500 people trying to take pictures. He never lost his cool," Levitan recalled in a phone interview with the AP. "He used all his gifts and talents for the good of mankind, and that's what makes him so appealing."
Mercado, however, also faced some legal battles.
In 1998, he got in trouble for endorsing alleged health and beauty products and was named in a class-action lawsuit that accused him of misleading people into buying beads with supposed special powers. The president of the jewelry company, Unique Gems International Corp., was later sentenced to 14 years in prison for defrauding 16,000 people in a $90 million scam.
In October 2010, Mercado announced he was changing his name to "Shanti Ananda." That same year, he stopped shooting his segment for the Univision Spanish-language TV channel. Months later, he began to deliver daily horoscopes through El Nuevo Herald newspaper in Miami.
Mercado was hospitalized in December 2011 in Puerto Rico following a cold that turned into pneumonia. His health condition worsened, and he was transferred to a hospital in Ohio. It was later revealed that he had suffered a heart attack.
In 2014, he launched a website called passionlatinos.com that offered horoscopes, online dating and an array of products called "Captivating," that included fragrances, candles, soaps and body lotions aimed at prosperity, sex, health, peace and love.