People - Joselito Ortega, Bullfighter

Joselito Ortega, Bullfighter © Michelle Chaplow
Joselito Ortega, Bullfighter

BLOOD IN THE DUST

He's a bullfighter who isn't afraid to take on the ultra-macho world of bullfighting by carrying gay advertising, compares his moves to dance steps, and doesn't like watching gory movies. Wherever you stand on the always controversial subject of 'tauromaquia' - the bullfight - Joselito Ortega is most definitely not your average matador.

 

 

Lean and lithe as a ballet dancer, but much better-looking, Joselito Ortega is a very modern sort of bullfighter.

You're born to be a bullfighter, says Ortega. © Michelle Chaplow
"You're born to be a bullfighter," says Ortega.

In this extremely closed world, where men and men and bulls are this afternoon's entertainment and tonight's dinner, he made headlines last year by breaking two major taboos in one go: not only did he agreed to carry a company's logo on his cape and "muleta` (the small cape waved in front of the bull), but the company in question makes soft drinks aimed at the gay community.

Ortega has maintained in previous interviews that it's about "changing what is normal, or usual, within this world that seems so untouchable". In this case, his sponsorship by the drinks company - the product he was advertising was called Deep Energy - went sour . Ortega claims they failed to keep their end of the deal (which included providing bulls for him to train with at a certain time at a certain place). But what was most revealing was the way he dealt with the blaze of publicity which inevitably followed the announcement of the agreement: everyone and anyone was asking him if he was gay, and he always answered very good-naturedly, even declared 'If they think I am gay, I don't care." Those are brave words indeed spoken by a man who moves - indeed is not yet fully established - in what is surely one of the most macho sports (categorised under "culture" in Spain) in the world.

You have to admire Ortega for his chutzpah, his determination, and sympathise with his current position - after the collapse of the deal, he has now been left without a manager (the drinks company were going to be his official representatives as part of a three-year contract) at the start of the season.

Ortega's father, also a bullfighter, trained him © Michelle Chaplow
Ortega's father, also a bullfighter, trained him.

"This year is going to be very hard for me," he states. "I have no manager, I don't know when I will start my fights. It's all up in the air. But I am going to train as if I was going to fight 15 times this year, as normal."

Ortega has said that while the experience damaged his career, in that it has left him hanging for this season, he is not worried about damage to his image by association with the gay drink - "Everything is very clear," he says, "I have no problem with that." When I ask him about his own sexuality, for the record, he replies calmly, "I am not gay. I am single now, I don't have a girlfriend, but I have had."

Ortega does not strut as you might imagine a bullfighter would - he is a quiet, modest sort of man - even a bit shy. Not qualities you would normally associate with someone who earns their living facing off 500-kilos of raging, solid muscle, while wearing 3,500-euro worth of hand-stitched white silk decorated with gold braid (the "traje de luces", suit of lights).

Joselito also, rarely for an Andalucian, speaks very good English, the result of having an "English family", friends whom considers closer than blood relatives. "Tita Sheila", a longtime friend of his mother's who he has known him since he was a baby, lives in the same block as him - "I'm on the seventh floor, she's on the 11th" - in his native Malaga. He also visits a childhood American friend every year, and regularly stays with his "English family" in London, Tita Sheila's daughter. "I go to London when I need to get away from Spain, to think about things, as a break. Everything is totally different," he explains. "I like going to Oxford Street, the big wheel, Big Ben. I like seeing all the different people - punks, goths with their faces black and painted with blood."


He enjoys going out around Piccadilly and Soho, and thinks that England's more "controlled" licensing laws - in terms of opening hours - are preferable to Spain's because "What do you do at night? Nothing good. If you finish at 3am, you're happy, you go home, and you can get up the next day at a normal time, with a normal body. But here, if you go to bed at 7 or 8, the next day you're not a normal person."

It's like learning dance steps, explains Ortega © Michelle Chaplow
"It's like learning dance steps," explains Ortega.

Indeed, Ortega seems to be a model of moderation. He doesn't smoke - "lots of bullfighters do," he comments - and will only have 'a few beers with a meal or at a party with friends." He has an intense fitness regime, running 7-10km four to six days a week, trains with his cape for up to four hours several times a week, and also does kickboxing at the gym. As a result, he is very slim, with not an ounce of fat, and, at the age of 31, in peak physical condition.

So how long has been doing this for? "I started when I was 11. My father was a bullfighter too - he was the first person to tell me, "Don't do this, it's very hard, you will lose your teenage years." So Ortega trained for two years on his own, for three or four hours a day, until his father "saw I really wanted to do it," and agreed to train him.

"My father was really, really tough on me," he recalls. "I didn't understand why at the time, though I do now. I am glad he did it." They would work together until Ortega Sr felt they had achieved their aim for that day. "If it was done in three hours, then I could go home, train, run, do other things. We trained on Sundays, my birthday, all the time. But that was what I wanted to do."

He carried on training through school and then later university. He explains: "There are basic movements and techniques you have to learn. Then you add your own personality, what you have inside. It's like learning dance steps, or to play the guitar. First you learn the notes, then you can compose music."

Ortega grew up on his father's farm in Cadiz - Ortega Sr stopped bullfighting when his son was two years old - surrounded by "toros bravos". He is very close to his younger brother, who comes to all his fights. His mother, formerly a stage actress, now works in an office.

When I press the young bullfighter on what qualities he believes are integral to being a successful matador, he says that it is something you are born for, not something for which you can study hard and then pass exams. `You have the qualities in you already, then you work and create a bullfighter,´ he says enigmatically. "You have to be prepared to sacrifice a lot". Including large chunks of flesh from your body, in many cases - Joselito has had seven percances (gorings) in the ring since he started his "alternativo" in 2006, the ceremony when a bullfighter is formally initiated and moves from being a novillero (novice) to a fully-fledged matador.

In terms of the future for the world of bullfighting, which a recent survey said 72 per cent of Spaniards aren't at all interested in, he believes it will have to adapt. "It's a closed world with old, closed rules," Órtega tells me. "But everything changes - it will change in the next 10-15 years. We will see more adverts on capes, and also on cars and vans, like those for Halcon Viajes (ads on some matadors' team's vans)."

The bullfighter's traje de luces costs 3,500 euros. © Michelle Chaplow
The bullfighter's "traje de luces" costs 3,500 euros.

When I ask him the six-million-dollar question, about the many, many people (among whom I count myself), who are repelled by the whole idea of bullfighting he replies, with some passion, though no antipathy whatsoever, "They don't know, they've never been to a bullfight. I always say, you must go, try to see through the eyes of the bullfighter, understand what he feels, understand the connection between the bull, the bullfighter and the audience. When you have tried it, then you can come to your own conclusion. If you don't like it, you are free to have your own opinion, don't go again. The first time is maybe a shock, next time you will be more relaxed. It's something great - like opera. First time it's horrible, but after a few times it's great."

Whether or not his arguments are enough to convince you, let me leave you with this final, fascinating, contradictory comment, amazing in its irony. We talk about what Ortega likes doing in his leisure time - he loves going to the cinema, likes all types of movies, especially action films. He loved Avatar. So far, so predictable. But then I ask if he has seen another recent Oscar-winner, The Hurt Locker. Looking death in the face, risking serious injury, being incredibly brave, both mentally and physically, and clear-headed. Not for the faint-hearted. And what does he say? "It's a war film. I don't like seeing bombs and blood." There speaks a truly unreconstructed, modern, in-touch-with-his-inner-sensitive-guy, Andalucian bullfighter. Ole!

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