He has the cool, skinny-hipped good looks and the elegant assurance of an international jet-setter. He walks like he owns the ground under his feet, and in fact, there are large estates in Spain, Mexico, France and America where that would be true.

He is a star in more countries than most people could name in 60 seconds; in America, where he is perhaps least known to the general population, he sold out Madison Square Garden three nights in a row.

When he was 9 years old, and still known as Rafael Martos, he won a contest in Salzburg, Austria, for having the best voice in Europe. It was, at the time, the only sterling thing about a boy born into a dirt-poor Andalusian family, the son of a laborer. "At 9, you don't think about careers," he says.

At 16, he walked away with a first prize in one of the pop song festivals that rage through Europe; it was the first of many awards and prizes. His name had been changed by then to Raphael, to "internationalize" it. Twenty-two years later, after 220 gold records worldwide, after 16 films, countless television shows and concert tours that expanded inexorably from province to country to continent, Raphael had truly become El Nin o D'Oro, The Golden Boy.

In between came the vision. "When I was 12 years old, I went to the theater," the singer says in halting and thickly accented English after a recent performance at Atlantic City's Tropicana (he performs tonight at the Kennedy Center).

"It was a comedy, 'La vida es sueno (Life's a dream),' by Pedro Calderon de la Barca. When I saw this play, I decide I will be artist. Dancer, singer, conductor, musician, actor, director, painter, writer . . . I don't know, but artist.

"I'm a singer because I have a good voice, but I could also be anything else in the artist's world."

Julio Iglesias may be the world's hottest Spanish singer these days, but it's Raphael who set the fire and then stoked it by establishing the huge international market that stretches from the heartland of Spain to Central and Latin America and from America to Japan and the Soviet Union (he can name unconquered territories simply: India and Africa). If he is not well known to Anglos, he's certainly been a superstar for 20 million Spanish-speaking Americans.

At 38, Raphael looks a bit like a Latino Bobby Sherman. "I have a very baby face," he confesses. "Not now, but when I was 20 years old." Back then, he packed the houses, gathered the crowds, did everything but part the waters in becoming a reigning pop star of Spain, then Europe, then the world. Nobody had ever inspired jammed airports and auditoriums and screaming fans like this Spanish blend of Tom Jones and Frank Sinatra.

Even as his voice deepened, Raphael established a style of pop singing as distinct as Edith Piaf's in France. Wildly emotional, sometimes embarrassingly sentimental, it is as emphatic about melody and lyric as American pop is about rhythm and beat. Between bouts of being a sex symbol, Raphael made records, starred in movies, played in Spanish versions of "Oliver!," "Pippin" and, as he calls it, "Billy the Liar."

America has been good to him--34 gold albums, according to his management--but unlike Iglesias, Raphael has never made any concessions in attempts to break the larger non-Spanish speaking market. For instance, he has never recorded in English. He didn't play here until 1968: by that time, he'd already had more than 100 gold records worldwide.

"The United States is very important for a singer," Raphael says, "but I have many other countries. I know perfectly French, I know perfectly German, I know perfectly Italian because it is very easy for a Spanish person to speak. But I don't like to sing in English, because when we record it's very . . . laboratory. I am an artist who is Andalusian." He pounds his heart softly. "My heart is very Andalusian. I don't like to sing in another language. I feel in Spanish."

"And people want to listen to me in Spanish because it is my language and that's the only way I can express myself from the heart. I know French perfectly, but when I sing in French, it's not the same."

Raphael differs from Iglesias in other ways, as well. Because of his severe working-class origins he has always been more popular among "the people" than among the upper classes. "In every family, if there are brothers, one is a child, 'Nin o.' Everybody calls me Nin o, the child, all my life," he says with barely concealed pride. "It's a beautiful word. 'El Nin o's coming, the child is coming, Nin o d'Andalusia.' "

Raphael's 1971 marriage in Venice to Natalia Figueroa, daughter of the Marquis and Marques de Santo Floro, was a major media event in Europe, a gender twist on the Cinderella story (they met when she was interviewing him for a book called "Types of Our Times"). They became the Spanish equivalent of Mick and Bianca, the working-class pop star and the fashion-conscious aristocrat joined together not only as man and wife but as certified Beautiful People. "My family was very poor," Raphael says. "Very, very poor. I married a very important woman in Spain, she come from a very rich and noble family."

Figueroa's grandfather had been prime minister during the reign of Alfonso the 13th during the First Republic. She and Raphael have three children, aged 4 to 9, and through the complicated system of European aristocracy, Raphael's wife and his oldest son, Jacobo, are in the long chain of succession. He himself is forever relegated to the kingdom of pop.

"My only goal is to sing well," says Raphael, whose voice remains remarkably strong after 22 years in every imaginable climate. He insists he never rehearses, preferring instead to work every day. "This is good for me because my voice is always ready. I like my work, I need to work every day," he says, "and I think the people know I like it."

"But I don't work for money," he adds, convincingly. "I have enough. I like it, everybody can use a little more money. But many years ago I made enough for me, for my children. I have been very poor, but not now. I have overcome."

There is only one thing, in fact, that Raphael must watch for.


Fans, a heavy percentage of them women, like to throw roses on stage during his concerts. "One time in Barcelona, there was a girl in the audience who was throwing roses up on stage, but before she was scrubbing the thorns with a knife. And the last one, by accident, she throw the knife."

Who said pop music wasn't dangerous?