Even in her hippie-chick days, when prodigal daughter Erin Hamilton was roaming the country as a Grateful Dead camp follower, her parents, comedian Carol Burnett and TV producer Joe Hamilton, never lost faith. “My mom and dad were so cool,” Erin says. “They wanted me and my sisters Carrie and Jody to go through whatever we had to go through to find out who we are.”
And a startling transformation it has been for the 31-year-old disco diva. “I started out as a rock and roll singer,” Hamilton says of her post-Dead scuffling in a series of failed L.A. rock bands. “I wasn’t really expecting to do dance music at all.” That changed last year when Hamilton recorded a disco version of Gary Wright’s 1975 rock ballad “Dream Weaver.” The tune became an international disco hit. After scoring two subsequent dance successes (“Satisfied”; “The Flame”), Hamilton has just released One World, a collection of her three hits along with original tunes.
Her success comes as no surprise to her mother. “She’s just got one really great set of pipes,” says Burnett, 66, who used to tape Erin’s childhood bathtub warblings. She does have one criticism: “The tattoos. I wish I had a giant eraser,” she says of the serpents, dolphins and sunflowers adorning Erin’s body. “She explained a few of them to me, and I said, ‘That’s nice, dear. Just don’t wear a backless dress.’ ”
Though always a free spirit, Erin managed to avoid most of the pitfalls encountered by Hollywood offspring including sister Carrie, who entered drug rehab at 15 and received a heartfelt letter from 10-year-old Erin. “It killed me that [my drug problem] affected her so deeply. And yet she had a very mature understanding of the situation,” says Carrie, now 35 and an actress and writer.
Although Erin’s playmates included Chastity Bono and Lisa Marie Presley (“I remember having Cocoa Puffs with the King,” she says), her home life was in some ways quite ordinary. Her parents (Joe produced The Carol Burnett Show on CBS for 11 years and died of cancer in 1991) tailored their schedules to maximize time with Erin, Carrie and Jody—now 32 and a film producer. “We were home every night for dinner,” Burnett says, “with the exception of Friday night.” That’s when Burnett taped her show. The girls would attend the afternoon’s dress rehearsal. “It mesmerized me,” says Erin. “And she mesmerized me. But it seemed normal: ‘Oh, Mom’s playing dress-up.’ ”
The family life she had known ended for Erin at 13, when her parents split up. “We all kind of knew it was happening,” she says. “We told them to do whatever they had to do to be happy.” Because her parents “didn’t want us to witness all the trauma,” she says, they sent her and Jody to live with friends in Hawaii. “We hated it the first couple of months,” she says. They then grew to love communing with nature instead of hanging at the mall. A year later Erin was attending a private arts school in Massachusetts, where she first got hooked on the Dead. At 19, she dropped out of Bennington College to become a Deadhead full-time. “I was a wreck,” says her mom, “but I talked to a psychologist, and he suggested that I let her—with the stipulation that she call me from every place they stopped.” Erin supported herself by selling T-shirts and crystals. By 23, her gypsy life had lost its luster. “I decided I wanted to be the band that people followed,” she says, “instead of always following the band.”
After five frustrating years in pursuit of rock stardom, she married musician Trae Carlson in 1995. Though the couple divorced in 1998, Carlson cares for their son, Zachary, 2, most weekends when Erin tours out of town. “We’re better parents apart than we were together,” says Erin, who shares a four-bedroom Hollywood Hills home with Zach. Being Carol Burnett’s daughter, she says, has instilled in her a healthy sense of humor. Although, she adds, “I wish I had gotten my mother’s legs. She has amazing legs.”
Mark Dagostino in Los Angeles