As a California teenager, Nia Peeples wasn’t so much the life of the party as its engine. “I could never go to a dance and just dance,” says Peeples, a 5’2″, 105-lb., high-octane mix of sensuality and fun. “I had to be running the damn thing.” Now Peeples is running a bigger damn thing—Party Machine with Nia Peeples, a half-hour blend of wall-to-wall dancing and clubland schmoozing—six nights a week, after The Arsenio Hall Show.
Peeples is host, and a most inviting one, says producer Peter Wagg. “She has this wonderful, warm personality,” he declares, “and she’s very sharp.” But it’s Arsenio who’s throwing the Party. He’s executive producer of the program, which airs on the tail of his own show on 150 stations, earning respectable Nielsens since its January debut.
“The whole idea,” explains Peeples, 29, “is that it’s an ‘after party for Arsenio’s show. He wants the feel of people hanging out and having a good time, with something good to look at—which for him is beautiful bodies dancing.” Most important for Hall, though, was the one beautiful body that, almost perversely, would not be dancing. He shaped the show around Peeples after watching her at the helm of another club-scene show, MTV’s Friday Night Street Party, last year. Hall has described Peeples as “the smartest, most versatile, gorgeous woman in the category”—the category being fundamentally fun hipstresses who can make a dance show trip the light fantastic.
A small group, to be sure, probably about the same size as the subset of stars who are also Polynesian dancers. Peeples belongs to that one too, thanks to lessons she had when she was 7 years old and growing up in Hollywood, the daughter of two computer programmers. (Her father, Robert, is Scottish, and her mother, Elizabeth, is Filipino—hence Peeples’s exotic looks.) The dancing was Dad’s idea. “He knew this woman from Tahiti who taught Polynesian dances.” Peeples says. “So he had her come over and teach me and my two sisters [Paula, now a 32-year-old housewife, and Cynthia, 27, an aspiring actress-dancer].”
Then, to paraphrase that great Polynesian ballad “Bali Ha’i,” showbiz called her. Peeples graduated with straight A’s from West Covina High School but lasted only a semester at UCLA. “I wanted to be performing,” she says. Within two years she was back in high school—the High
School for the Performing Arts, that is, on the syndicated TV version of Fame. “I had done a lot of group activities—with the Young Americans chorale, high school choir—that were much like Fame,” says Peeples, who played the sexy singing-and-dancing Nicole, “so it was actually the most perfect show I could have done.”
After television perfection—Nicole was killed off in 1987—came disco propulsion. Peeples had a dance hit with the title track from her 1988 debut album, Nothin but Trouble (she’s now at work on a second album). Trouble, in fact, was anything but. It was coproduced by the man who in 1989 would become her husband-songwriter and soul singer Howard Hewett, formerly of Shalamar. Hewett was already crazy about Peeples. “Fame wasn’t a show that I ran home to look at,” he says, “but when I watched it, I would watch it to look at her.”
“We started working together and became good friends,” says Peeples. “But both of us were involved with other people.” She was in the midst of breaking off her engagement from Fame costar Carlo Imperato; Hewett was in the process of getting a divorce from his wife of three years. “Then his children [daughters Rainey and Lakiva, now 9 and 11] came to live with him. And he didn’t know what to do with them,” Peeples says, teasing Hewett.
“Get out of here!” he objects.
“I love you, babe,” Peeples coos, “but you didn’t know how to be a mom.”
He seems to know how to be a dad, at any rate. His daughters spend most of the week with the couple at their four-bedroom home in Los Angeles’ suburban Calabasas. (On weekends, when Party Machine tapes, the girls go to their mother’s.) Hewett and Peeples have one child of their own, Christopher, 21 months.
Chris, the daughters, the marriage, the home—Peeples thinks these are all factors in Hewett’s growing solo success. (His latest album, Howard Hewett, was glowingly reviewed.) “Now there’s a deeper aspect to his songs about relationships,” she says. And, of course, he gets the pleasures of Party Machine in his own home. “People ask me, ‘How does it feel? Nia’s so sexy,’ ” says Hewett. “And I tell them, ‘You should sec her in the morning.’ ” Unless Arsenio decides to produce Bacon and Eggs with Nia Peeples, they won’t.
Tom Gliatto, Michael Alexander in Los Angeles