September 25, 2000 12:00 PM

Today’s Teen Celebrity Cautionary Tale begins in a grocery store on the outskirts of Los Angeles, where a suburban soccer mom recently went shopping with her son. “I was a mess,” she recalls. “No makeup, ratty clothes. Of course someone walked up and said, ‘You look just like that pop singer Tiffany.’ And I said, ‘No, I’m not her.’ As we were walking away, my son said, ‘But Mommy, you are Tiffany.’ And I said, ‘Not when I look like this, I’m not!’ ”

A decade ago, when she was the teen pop It girl of her day, drawing ‘N Sync-size crowds to her Tiffany Shopping Mall Tour ’87 and selling 4 million copies of her self-titled debut album, she would have no doubt set off a riot in that grocery store. Tiffany Renee Darwisch is now 28 and living contentedly in the ‘burbs in a three-bedroom house with her husband of eight years, makeup artist Bulmaro “Junior” Garcia, 31, and their son Elijah, 8. “I took being a mom very seriously,” Tiffany says of her long exile from the concert stage. “I didn’t have anything to say except ‘I’m doing the dishes and taking my son to school.’ ”

That may be about to change. On Oct. 29, Tiffany returns to the pop front with The Color of Silence, her first U.S. release in 10 years. Fans who grew up on her music may be in for a surprise. A recent review in Spin magazine calls Color “super-sexy.” But it also contains some dark themes. One ballad, “If Only,” is a tribute to Frank D’Amato, Tiffany’s longtime bodyguard, trainer and confidant, who died recently of cancer at 34. “He was my pillar of support,” she says, “someone who’d been with me through the good, the bad and the ugly.”

The bad times began in childhood. “There was a lot of turmoil in my family,” says Tiffany, whose late father, James Darwisch, a car salesman, divorced her mother, Janie, now 52, when Tiffany was a baby. Janie and her second husband, Dan Williams, with whom she has two other daughters, split in 1984, then remarried 11 years later.

Tiffany says that her mother’s admitted alcoholism caused problems in the home and that she herself “tried drinking and drugs” as a teen. “I’m very proud to say that my mom has been sober for 10 years now,” says Tiffany. “Our relationship was completely healed when I became a mother” in 1992.

As for another major player in her life, Tiffany says she “has no beef” with her former record producer George Tobin, who created some controversy at the time with his abrasive manner and the tight control he held over every facet of his client’s career. Tobin discovered her at age 12 in a recording studio where she was cutting a demo record. At 14, with Tobin’s help, she signed a $150,000 contract with the MCA record label. Two years later, Tiffany sued her mother for emancipation as an adult and won. “I was in the middle of it,” says Tobin. “People were blaming me for controlling her. The only thing I controlled was her career. She’s a very smart woman.”

Tiffany’s career took off in the wake of her 1987 cross-country mall tour. “At first she was singing to three women who were jewelry-shopping,” says Brad Schmidt, Tobin’s ex-partner and now Tiffany’s producer. “By tour’s end, thousands of kids were showing up. It was out of control.”

After scoring back-to-back No. 1 singles (“I Think We’re Alone Now” and “Could’ve Been”), Tiffany found herself eclipsed by New Kids on the Block, the boy band she hired as her warm-up act in 1987. The next year, Tiffany was opening shows for them. “I’d go out onstage,” she says, “and there’d be girls who just a year before had been screaming for me who were now screaming at me: ‘Can you get Joey’s autograph?’!”

Within three years, Tiffany had to settle for Vegas lounge gigs and tours of Asia. Back home in 1991 she met Garcia on a photo shoot. On their first date, he says, “she asked me if I wanted to go to church with her the next day.” He did, and a year later they were married. When his wife is in the studio or on the road, Garcia stays home with Elijah. “I’m happy for Tiff,” he says, “but that’s not for me. I have a lot of stress being a dad, taking care of the house. I’ll leave the limelight to her.”

Today, when Tiffany gets together with old rival-turned-friend Deborah Gibson, the conversation inevitably turns to the new crop of teen idols. While Tiffany rates ‘N Sync as her favorite boy band, she says of the girl acts, “I like them all.” And she offers some wisdom. “I would tell them what Cyndi Lauper told me many years ago: ‘Be sure you’re enjoying yourself. If you’re not, then it’s time to stop.’ At the end of the day, if you’re still kickin’ and you’re still doin’ what you love and you still have a dream, that’s all you need.”

Steve Dougherty

N.F. Mendoza in Los Angeles

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