June 05, 2000 12:00 PM

At 14, Charlotte Church has sung for the Pope, Queen Elizabeth and President Clinton. The precocious Welsh-born diva of classical arias, whose 1999 debut album, Voice of an Angel, went double platinum in Great Britain and sold a million copies in the U.S., has also hobnobbed with grown-up celebs like Elton John, Jennifer Lopez, Will Smith and ex-Spice Girl Geri Halliwell. She seems to have handled her fame with aplomb. “It is my choice to do this…I don’t feel any pressure,” she told PEOPLE in March 1999. “My mum feels the pressure, my manager feels the pressure, and Sony [her record label] feels the pressure.”

Make that her ex-manager. Jonathan Shalit, 38, a London-based former ad man who discovered Church in 1997, was fired last January in a letter faxed by Church’s lawyers. No explanation was given. “I felt fairly stunned,” says Shalit. “It was totally out of the blue.”

Not according to Charlotte’s mother, Maria, 33, a former civil servant who now acts as her daughter’s personal assistant, and her second husband, James, 36, who adopted Charlotte last October. In response to a breach-of-contract suit that Shalit filed two weeks after his firing, asking for unspecified damages, the couple claim that he was let go in part because of his “shouting at [their daughter] and verbally abusing her” on what they say were “various occasions.”

Most dramatic was the blowup that occurred last September, after Charlotte, invited to New York City to appear on MTV’s Video Music Awards, gave a lilting rendition of “Just Wave Hello.” Backstage after the show, the mood turned ugly. Insisting that they had to leave to catch a flight to Switzerland, where Church was to perform at a private dinner attended by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Henry Kissinger, among others, Shalit (according to the Churches’ March 20 court papers) suddenly bellowed: “If———g told you to go and get your f———g plane, it’s not f———g delayed. I told you, I told you.”

“The language used on this occasion might not have been advisable,” Shalit admits in his own court papers, filed April 27. But, he says, “I never yelled at Charlotte. That was [directed] at the mother, as I was trying to get Charlotte on the plane. The only ongoing tirades,” he adds, “came from the mother and were aimed at everyone around her.”

Shalit declines to elaborate, and the Churches have turned down repeated requests for an interview. “Charlotte’s parents,” say their attorneys, “have decided that it is not in her best interest, particularly as she is a child, to try this dispute in the media.” But in their counterclaim to Shalit’s suit, the Churches issued a sensational allegation. “On various occasions,” they charge, “Mr. Shalit behaved in an excessively tactile manner towards Charlotte when she quite clearly felt very uncomfortable with any form of bodily contact from him.”

Although her parents don’t accuse the manager of deliberately molesting her, “the behavior was nonetheless highly inappropriate [and] embarrassing to Charlotte,” they allege. Yet because of her ongoing professional relationship with Shalit, they add, “Charlotte had difficulty in making [an] overt complaint.” Finally, however, it reached the stage where, say her parents, “she felt unable to even be in his presence.”

Not so, says Shalit, who wonders about the timing of the allegations. “There were never any incidents of tactile behavior,” he says. “Surely had there been so, Charlotte [or her parents] would have complained at that time. These allegations are a baseless slur.”

When Shalit introduced himself to the Churches in the summer of 1997, they were living in Cardiff, Wales, where Maria worked as a city housing administrator and husband James was a security-firm supervisor. Charlotte, who was 18 months old when her mother and her biological father, computer engineer Stephen Reed, split up, began singing at age 3 and later made the talent-show rounds with her mother. Shalit, whose biggest client had been harmonica player Larry Adler, was tipped off about Charlotte by a London TV producer and quickly brokered a five-record, $1 million-plus deal for her with Sony Classical. He also persuaded the powerful William Morris Agency to take her on as a client and negotiated a $ 1.2 million deal with Warner Books for her autobiography (due out next year). In October 1998, Maria quit her job to accompany Charlotte on tour. James later went along as her chaperon. “He irons her tops and makes sure she is tidy and ready,” says an insider. “It’s a major positive [for Charlotte] having her mum and dad with her.”

But not, apparently, her manager. “During the latter part of last year it was noted that Maria was throwing her weight around,” says one industry observer. Tensions may have peaked shortly before Charlotte’s appearance at the MTV awards last fall. The Churches charge in their court papers that Shalit displayed “inappropriate behavior” when he told a Sony executive visiting Charlotte’s Manhattan hotel room that the young star’s breasts were showing through a pink mohair sweater she wanted to wear onstage. Charlotte, who was listening, “felt highly embarrassed and humiliated.”

Recalls Shalit: “It was agreed by everybody who worked around Charlotte that she should not wear provocative clothing. The whole point is to keep children innocent as long as possible. I was asked, as her manager, the person who’d guided her career from day one, was the garment they wanted her to wear appropriate, and I said, ‘No, it wasn’t.’ And I explained why, and they turned it on its head. Her mother didn’t come to me later and say, ‘You should have said it more delicately.’ Never once was it mentioned until now. And it makes me very angry.” In the end, Shalit says, “she wore a loose-fitting, beautiful little dress that everybody loved.”

Even though he’s been ousted from her entourage, Shalit continues to be an avid fan of Church’s. “She is brilliant and there are no two ways about it,” he says. And she’s indisputably wealthy—with an estimated net worth of $16 million.

Indeed, for all the accusations of improper behavior, money may be a big part of the dispute. Among the Churches’ complaints is that Shalit’s commission of 20 percent was far too high. Dire Straits manager Ed Bicknell disagrees. “Most management arrangements I know about would be in that range,” he says.

Perhaps, suggests Andrew Stewart, a reporter for the British trade “journal Music Week, the arrangement was doomed from the start. “Character-wise,” he says, “there’s a big gulf between a rather green Welsh family and this somewhat flamboyant theatrical agent” who, says Stewart, may not have been “the best person for Charlotte. The kid may be insecure, and I think it’s a case of conflict of personality between Charlotte’s mother and Jonathan. Quite frankly,” he adds, “I’m surprised [their partnership] lasted as long as it did.”

Michael A. Lipton

Peter Norman in London

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