December 07, 1992 12:00 PM

MICHAEL BOLTON IS LOOKING GOOD: ROMANCE-NOVEL hair pulled back, diamond in his left ear, Armani on his back.

Michael Bolton is doing well: His album of pop standards, Timeless (The Classics), went to No. 1. bumping off country behemoth Garth Brooks.

Michael Bolton is sitting pretty: in a shaded, poolside cabana at L.A.’s nouveau-hip Peninsula Hotel. Yet when an attractive woman walks over to say hi, Bolton’s composure takes a brief trip to Disney World. The singer stands and tentatively asks her a sweet, silly and considerate question: “I’ve got to kiss you in public, OK?”

The question hangs in the air for just a moment. The woman is Knots Landing actress Nicollette Sheridan, and they’ve been an item for several months. They’re still nervous about exposing their candlelight romance to the klieg lights of public scrutiny. To obfuscate or celebrate? That is the question. What the heck. It’s a beautiful day. They kiss.

It’s OK. It’s even kinda cute. And Sheridan’s situation is one that millions of American women would love to find themselves in.

At 39, after 25 years of toil, Michael Bolton occupies a unique place in the pop firmament: Perhaps no artist is so fervently loved by his fans and so regularly blasted by music critics. The former, mostly women, pack his concerts, send him 1,000 letters a week and pushed sales of his previous album, Time, Love and Tenderness, past the 5 million mark. Critics, on the other hand, treat him like a human piñata, whacking him verbally at almost every opportunity. At issue, for the most part, is Bolton’s vein-popping, belt-’em-out style. Sniped Los Angeles Times critic Robert Hilburn: “Bolton is to music what [action star] Steven Seagal is to films…. This guy’s the sledgehammer of pop—someone who has never met a song he can’t pulverize.” After Bolton sang his high-testosterone version of “When a Man Loves a Woman” at the Grammys last February, composer Irving Gordon, 77, who wrote the pop standard “Unforgettable” 40 years ago, suggested that Bolton might need a truss. After winning the Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal that night, Bolton blew up at reporters, saying, “Rude people can kiss my ass.”

Of course, where critics hear caterwauling, fans hear plaintive emotion. Bolton’s friend and longtime songwriting collaborator, singer Diane Warren, identifies his appeal: “When a man is that vulnerable and sings something that tender, women love that. They melt.”

And they don’t take kindly to the brickbats. “It really pisses me off when they say he shrieks when he sings,” says a leading Bolton booster, his mother, Helen Bolton, a crisis center worker. “He just puts all he has into everything he does.”

That includes fatherhood, a role the pop hunk assumes with utmost seriousness. Though Bolton has gotten more ink for dating the likes of Marla Maples and Brooke Shields, as a divorced father he is far more deeply involved with his three daughters. Two of them, Taryn, 13, and Holly, 15, share the five-bedroom Westport, Conn., mansion he purchased in 1991. His oldest, Isa, 17, lives nearby with Bolton’s ex-wife, Maureen, and visits often.

Bolton is bound by court order not to discuss the terms of his 1991 divorce and won’t even divulge his ex-wife’s family name. “I was very young” is nearly all he will say about what went wrong with his 1975 marriage to Maureen, whom he met in a New Haven record store where she worked. During the couple’s 1989 separation, Bolton had limited visitation rights. “No matter how great a weekend you’ve had,” he says of his days as a part-time dad, “when you drop them off, you’re acutely aware of the fact that you’re a visitor.”

Bolton says the current custody arrangement was arrived at by “mutual agreement,” though it took the feuding couple’s lawyers almost two years to hammer out other details of the divorce settlement. “It’s a very liberal visitation,” Bolton adds. “I would never think of preventing them from seeing their mother. It’s always best for everybody, especially the kids, if there can be a rapport between both parents. Someday,” he adds, “that may happen.”

Anxious to make up for time lost while he built his career. Bolton recently purchased the house next door to his own and converted it into an elaborate recording studio.

“At 6:30 my middle daughter, Holly, calls me up and says, ‘Dad, dinner.’ I go, ‘OK, I’m on my way.’ ” says Bolton. “And whatever we’re doing in the studio, it waits until after dinner or until the kids are up doing their homework or in bed.”

Bolton has hired a live-in nanny to help care for the girls, a maid who cleans once a week and a cook who prepares their favorite vegetarian meals (pizza and pasta). When he isn’t busy in the studio, Bolton and the girls cruise to the mall or the movies in his new Mercedes 560 SEL or in the Jeep he bought for them and the nanny.

Becoming a single dad has been a learning experience. “It’s a fine line to walk where you’re a friend and at the same time, the authority,” he says. “Being tough is the hardest part because I have a lot of feelings of guilt from the years I was working to get my career down.”

“He tries not to spoil us,” says Taryn “Yet he doesn’t like to say no. He’s a major pushover. We say, ‘Pleeease, Dad!’ And he’s, like, ‘OK!’ ”

Luckily his daughters are equally approving of his latest date. Bolton was still married when he first met Sheridan, 29, several years ago at a house party thrown by pop saxophonist pal Kenny G and his wife, Lyndie. Things heated up at a subsequent meeting last summer. Sheridan was married and still living with former L.A. Law actor Harry Hamlin, though the union was rocky. Bolton says he was attracted to her but was also “nervous about exposing myself emotionally. When she moved out [of the home she shared with Hamlin], I felt more comfortable spending time with her, getting to know her. Even then, the little kid in me would say, ‘Is she gonna go running back? Are they really over?’ ”

Satisfied that Sheridan and Hamlin had indeed called it quits—though not yet finalized, their divorce is pending—Bolton took her home to Connecticut in September to meet his mother and daughters. They all hit it off. “I like Nicollette a lot,” says Taryn. Bolton’s mom, Helen, says that when her son first told her about Sheridan, “I thought, ‘Couldn’t you find someone who isn’t married?’ ” Still, Sheridan’s down-to-earth manner won his mother over. Later she asked Michael, “Can you talk to her?” He said, “Yes, we have wonderful conversations. She makes me laugh.”

“They seem happy together,” echoes Diane Warren. “She’s intelligent. She’s not a bimbo. She doesn’t put up with his crap. When you’re in his position, everyone’s telling you what you want to hear. She’s honest. She’s not a passive yes-woman.”

Although he currently has a rep as a sensitive, in-touch-with-his-feelings kind of guy, Bolton, his mother says, “kept a lot inside” as a child. Born Michael Bolotin—his late father, George, a New Haven Democratic ward chairman who died in 1981, was the son of Russian immigrants—the singer grew up in a broken home. The youngest of three kids—his musician brother Orrin, now 43, works with Bolton in his Westport studio; sister Sandra, 41, is a local social worker—he was 10 when his parents separated in 1964. “It was pretty tumultuous,” he says. “They divorced at a time when there was a real stigma. We were extraordinarily self-conscious about what our parents were going through.”

Having learned the saxophone at 7, Bolton Found relief from the tensions at home in music. He began playing guitar at 11, and by 14 he was singing with the Nomads, a New Haven bar band. A year later the group was signed by Epic Records but was dropped after two singles stiffed.

Two more record deals—one as a solo artist, the other as a permed-and-spandexed singer for a hard rock band called Blackjack—also fizzled. By then he was living with his wife and three kids in a two-bedroom New Haven walk-up and eating a lot of macaroni and cheese. “It’s not hard for me to access this view of that apartment,” he says. “I’m sitting at the kitchen table, wondering how I’m going to pay my rent and feed my children. I used to just stare. I would go in and out of the most depressing thoughts, trying to imagine some way out of the situation. That was the darkest period, when I didn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel.”

Light was eventually provided by Columbia Records, which signed him in 1982. The following year Laura Branigan hit with his “How Am I Supposed to Live without You.” Soon, Barbra Streisand, Cher, Kenny Rogers and even Kiss were recording his tunes.

His own singing career took off when he scored Top 20 hits with “That’s What Love Is All About” in 1987 and a cover of Otis Bedding’s classic “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” in 1988.

Three albums later he hasn’t slowed down—to the point that even friends urge him to stop and smell the tofu. “Michael is a very intense, strong-willed guy and probably the smartest artist I ever met,” says Warren. “When you’re one-on-one with him and he’s himself, he’s hilarious. But sometimes he can be hardheaded and take things too seriously. Sometimes you want to go, ‘Lighten up, will ya? You’re doing great. You’re one of the biggest stars in the world. Enjoy it!’ ”

It may be hard to bring Bolton around to that point of view. Romance with Nicollette is nice, and his kids are wonderful. But Bolton always keeps one eye focused on the font from which so many blessings flow: his career. He doesn’t smoke, seldom drinks and keeps his 6′, 180-lb. frame taut with regular workouts in his home gym. Long after his kids have gone to bed, he can still be found in his studio, honing his recordings and his reputation as a relentless perfectionist. “When you finally have what I have,” he says by way of explanation, “you don’t want anything to jeopardize it.”


TOM CUNEFF in Beverly Hills

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