Less than a year ago, Tiffany Renee Darwish was an anonymous, 15-year-old high schooler from Norwalk, Calif. Today, thanks to her four-million-selling debut album, Tiffany, and two No. 1 singles, I Think We’re Atone Now and Could’ve Been, she’s a certified platinum pop phenom, a budding MTV star and the way-cool idol of the Benetton set. Tiffany, it seemed, had achieved the Great American Teen Dream—until last month, when the dream seemed to be splitting at the seams.
The first sign of trouble came when Tiffany, now 16, had her mother, Janie Williams, served with court papers requesting that the singer be recognized as an emancipated minor. Then, after moving out of the apartment she shared with her mother and two younger sisters, Tiffany was declared a runaway by the Los Angeles County sheriff’s office, which later dropped the alert. Refusing interviews and living with her grandmother near L.A., Tiffany awaits a superior court judge’s decision whether to grant her petition to become legally independent of her mother who, as Tiffany’s guardian, has rights to 70 percent of Tiffany’s royalties from her production company. The remaining 30 percent must go into a trust account until Tiffany’s 18th birthday.
Williams does not want to grant emancipation. Lawyers hired by Williams say she is worried that her daughter is being overworked and underpaid by Tiffany’s manager, George Tobin, 45. A record producer who signed the then unknown teenager to a seven-album contract in 1986, Tobin receives 50 percent of Tiffany’s royalties paid by her record company, MCA, and exercises tight control over every facet of her career, even dictating what songs Tiffany sings and how she sings them. “My contract with Tiffany is a perfectly normal agreement,” says Tobin. “Ask any entertainment attorney. It’s a production deal. I absolutely do not want a bigger share of her money. I’m entitled to what my contract calls for. It was approved by a judge, by attorneys, by everybody down the line as fair and equitable.”
Indeed, the percentages called for in the production contract are not “all that horrendous,” according to an industry source familiar with the situation. But “she’s nailed to him for seven albums. She’ll be 23 then. What bothers me is the fact that if she doesn’t like a song and he does, she has to sing it anyway. I don’t know how that’s going to fly when she’s 23.”
Tobin says he earned the right to profit from his prodigy’s talent. “I was involved before there was any money,” he says. “I put up the front money for the album [reportedly several hundred thousand dollars], all the money for [Tiffany’s private] schooling, everything. My motivation was thinking, ‘She is a star, all we have to do is get her there.’ ” Concedes the source: “I don’t like the guy, but I believe he kept that family going. Tiffany had nothing when she started except a great voice.”
Williams, who is twice divorced, is keeping mum about her problems with her daughter. Lawyers retained by her to look out for Tiffany’s interests say that Williams has repeatedly offered to put all the singer’s earnings into a trust fund.
So far, neither Tiffany nor Tobin is budging, even though, he says, the conflict has been emotionally costly. “I’m sure she would rather have not had this happen,” says Tobin. “I’m sure she would have liked it never to have been an issue. She’s not happy that she is forced to do what she is doing, not happy at all.”
—By Steve Dougherty, with Lisa Russell in New York