Tiffany in Legal Battle : 16-Year-Old Pop Star Trying to Gain Control of Her Career

Times Staff Writer

Tiffany, the fresh-faced teen idol who skyrocketed to the top of the national pop charts last year, is embroiled in a bitter legal battle to shift control of her career from her mother to herself, and indirectly to her manager.

At stake is her share of an estimated $1.5 million in royalties from the 16-year-old's MCA recordings, including her hit album "Tiffany," which has sold more than 4 million copies.

A Los Angeles Superior Court decision on whether Tiffany Renee Darwish can be legally recognized as an adult could be rendered as early as this week, according to court sources. A ruling in her favor could allow her to shift control of her career to her manager-producer, George E. Tobin, 45.

Meanwhile, Tiffany, who launched a concert tour this week, has moved out of the family apartment in Norwalk and has been classified a "runaway" by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's office.

According to sources close to the family, Tiffany has been temporarily living with her aunt somewhere in Los Angeles County. Attempts by The Times to reach Tiffany through her family, her attorney and her manager were unsuccessful.

The singer, whose hit singles include a remake of the Beatles' "I Saw Her Standing There," has been at the center of a legal tug-of-war between her manager and her mother for months. The matter has been in the hands of a juvenile court mediator since March 18.

The auburn-haired teen-ager seeks the right to execute her own contracts--a right that is customarily deferred to a parent or guardian until a child is 18. Tiffany will be 18 on Oct. 2, 1989. Tiffany filed a request for emancipation from her mother under a little-used section of the California Civil Code, according to court sources.

According to dependency court coordinator Charlene Saunders, Sec. 61 of the Civil Code allows children over 14 the right to make adult decisions under certain circumstances if a judge concurs.

Tiffany's mother, Janie C. Williams, has retained sole custody of the young pop singer since Mrs. Williams' 1985 divorce from Tiffany's stepfather, Daniel W. Williams. (Tiffany's real father, James Darwish, 53, relinquished custody to Mrs. Williams after their divorce in the early 1970s.)

Shortly after Tiffany filed for emancipation last month, Dan Williams went to the Norwalk Sheriff's Station, claiming that Tiffany was being manipulated by Tobin, according to sheriff's records. Though she is classified as a runaway, the sheriff's office took no further action.

"It's not something we put people in jail for, but we do try to locate them and return them to their homes," Capt. Robert Pash said.

Since then, the Williamses and Tobin have refused to discuss Tiffany publicly. Several phone calls The Times made to Tobin's North Hollywood recording studios were not returned.Mrs. Williams, who still lives in a Norwalk apartment with her two younger daughters, declined to speak with The Times pending the outcome of the emancipation hearing. Williams also refused to talk about the matter.

Two weeks ago, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Richard Ibanez asked dependency court mediator Julius Lebow to determine whether Tiffany is mature enough to make adult decisions. Until Lebow renders his decision, Ibanez has ordered that the court file on Tiffany's emancipation request be sealed.

But other court records help to put the current battle in perspective. They reveal a troubled family background for Tiffany and a tough music industry veteran in Tobin.

According to the Williamses' 1985 divorce records, Mrs. Williams was awarded custody of Tiffany and her two younger half-sisters. Acquaintances and family members said in court declarations that Mrs. Williams had a drinking problem. The judge subsequently recommended that Mrs. Williams "attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings not fewer than three times per week."

Dan Williams, who was cited in the court file as a major influence in shaping Tiffany's career, encouraged Tiffany to perform country and Western standards in public at an age when most children are still learning to read and write.

In the divorce proceedings, Williams claimed that a scrapbook of Tiffany's singing career should not be left in Mrs. Williams' possession because she "has not contributed to or put anything in said scrapbook and she might destroy or damage it while drunk."

Tiffany's MCA biography paints a picture of a dedicated child performer:

"Singing with local bands and performing wherever possible, she worked hard to develop the skills she needed as she entered her teens. Her big romance was with the radio. Listening attentively, she learned to duplicate any pop female singer she heard. This was of enormous help to her--having no professional training, the radio became her teacher. Her versatility proved invaluable when she and her producer/manager George Tobin began preparing for a serious recording project."

Before embarking on that project, however, Tobin signed Tiffany to a seven-record deal in March, 1986. According to Superior Court records, the 14-page contract, signed by Tiffany and her mother, ties the teen-ager's fortunes to Tobin's production company.

The contract gives Tobin exclusive rights to her music and videos and half her earnings. It also gives him veto power over her public appearances, her musical style, her publicity photos and even her biography.

"In the event that George Tobin Productions disapproves of the biography and pictures supplied by (Tiffany), Tobin will make available to you for your approval biographical material and pictures concerning you to be so used by Tobin. . . . Tobin shall thereafter have the right to select and use such biographical material or pictures as it shall determine, in its sole discretion, and you shall have no approval rights in respect thereof."

The contract also gives Tobin control of the royalties that MCA pays for Tiffany's tapes, albums, videos and singles. Tobin's contract with MCA calls for his production company to receive a 12% royalty on the first 500,000 albums sold, escalating 0.5% with each additional 500,000 albums sold. Tiffany receives half of the royalties, according to her contract with Tobin.

According to industry sources, royalties on "Tiffany" currently total more than $1.5 million.

Under California law, a minimum of 30% of a minor's gross earnings must be held in trust for the minor until he or she becomes an adult. As Tiffany's sole legal guardian, Mrs. Williams is trustee of Tiffany's blocked account trust fund.

Tiffany's debut album has been on Billboard magazine's national sales chart for seven months, currently at No. 5. The album has produced three hit singles. Besides the Beatles tune, the hits were "I Think We're Alone Now" and "Could've Been."

Steve Hochman contributed to this article.

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