Accompanied by a big, beefy bodyguard, Pebbles rushed into a restaurant in West Hollywood, apologizing for being late. Just before the interview, the new dance-music star had been shopping at the boutique down the street.
Sitting down at a table, she confessed: "I love clothes. I can't pass up an opportunity to buy some. Fashion is my thing."
Singing is her thing too. She's another of those young female dance-music singers, like Tiffany and Debbie Gibson, who have had a hit single and a hit album on the first try. "Girlfriend" was a Top 5 single from her debut album, MCA Records' "Pebbles," which is in the pop Top 20. "Mercedes Boy," the second single from that album, is zooming up the pop chart.
"When you like to shop, it helps to have hits," she said with a chuckle. "Something has to pay for those clothes."
Pebbles is sultry, flirtatious and outgoing. "Nobody ever got anywhere by hiding in the background. I've always tried to make my presence felt. I've always gone after what I wanted."
With that pouty mouth, she looks like a young Jane Fonda. Pebbles' speaking voice--a cracked, husky purr--makes her sound like one of those sexy sirens in '40s movie melodramas. Though only 23, she sounds twice as old.
A mature image is very important to her. But it's one thing, she lamented, that she doesn't really have: "I'm not some silly young thing. Maybe some people see me that way. Sure, I can talk about fashion and makeup and all that, but don't think I'm dumb and can't take care of business."
But it's hard not to treat someone named Pebbles frivolously. "That's the only thing about me that's silly and gimmicky," said the singer, whose real name is Perri McKissack. She grew up in Oakland and now lives in a small town outside that city.
"My godfather gave me that name when I was 10 years old. The name came from a character on 'The Flintstones.' It stuck with me all my life. I don't really look like a Pebbles, but that name has become part of me."
Like most female dance-music stars, Pebbles isn't taken seriously as a singer. On her album, her voice is neither strong nor distinctive, sounding as if it's been augmented by high-tech gimmickry. But that's the style in dance music now. It's not the Aretha Franklin types who are having all these smash-hit dance singles and albums.
Pebbles is undeniably pretty, which should be an asset in her business. But it can also operate against you: "When you're cute, people think you can't sing. I've been fighting that all my life. I sing better than people give me credit for. I'm a good live singer too."
Fans can judge that for themselves. Currently she is touring the nation as Morris Day's opening act. This is her first major concert tour and also the first time she has done any extensive singing since she was a teen-ager working in clubs.
On Pebbles' album, the personality of her songs--which she helped write, incidentally--stems primarily from the production, which Pebbles largely handled herself--by default, it turns out.
"That job was dropped in my lap," she said. "At first I was dealing with a producer who wasn't together. He wound up leaving the project and I had to do it myself. I cried and I almost had a nervous breakdown. There were so many obstacles. But I got myself together and did what I had to do."
Still, compared to most artists, Pebbles has had it relatively easy. She acknowledged that the support and financial backing of her management company smoothed out the usual rocky road to fame. When she approached MCA Records for a contract, half of her album was already mastered and completed.
But her big hit, the sassy, flashy "Girlfriend," wasn't part of that original package. It was a last-minute addition. Written by the team of L.A. Reid and Babyface, it was originally scheduled to be recorded by Vanessa Williams for her debut album on PolyGram. But then Pebbles fell in love with the song.
"My album was already completed, but I desperately wanted that song on it," she said. "MCA didn't want the song because they thought I had enough songs. But I had to have that song for my album. I had a feeling about it. So I offered the songwriters a better deal for the song. One big reason they gave it to me was because my album was coming out long before Vanessa's (which is due next month). They wanted the song to be on the market as soon as possible.
"Like I said, I go after what I want. This is a tough business and you've got to be aggressive or you finish out of the money. All's fair in love and music, you know."
Pebbles is a light-skinned black woman who could easily be mistaken for white. "No, no, honey," insisted Pebbles, exaggerating her black-ghetto accent. "I'm a black woman--make no mistake about that. Some people might think I'm white--I don't know. But when they hear me talk, they know I'm black as black can be. I've never tried to hide what I am and I never will.
"But people don't ask me about this. They might be afraid--I don't know. But I don't mind talking about it."
Pebbles said her parents are light-skinned blacks who each have one white parent. While growing up, she faced the same problems as many pretty, light-skinned blacks.
"Kids who were darker than me were hostile to me sometimes," she said. "That's just the way it is in the black community sometimes. You learn to live with it. Because I had my hair in a pony tail and had light skin, they thought I was trying to be white or trying to be better than they were. They'd say, 'She thinks she's cute and better than us--let's beat her up.' So I'd have to fight. That part of growing up wasn't much fun."
Recently, while surveying a primarily black audience from the stage in Chicago, she was able put that whole issue in a different perspective. "That audience perceived me as a black woman," she said. "I saw some of the kind of girls who wanted to beat me up when I was a kid. But they were cheering for me, supporting me.
"It was like I had broken down this barrier that had been haunting me all my life. It was a pleasure. It made me feel really good."