The story sounds like the plot of one of those 1940s movies where the boss looks at his secretary—maybe Betty Grable or Rosalind Russell—and says, "Miss Frimmel, let down your hair. Take off your glasses. Why, you're beautiful!" Only in this case, when country music producer Tom Collins told his receptionist, Sylvia Kirby Allen, to lose some weight, put on some makeup and otherwise improve her act, it was what she had in mind all along. "I'm a planner," says Ms. Allen, now called just Sylvia. "I always was aware of what I wanted from life."
Collins first put her in front of a microphone in 1979, and in the past eight months Sylvia, 24, has had two straight Top 10 singles, Tumbleweed and Drifter. And now The Matador is on its way up the charts. Her debut LP, Drifter, has reached the Top 20, too. She has graduated from opening for Charley Pride to headliner status, with a schedule that has her working 25 days a month. She says, "I've heard of busy, but this real busy."
In Kokomo, Ind., where she grew up the daughter of workers in a GM factory, she was offered her first singing gig—at the Pilgrim Holiness Church—when she was about 3. Later, she recalls, "I'd take a deodorant bottle, pretend it was a microphone and practice singing Patsy Cline songs in front of the mirror." By 16, she began contacting Nashville record executives. When she'd get an appointment, her family would drive to Tennessee and file into the prospective employer's office. "After a while they started waiting in the car," she says. "They thought I might have a better chance of getting in to see somebody without the whole family standing around gawking."
Despite the togetherness, she says, "I never really saw any affection in my family. One of the reasons I fantasized about singing onstage is that I wanted to be shown I was loved."
After high school, she moved to Nashville in late 1975. "I had never been on a date, didn't wear makeup and weighed about 35 pounds more than I do now," the 5'5" singer says. But while seeking a break and living on a diet of Krispy Kreme Donuts and cornflakes, she married Mike Allen, a commercial photographer, now 35. "I'm glad he's older," she says. "I never related to people my own age."
In January 1976 she landed a job with Collins (Barbara Mandrell and Ronnie Milsap are other clients) as a part-time secretary, eventually succeeding another woman who moved on to better things, Janie Fricke. "Tom said he was not impressed with my singing at all then," Sylvia says. Collins agrees: "She knew what she was going to have to give to be a success. She's improved 200 percent in her music and looks."
In July 1979 she signed with RCA. After a couple of moderate hits, and then Tumbleweed, she finally quit her office job just over a year ago.
She has, typically, mapped out her future. "I want to concentrate on hit songs, more concerts and a lot more TV," she says, "and as soon as possible sing a movie sound track. Then, years and years from now, when my career has peaked, I would like to do a movie of my life."
'I'm a planner,' she says. 'I know what I want'