On country singer Barbara Mandrell's popular TV variety show, little sister Louise was the brunette, the fiddle player—the other one who could sing. Now 28, Louise is off on her own, and along the way she's made a break with big sister Barbara's wholesome image. "Miniskirts and tight leather pants are what I feel most comfortable in," giggles Louise. "I'm one of those Christians the Romans would have thrown to the lions."

Such opaque logic aside, record buyers have given her the thumbs-up. Her first solo album, Close Up, went Top 20 and yielded a Top 5 country single, Save Me. Her talents and sensual looks also snagged her an opening spot with Tony Orlando in Las Vegas and a sudsy contract as TV's White Rain hair spray girl.

Her album's racy cover, she says, grew out of a plan to surprise her husband, songwriter "R.C." Bannon, 38, with a steamy photo of herself. "R.C. and I have friends in California who had some very sexy pictures made as presents for their husbands," says Louise. "Some of them posed nude. Well, I couldn't do that, so I wore a thin T-shirt. R.C. loved it." She added tight jeans for the LP. Her next single, Too Hot to Sleep, rests on the lyric "I never spent a better sleepless night."

Twice divorced, Louise claims her saucier stance is more a revelation of her "honest" personality than a promotional ploy. Until recently, she says, "I judged everything I did by what I thought Barbara and my family would like, not by my standards. But unless you accept yourself and like yourself, you can't expect other people to accept you—that's something Barbara kept preaching to me." Her sister accepts the new image. "She is a sexy woman," says Barbara. "She can wear something that starts at the neck and goes to the ankles and she still looks sexy. If she weren't my sister, I'd feel like killing her."

Yet even as Louise distinguishes herself from her superstar sibling, she remains grateful that her sister preceded her. "The one big advantage I've had that Barbara didn't," she says, "was Barbara. I had her to learn from." Says Barbara, "At first I was a little concerned about Louise getting into the business. She's a little shy; I used to feel people could walk all over her. Now she wants it and she's gutsy. She'll get it."

Born in Corpus Christi, Texas, Louise entered showbiz at 15, when she joined Barbara's band, the Do-Rites, as bass and fiddle player. Barbara's career blossomed, but the story of Louise's life began to read like a Tammy Wynette lyric. Leaving the Do-Rites after a year, she married country singer Ronnie Sharp in 1972, divorced him, married singer Gary Buck, divorced him, then married R.C. four years ago. So far the marriage has stuck. "R.C. teases me that I just couldn't make divorce work," she says with a laugh.

When Barbara landed a contract with NBC for a variety series in 1980, it was a boon to the whole Mandrell clan. Louise and sister Irlene became instant co-stars, and R.C. hired on as the music coordinator. After two years of modest ratings success, the series was canceled—to the relief of the sisters. "Irlene and I were tired, and Barbara was exhausted," recalls Louise. "It was awful."

Hoping to capitalize on her exposure, Louise and R.C. became a recording duet, with mixed results. Finally, a few months ago, R.C. went back to songsmithing and Louise came to a decision. "It was time to stand on my own two feet," she says. It helped that TV had provided the hard cash to do it: She and R.C. recently moved up to a $900,000, three-and-a-half-acre suburban Nashville spread 10 minutes from Barbara's house. So far the couple's plans do not include children, though someday they may adopt, says Louise. Until then, she sharpens her child-rearing skills on Barbara's kids Matthew, 13, and Jaime, 7, who visit often enough to have their own room.

Although her solo career is off to a good start, Louise realizes that she must keep active to keep it alive. That's meant relentless touring, and that has resulted in a tendency to indulge in extravagances like $3,000 dresses and R.C.'s Ferrari. "It's lonely out there on the road," says Louise, "and I want to have some fun along the way."