Taylor Dayne's first hit, the catchy dance tune "Tell It to My Heart," set off instant comparisons to teen chart queens Debbie Gibson and Tiffany. That miss-judgment brings a sneer to the full and worldly lips of the lusty 25-year-old singer who was belting bawdy Russian songs in a Brighton Beach nightclub when the two discoettes were still passing notes in study hall. "I had to stand on a stage from 10 p.m. till God knows when in the morning, sometimes 7," says Dayne. "I was hired to do Top 40 and ended up doing gypsy songs. Don't ask! I saw a guy have a heart attack once. One minute he was dancing and cutting up, and the next he had an attack. So the ambulance comes, and we're thinking, 'Oh, good, maybe we'll finish early tonight' I know—we were stupid, crazy and damn insensitive, but that's how it was. They packed this guy up, took him out—and then everybody started partying again." But Dayne, who could not bring herself to say nyet to the gig until six months ago, has no regrets. "I was singing for my money, honey."

And so she is today, only with less vodka and to a much larger audience. "Tell It to My Heart," the title cut from her debut album, was a Top 10 smash. A second single, "Prove Your Love," has hit the Top 20, and a third, "I'll Always Love You," is an R&B-flavored ballad that Dayne hopes will bury the disco-queen image and establish her as the white soul singer she longs to be. Though nominated for four New York Music awards (she copped the Best Dance Artist prize), Dayne still fears being mistaken for a sweet young mall flower. "What'd you expect, a nun?" she said to a reporter who apparently did. "I'm from New York. It's a jungle. If you're dainty, you die."

Born Lesley Wunderman, the daughter of a rare coin dealer and a former aspiring actress, Dayne grew up in Baldwin, L.I. She attended Baldwin High (Twisted Sister Dee Snider's alma mater) and joined rock bands called Felony and Next before learning her Brighton Beach repertoire. A demo tape she made won over British record producer Ric Wake, who helped Dayne land a contract with Arista Records. Her Heart album was recorded in six weeks. Its success has helped Dayne pay the rent on a small Long Island apartment and the upkeep on her street-smart Pontiac Grand Am. "OK, I'm signed—so what?" she says of her cautious spending habits. "Things can go bad."

That she has hit the big time didn't dawn on Dayne until she met one of her idols, Robert Plant, on a recent trip to England. The Led Zeppelin star strolled into her dressing room before a TV appearance and took an immediate interest in Dayne's backup singer. "She was wearing a costume, and I mean this thing was like she was wearing nothing," says Dayne. "So Robert sees her and starts to turn on the charm. 'Hi, my name's Plantey, what's yours?' So I'm thinking, 'Great, he doesn't even notice me.' " Rejection. Dejection. And elation: "Then we met, and he started flirting and saying flattering things to me!"