Tiffany, the Teenage Mall Flower Who Serenades the Shoppers of America

updated 09/14/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/14/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Call it what you will: a plaza, a marketplace, a shopping center. In Schaumburg, Ill., a rolling green hamlet northwest of Chicago, you can call it the place to be. It is Woodfield Mall, one of 14 sites in what MCA Records calls the Tiffany Shopping Mall Tour '87.

Patrons drift slowly through the skywalk-studded complex, ambling in and out of its 232 stores and restaurants. Most people seem empty-handed; they're in the mall less perhaps to get the goods than escape 98°F heat. Teenagers are spending even more time than usual under the muted glow of the skylights, getting their hair painted maroon in front of Marshall Field's, buying bright pairs of Jams in County Seat. They are also watching Tiffany, with her rich auburn hair and equally rich voice, as she belts out teen-oriented pop tunes. Why not: Tiffany is 15 herself. (Her full name is Tiffany Darwisch, but for mystique's sake MCA shrouds her surname in secrecy usually reserved for invisible bombers.)

Like most 15-year-olds, Tiffany is acquainted with shopping center life, being an alumna of the Cerritos Mall near her Norwalk, Calif., home. Unlike most 15-year-olds she has a debut album to push. She has been visiting the country's malls since June, doing three 20-minute sets a day each weekend. MCA vice-president Larry Solters, who conceived the tour, watched at a Wood-field record store where Tiffany signed autographs after every show. "We're getting many more than the normal 16-25 age group," Solters beamed. "We're hitting every demographic. This is grassroots promotion."

Dave Henson of Bloomington, Ill., among the demographics being hit, said he was listening to the music "because it was so loud." Henson, 24, in the mall to replace a pair of shorts lost in Yellowstone National Park, inclines musically to U2. He noted that Tiffany was cute and he was vaguely intrigued, though he added, "After 20 minutes in a mall my brain turns to mush."

Tiff sang and danced to prerecorded tapes, moving into the crowd, patting toddlers and singling out boys in Iron Maiden T-shirts, who blushed. Among her songs was the 1967 Tommy James & the Shondells hit, I Think We're Alone Now; her pulsing version of the tune was the second most requested song on a Chicago radio station that week.

Mixing art and commerce is not new for Tiffany. At 2, her cousin taught her to sing Delta Dawn, and soon Tiffany was breaking away from mother Janie to regale passersby with the country standard. "She sang that song so much," Janie recalls, "I knew it backwards." At 9, Tiffany was warbling with a country band; when she was 12, a family friend took her to producer George Tobin. Tobin had worked with Smokey Robinson and Kim Carnes, but says he had no idea "what the hell to do with a 12-year-old," so he waited till Tiff was 13½ to record her demo tape. It landed offers from five labels.

Tiffany's style is now far from the country ditties of her infancy and closer to the pop idioms of her idols, Stevie Nicks and Teena Marie. "It's hard in country to have a 9-year-old singing 'My baby left me and I'm at the bar,' " Tiffany notes. "With rock, they'd ask, 'Why are you singing "My life is over" at 12?' "

She is obviously appealing to a wide range of listeners, since jostling for position with the pubescent throng at Woodfield were four missionaries from the Church of Latter-day Saints, who had been spreading the word when Tiffany upstaged them. "She's sincere and seems to have great love for the people," said Sister Francom, 23. "And it was very clean, not low-cut and trashy like Madonna." Another fan, Dan Cortese, 19, from Streamwood, recalled having seen only one other mall personality—Santa Claus. "Just tell Tiffany," he declared, "that I wish her good luck in the future."

Tiffany's near future includes the end of her tour and then junior year at Leffingwell Christian High in Norwalk. There she will retreat from the glamour of mall life and dream of the Fiero she hopes to buy when she turns 16.

Her school life is normal, she says. Many of her classmates don't know they have a budding pop diva in their midst. "I never tell anyone I've just met that I do this," she says shyly. "I say I baby-sit, anything but sing."

Her growing nationwide network of mall fans may do her word-of-mouth promoting for her. At Woodfield, Elaine D'Andrea, a grandmother from Inverness, was thrilled. "I've never heard such a beautiful voice," she said. "She's the next Barbra Streisand. I'm serious."

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