07/31/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT
ADINA HOWARD KNOWS YOU DON'T get ahead being shy. Last winter the pop star, who sings mostly about sex, was catching a flight in Cleveland when she spotted one of her idols, jazz singer Nancy Wilson. Howard, 20, rushed to her side. "I just love your songs," she gushed. "I'm a singer too." Wilson smiled at first, but when she realized Howard was the voice behind "Freak Like Me," the raunchy hit single that has established her as a soul siren, the cool jazz diva turned school-marmish. "Are you going to continue singing songs like this?" she asked.
Absolutely, says the former church-choir soloist whom critics call the Black Madonna
. "Eventually I'd like to sing other things, but for now this is me," she explains during a recent lingerie shopping spree in Los Angeles, accompanied by her personal stylist, who culls inspiration from Penthouse. Perhaps the lyrics of her hit single say it best: "I wanna freak in the morning/ Freak in the evening/ I need a ruffneck brotha that can satisfy me." Other brothers need not apply.
Howard, the oldest daughter of Emma Howard-Peterson, 41, a medical assistant, and Bryon Walker (who left the family in 1980), sang her first solo at age 7 with the Messiah Baptist Church choir in Grand Rapids. Emma, who raised her four daughters in Chicago, Dallas and, most recently, Phoenix, says she taught Adina "to be a strong, independent woman."
She taught well. Howard broke into show business two years ago by cornering Livio Harris, 28, a member of the R&B group 4-Sure, while he was signing autographs at a Phoenix hotel and auditioning for him on the spot. Harris arranged for Howard to fly to L.A. a month later to record a demo tape. Since then she has signed a five-record deal, sung in Paris and won a cameo spot in Whitney Houston's new film, Waiting to Exhale (although a scheduling glitch forced her to decline).
About the only prize that has eluded Howard is a real romance. "I'm so busy, and relationships are time-consuming," she says, noting that male fans call her every day. According to her mother, they're wasting their time. "People get the wrong idea," says Emma. "She's not a loose person. It's like a performance." A great performance, judging by the way she wriggles her way into a black bustier. "The Lord created sex," says Howard. "He wouldn't be blessing me if he had a problem with it."