Flirting with More Than Success

updated 12/16/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/16/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

GIVE KARYN WHITE CREDIT FOR CONFIDENCE. As a 12-year-old, the would-be star first left fellow sixth graders gaping when she ended her graduation speech by shouting, "I, Karyn White, will succeed!" At 15, she mystified her fellow cheerleaders at L.A.'s Westchester High School when she turned in her pompons lest all those rah-rahs hurt her singing career. " 'Singing career?' " White remembers them asking, " 'What singing career?' "

Ask no more. With the release in 1988 of her 2 million-selling self-titled debut album, White found herself with three Top 10 singles (including "Superwoman"), four No. 1 rhythm-and-blues hits and overnight ranking as dance-pop's newest queen. Now, at 26, she is back on high ground again, this time with an K&B single titled "Romantic" and a second hit album, Ritual of Love. And this time it's her producer and husband of eight months, Terry Lewis, 34, who seems stunned by her single-mindedness.

Lewis, with partner-producer Jimmy "Jam" Harris, has worked with performers like Prince, Janet Jackson and Pia Zadora, but none more relentless than White. "If she had an idea at 11 at night, we'd run off to the studio," Lewis says. "I'd say, 'Can we do it tomorrow?' But she'd say, 'No, let's do it now.' We'd drive home and talk about it. We'd go to bed, we'd talk about if some more. Finally we made some rules: We had to separate the music from the rest of our lives."

Fortunately those rules seem to be working. Away from the studio, the couple nestle in the airy living room of their six-bedroom, $2 million home in suburban Minneapolis and lob verbal valentines like sound bites from a new single.

"I prayed for this relationship. She's my spiritual partner," says Lewis. Counters White: "Fame, success...they don't last forever. I won't always have a No. 1 record, but I'll always have this family.

The family includes Tremain, 10, Terry's son from an early relationship; Chloe, 7, a daughter from his first marriage: and Branden, 6, the son of a young, distant relative of White's, whom the couple recently adopted. White says she'd like to enlarge the brood, "but later. Right now-we have a lot of other things to look forward to."

Fact is, White has always looked forward. The youngest of five children born to Vivian White, a Los Angeles beautician, and her husband, Clarence, a sometime trumpeter who worked in real estate, she entered her first beauty pageant at 5. Despite several local victories during the next few years, though, she was less interested in titles than in the TV specials she watched starring Diana Ross, Liza Minnelli and Sammy Davis Jr. "They were entertainers," she says. "They gave you a show. I decided I'd do that too—I wouldn't just be a singer, I'd do it all."

Accepted into a government-funded program for inner-city high schoolers, White began daily studies of dancing, piano and singing. Lessons in the last ended quickly. "I was straining to sing too perfect," she says. "I was losing the emotion." Taking up songwriting, she sold her first tune to a record company at 17 and, a year later, a second to Stephanie Mills. "I borrowed money from my parents to do the demo tape," says White (who cowrote 10 of the 12 songs on Ritual, several with her husband). "I knew what you had to do."

After high school she worked as a change counter in the L.A. bus terminal ("My hands still feel dirty from the coins") and as a retail clerk while finagling gigs as a session vocalist. Her lead singing on keyboardist Jeff Lorber's 1986 hit "Facts of Love" helped lift her out of the background and into a record contract of her own.

Neither her talent nor her looks were lost on Terry Lewis when White showed up at his Flyte Tyme Productions studio in Minneapolis two years ago to record a duet with Michael Jeffries. The single sank, but While and Lewis soared, eventually becoming collaborators as well as lovers. On March 31 they wed in Las Vegas ("One of our favorite places," according to White).

In the spring she will forsake homelife for a while and begin a Ritual tour that will put her on the road to Japan, Europe and across the U.S. Success hasn't dulled her drive, and talking about the upcoming tour, she sounds as much like the old sixth-grade valedictorian as ever. "Now I have the last say-so in everything," White boasts. "As the artist, you have to know what you want."

MARGARET NELSON in Minneapolis

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