08/03/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
It wasn't that long ago that a collaboration between Brandy and Monica, two of music's hottest teens, seemed about as likely as Diana Ross's crawling back to the Supremes. With a string of Top 10 hits on each of their résumés, the singers were rumored to be dueling divas. But this spring they quashed the tabloid talk when they teamed up for the chart-topping duet "The Boy Is Mine." Now, says Brandy, 19, "people come up to me asking, 'Where's Monica?' because they know we're friends. She's a very real, down-to-earth person." The feeling is mutual. "That girl has an amazing enthusiasm for her work," says Monica, 17. "She has a fun way of taking situations that are dark and lightening them up."
Monica should know. On her second album, The Boy Is Mine, she trades her tough-girl pose for a gentler touch. Thanks to the single's two-month run at No. 1, the new album is on its way to matching its double-platinum predecessor, 1995's Miss Thang. On that outing, says Monica, "I had this standoff, no-need-for-testosterone attitude. Now that I'm more in tune with my feelings and femininity, it's easier to show a sensitive side."
The metamorphosis was spurred by her recent rapprochement with her father, M.C. Arnold Jr., 50, a mechanic who left her mother, Marilyn Best, 47, a Delta Air Lines customer service representative, when Monica was 4. (Marilyn married Rev. Dr. E.J. Best Jr. in 1993.) "I learned the skill of forgiveness over the last two years," says Monica. "He's matured as a man and a father." Still, she continues to think of her producer and mentor Dallas Austin, 27, as her spiritual father. "When we met, it was like I was born all over again," she says. "He was that one strong male figure that never let me down."
Nor did her mother, who raised young Monica Arnold in College Park, Ga. "Her backbone has been so strong for all of us," says Monica. "When I'm down, she's always my strength." Monica was only 2 when she joined her mother in the church choir. "She was always singing," says Marilyn. "She would have a pencil or a flashlight—anything—using it as a pretend microphone, and just sing her little heart out."
In 1992 a scout spotted the 11-year-old at a local talent show and introduced her to Austin, who was as impressed by her confidence as he was by her booming alto. "Everything about her had such an 'I'm-the-leader' attitude," says Austin. "Like, 'I'm ruling this relationship.' " In fact, some critics deemed her 1995 hit single, an edgy girl-loves-boy-but-girl-needs-her-space declaration called "Don't Take It Personal (Just One of Dem Days)," too mature for a 14-year-old. "I didn't want to do the bubblegum thing," Monica says with a shrug. "There were enough people doing it."
Despite her teenage-appropriate fondness for malls and amusement parks, Monica remains an early bloomer. In June 1997, after two years of touring and being tutored simultaneously, she graduated a year ahead of schedule from Atlanta Country Day School with a 4.0 grade point average. And when she turns 18 in October, she plans to buy her own pad and move out of the three-bedroom College Park home that she shares with her mom, stepfather, grandmother and brother Montez, 14. Not that she's rushing into romance. "I went out with a guy who was extremely cocky," she says. "He bragged on himself the entire time." Until Mr. Humble comes along, she plans, after her upcoming international tour, to take cosmetology courses. Then, says Monica, "I am going to work under my aunt in her salon until I get it right and purchase salons in Atlanta and New Orleans." And there's also college, which she is thinking about attending as a psychology major. "I have to be focused," says Monica. "I can't do college the way I did high school. Monica is going on Monica's money, and I want to get all that I can out of the experience. I want to get everything I can out of life."
Amy Laughinghouse in Atlanta