Pall in the Family

updated 05/29/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/29/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Just over a year ago country star LeAnn Rimes, then 16, was living in that pleasantly bewildering bubble called instant fame. In 1996 she had released an album, Blue, which went on to sell 6 million copies. Her concerts sold out here and abroad. No one, it seemed, could get enough of the pop phenom. The Los Angeles Times estimated that in 1997 alone her record sales reached an astonishing $96 million. At times it was all a little overwhelming, the preter-naturally poised teen recalled at the end of 1998, but a load of fun all the same. "I always want to be in the business," she said. "I think I would go crazy if I wasn't in the music business."

The way things look now, she may want to reconsider. On May 2 long-simmering tensions with her father, Wilbur, 47, once the comanager of Rimes's business enterprises, erupted in an uncommonly ugly fashion, with a lawsuit alleging that he had fleeced her out of more than $7 million through excessive fees and other schemes. At times, according to the suit, Wilbur and his partner Lyle Walker, 64, together were receiving more than 30 percent in fees and commissions on LeAnn's income. The papers filed with the Dallas County district court allege that from 1996 through 1999, Wilbur and Walker took in $8 million in royalties, which was $5 million more than LeAnn was paid during the same time. Wilbur, who lives with his second wife, homemaker Catherine "Cat" Dickenson Rimes, on a horse farm outside Nashville, denied the charges. His lawyer, insisting the "compensation was fair," believes that LeAnn is being manipulated by people around her who are only out "for their own personal gain." Says Cat, who is LeAnn's estranged stepmother: "Wilbur's heartbroken."

There is no question that Wilbur was an enthusiastic supporter of his daughter's career. Raised early on in Flowood, Miss., LeAnn, an only child, soon became known for her remarkable voice, winning her first local talent contest at age 6 with a rendition of "Getting to Know You." In 1990, at age 8 and living in Garland, Texas, she won the first of two consecutive Star Search competitions. With the release of Blue she won the Grammy Award for best new artist, the first time the honor ever went to a country star. Through it all, insists Wilbur's lawyer Brad Rhorer, his client, who had worked as a pipe salesman, was selfless in his desire to help his daughter reach the big time. "For literally years, Wilbur sacrificed his own dreams and financed LeAnn's efforts to develop her talent into a successful career," said Rhorer. "Wilbur personally drove buses, coordinated bands, arranged performances, produced recordings."

That may all be true, but others put a slightly less positive spin on his involvement. Nashville writer Tom Carter, who collaborated with LeAnn on her 1997 Christmas book Holiday in Your Heart, portrays Wilbur as a classic stage father who booked his daughter within an inch of her limits. "His primary concern was to get endorsements, keep her in the recording studio and on the road to make money," says Carter. "I felt sorry for her many times. Very sorry."

But what really seemed to sour things between Wilbur and his daughter was his 1997 split with LeAnn's mother, Belinda, now 47. The following year he married Dickenson, to whom the lawsuit refers as his "mistress." By all accounts, LeAnn took it hard. "This all started when he and LeAnn's mother divorced," says Janice Rimes, Wilbur's stepmother, who lives near him outside Nashville.

As the estrangement deepened, Wilbur began to have his own complaints about LeAnn and Belinda, who live together at LeAnn's hilltop spread in a swank neighborhood in Sherman Oaks, Calif. In letters obtained by PEOPLE purportedly written last year to his daughter, Wilbur bitterly criticized her profligate spending habits, warning her, "You had better wake up and see what is happening to your career and to your company." Among the sticker-shocking items was his claim of an exorbitant fee for an hour of hair and makeup. "We must," Wilbur added dryly, "be in the wrong business." He also complained to her about large liquor purchases in Los Angeles, which he said he had seen on charge card statements. "It must stop now," he told her.

But Wilbur reserved some of his sharpest ire in these letters for LeAnn's relationship with actor Andrew Keegan, now 21, who has appeared on TV's Party of Five and in the film 10 Things I Hate About You and whom she has been dating for two years. Wilbur said he was particularly upset to have discovered the couple in a bed together on her tour bus while it was parked in front of his house. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself," he wrote his daughter, who will turn 18 in August. "It is wrong and you know it is wrong and it must stop. I think that midnight is a generous curfew for you to either be home or for Andrew to leave your house unless you make prior arrangements with your mother or me for special functions such as parties." Wilbur also made it clear that he suspected Andrew of being an opportunist. "It surprises me that you don't at least question the motives behind his interest in your money," Wilbur wrote. Says Keegan's lawyer Marty Singer: "He's a successful actor. He's not living off Miss Rimes."

LeAnn and Andrew, who reportedly met through mutual friends, are still an item, seeing each other several times a week, sometimes to play beach volleyball, sometimes just getting together for dinner. Recently there have been rumors—which they officially deny—that they are engaged. Whatever their marital plans, their relationship is clearly more than just a case of puppy love. "They behave better with each other than the majority of adults I've seen who have been married for years," says one close friend. "He's very thoughtful and considerate. They laugh a lot."

How much merriment there will be in store for LeAnn in the coming months is an open question. The squabble with her dad shows no signs of being resolved anytime soon. And then there is the matter of her career. Her most recent album, LeAnn Rimes, proved something of a disappointment, selling only 1 million copies. She is hard at work now on the follow-up. With all the money issues swirling around her these days, and at such a tender age, perhaps the perfect title would be Green.

Bill Hewitt
Kate Klise in Nashville, Ken Baker, Paula Yoo and Michelle Caruso in Los Angeles and Chris Coats in Dallas

From Our Partners