Former teen-pop sensation Tiffany embraces rock on new recordings

tiffany interview


While speaking with Tiffany, it is impossible not to recognize that the former teen pop sensation is all grown up. She projects a self-assuredness and independence well earned along a difficult road traveled, spanning her attempted emancipation from her mother at the age of 16, two subsequent divorces, and the turbulent ups and downs of a long music career.

On the other hand, it is also impossible not to see her still-childlike qualities — her youthful appearance, infectious laugh and enthusiasm for her future, and even her choices of words and phrases. She described herself in this interview as “fairly hippy dippy do.”

These days, she has more than a few reasons to be optimistic: A new single, “Hey Baby” (listen below); a new album, Shadows; a new band (including two members of the hard rock outfit L.A. Guns) and a busy post-pandemic touring schedule. (She’ll perform at the City Winery in New York, July 1 at 8 p.m.; and give a free concert before fireworks at the Franklin Avenue Stage at the Seaside Heights Boardwalk, July 2 at 7 p.m.)

In this conversation we discuss those things, plus her infamous shopping mall concert beginnings, whether or not she saw any money as a teenage star, Debbie Gibson (naturally), her turn as a famous cartoon character, and how much use she has for her last name.

Q: Okay, let’s start with the hard-hitting news. You have one name. (Tiffany laughs)

A: I do!

Q: With that comes speculation about your ethnic background. You are Lebanese, Irish, Scottish and a little part Native American?

A: Yes. Oh, and we’re missing one. My grandmother was full German. My great-grandmother was full-blooded Cherokee Indian. I always say that the nicest part of me is the Cherokee Indian part.

Q: My friend’s Jewish mother vehemently insisted that you were Jewish. I suppose when you don’t use your last name, you’re a free agent. Whose idea was it for you to use your first name only, instead of also using your last name of Darwish?

A: It was mine.

Q: I feel like you have to be happy with the way it turned out.

A: I am, and I did it at the time because I didn’t want to have to choose between my mom, my dad and my stepfather. I was living with my stepfather but I loved my dad and I didn’t want to offend either one of them. Also, I didn’t think they were particularly catchy names. I mean, Darwish or Williams? C’mon! We were using Tiffany Renee, which are my real (first and middle) names, but they sounded so country, so I said to my management one day, “Why don’t we just use Tiffany? It makes the most sense.”

Q: You’re the center of a funny anecdote I tell about my friend. One day he asked me what interviews I was trying to line up and I believe I said, “Ann Wilson of Heart, Lou Gramm of Foreigner, and Tiffany.” And he hesitated a moment and said, “… Darwish?” (both laugh) I mean, no one needs that clarification.

A: That’s funny because I recently saw Darwish being used on a press release, and I said, “Ab-so-lute-ly not! Take that off right now!” (laughs)

Tiffany entertaining fans at one of her “Mall Tour” stops. This image comes from her video for her 1987 single, “I Think We’re Alone Now.”

Q: Many music fans are at least somewhat aware of your story — you’ve been singing since you were a small child, you made money performing for audiences before you turned 10, and of course you played in front of large, screaming crowds in shopping malls as a teen. In all of that time, did you ever, even for one moment, have a young girl’s dream or aspiration that involved anything other than becoming a singer?

A: As a young girl? No. Never. I only started to imagine doing other things when I was in my 20s. I became interested in holistic medicine, and at one point in my career I thought, “Well, I don’t really know what I’m doing.” I had just tried to work with a few people in the industry who would take me in a little bit more of a rock direction. This was like early 1993 or ’94, somewhere in there. Alternative medicine has always interested me, and I just kind of felt like I would go to school and become a holistic practitioner. I still may do that in my life as a continued interest later. It would be a dream of mine to get a license and do that later in life. You can tell that I obviously plan to be here for a while. (laughs) But no, growing up there was no Plan B. Music was it.

Q: You started singing for fun so early, yet it became an intense career so quick. Was there a time later in your life where you were just completely tired of it?

A: Oh sure, definitely. I’ve had several moments like that. I’d have to say probably not in the last seven years or so, but definitely during the Color of Silence (Tiffany’s critically acclaimed 2000 album) period. I was very disgruntled because here we had radio picking up a strong record, but at the same time saying, (derogatory tone) “But it’s Tiffany.” I felt like, “I can’t do anything about that.” Yes, I’m Tiffany. And I actually think that’s okay. I’m not going to feel bad about having had No. 1 records, touring all over the world and, you know, selling millions of albums. I was just a little girl from Norwalk, Calif., and I accomplished that and I’m proud of it. But it took me a while to ask myself, “Why am I being made to feel bad about it?,” and then get the backbone to say something. Now I refuse to feel that way about my life and career. It’s over when I want it to be over. My fans don’t want me to stop singing, so I keep finding avenues to make it happen.

Q: The “But it’s Tiffany” pushback is something that only happens in entertainment. If you invented an appliance or a new model of car, you’d be seen as a success throughout your life. You could fail at 20 subsequent things, and you’d still have buildings and educational grants named after you. But for creatives and performers, if you put something out into the culture that millions of people love and continue to use, it’s, “Sure, but what did they do after that?” Or since.

A: Right, or since. Yeah, you’re only as good as your last — l call it a spike — you’re only as good as your last little spike in this industry. It’s praise and rejection. Praise and rejection. I mean, I’m old school. I’ve been at this a long time. I know what it’s about, but I still get frustrated at times. Then I just try to work harder and make something else happen. That’s the redhead in me. I’m like, “Really? Well okay, we’ll do something about that.” (laughs)

Q: Speaking of old school, I’ve always wondered what high school was like for you while you were on MTV and creating teenage riots at malls.

A: Crazy. That’s what it was. (laughs) My parents took me out of Norwalk High because I was touring so much and once the mall tours started happening the media would just show up there. Then Nina Blackwood and MTV came to my school one day and that was it. I really couldn’t go to a regular high school after that (she finished at Norwalk’s Leffingwell Christian High School). I was 14 and it was weird. People who never wanted to be my friend before were suddenly following me around in the halls. I felt like, “Who are all you people? You weren’t there for me (before fame) when I broke up with my boyfriend!” (laughs)

The cover of Tiffany’s 1987 debut album.

Q: And those were just your weekdays. Your weekends were crazier.

A: On Fridays I would usually get out of school early and fly out to somewhere on the West Coast so that we could get a show under our belt at a mall that night. Then on Saturday and Sunday I’d do two or three more shows, and would fly back home Sunday night to be at school the next morning.

Q: At the moment you became a pop star, did you have a boyfriend from back home?

A: I did, actually.

Q: How did that work out?

A: Really good at the time. (laughs) I’m still friends with his family. They are very lovely people, and he and I actually have a goddaughter together. (proudly) Tiffany Renee Sanchez.

Q: Did he ever attend one of your shows and see the superhero you became on weekends?

A: (laughs) He went to a couple of my shows. He would bring his whole family. They’re Mexican, so I would do a medley in Spanish that had “La Bamba” in it and they would all go crazy. He was my first boyfriend, and my first tattoo was his name on my ankle. He’s a nice guy, but … never do that. That’s my message to the people out there. Don’t do that. (laughs)

Q: Did you see any money when you were doing those shows? Where you could go out and buy pricey things that your classmates couldn’t?

A: I definitely did see money, but I wasn’t really spoiled. It was never to the point where it was just, “You can buy whatever you want.” But I had some money, for sure. I never felt like I was being cheated out of any of it, thankfully. It was cool because I was able to buy things I couldn’t even think about before, when I would look in a shop and see an awesome leather jacket I knew I couldn’t get. Suddenly, it was like, “You know you can afford that now!” (laughs) It was great.

Q: On the subject of money, you voiced Judy Jetson in the Jetsons movie, a major motion picture where you served as one of the main voice actors; your songs were featured in the movie; and you have a few songs on the soundtrack. The entire thing feels like a Tiffany/Jetsons vehicle, which you would have broke the bank doing today. Yet this opportunity came over 30 years ago. Do you ever think about it, or other things like that?

A: Oh, sure I do. Like putting the New Kids on the road with me. (New Kids on the Block opened for Tiffany on her 1988 tour, only to surpass her popularity while doing so) I mean, frankly, who would have thought at the time that it would have rearranged itself on the next tour and I would be opening up for them? Now I know you can’t beat a boy band! (laughs) You just cannot. Especially when they were incredible, and still are to this day. So, there are things like those in my career — the what-ifs and I-wish-I-had-knowns — but you just keep going. And that’s why I feel well-versed not only in this industry but also in life. It really has been the good, the bad, the ugly. I think that’s why I have strong opinions on what to do, and how we could do it better.

Q: Have you ever mentored a young artist?

A: Actually, yes! My niece is that person right now and my family is very invested in her. It’s so cool because we’re rallying around her like everybody did for me, but not for singing. She is a dancer, and an artist. She’s 7 and showing big signs on many levels, artistically. We just came from an art show of hers yesterday, and it sounds ridiculous, but she’s really unnaturally above what someone her age should be doing right now. And honestly, that’s how I was when I was a very young singer. I sounded like a 30-yearold and people thought “Okay, that’s weird. Cool, but weird.” And I feel that way about her. She shouldn’t be able to draw and paint on this level at this age. So, we’re just all rallying behind her and making a big fuss. In fact, that’s why I’m in the car. I’m actually headed to meet her now and you’re coming with me.

Q: I’m sure you’re tired of talking about your relationship with, and your career’s proximity to, Debbie Gibson. Especially because you two are friends. You’ve toured together. You’ve been in business together in any number of ways, including as tongue-in-cheek rivals in a movie. But it’s a competitive industry. Was there ever a time where you were genuinely upset with each other over anything?

A: No. In the past we’ve both grown frustrated from being pinned together all the time, but not with each other. I think, and Debbie will probably tell you this, too, that over the years it’s really only been a big annoyance when we’ve wanted to do different things, yet still get lumped together. These days, there’s real no bad side to having a friendship with her and having our careers celebrated again as fellow ’80s kids and all of that. Our fans crack us up. I have fans sort of whisper to me apologetically, “I like Debbie, too.” (laughs) And I say, (incredulously) “Why do you say it like that?! Of course you do.” We’re two different people and performers but we make for the best of both worlds.

An image from a poster advertising a co-headlining 2018 concert by Tiffany and Debbie Gibson.

Q: Do you “get it”? People’s fascination with placing you both side by side?

A: (hesitantly) I do. I don’t think it’s ever going to go away for us. It’ll always be there, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing anymore. There are times where I actually think it’s cool.

Q: At age 16, at the height of your fame, you tried to emancipate yourself from your mother, and although it wasn’t entirely successful, you reached a settlement and won a measure of independence. Is there something about that time that still informs your personality?

A: A little bit, sure.

Q: Were you this independent prior to your decision to emancipate, or is that something that came out of it?

A: It came out of all that mess. I mean, I’m kind of a stickler about … not control, because I’m very happy to roll with the punches. I’m fairly hippy dippy do. I laugh about things when I should be crying and pretty much get past a lot of stuff because I have to. But I think coming from an alcoholic family and not having control of my environment for a long time, I felt that I wanted more control of my life as I got older. Which sounds ridiculous, because I had a manager and a label at the time, and I was doing all of these things without having much or any say in it. But I was also still a kid.

Unfortunately, I feel more independent now than I’ve ever felt in my life, because my parents have passed away. Especially through (the time of) COVID, where I really struggled with depression a little bit and I couldn’t call them or some of my dearest friends who recently passed away from cancer and addiction. I’m the girl who sings, “I think we’re alone now,” and that’s fun, but I truly felt alone, and that wasn’t. It was scary at times. I also lost a lot of opportunities and potential income we were building towards, so everything seemed bad for a while. But logically, I got to the root of the problem and reminded myself that we were all going through this and how I am lucky to have many people in my life who love me, and fans as well. I have my beautiful boyfriend with me. I have a lot. I was just missing and grieving my parents and I needed to go through it.

Q: Now, you have long been an adult in an industry that has completely changed. Do you still have to push back against certain pressures?

A: Definitely. When I became a mom, seasons became very important for me. I made sure there were seasons when I would rest and seasons set aside for work and for other things, so that I can have some control over my life. And that takes a little feistiness, because people don’t like to be told no. They come back with, “Well, what do you mean you’re taking the day off?” And it’s those times that I think back to when I was young and would try to be a people-pleaser. I had to learn to feel okay with saying no. So I think, in that way, I am a little bit rebellious and a little cheeky about trying to have my way at times. We all have to work together, but if I feel really passionate about something, that’s when I say, “Nope, I don’t care. This is what I’m doing.”

Q: You mentioned your fans, who love you as deeply as any fan base I’ve encountered who loves an artist. Recently you said something interesting about Taylor Swift in regard to the way she interacts with her fans, and it resonating with you.

A: I recognize where she is coming from. I was influenced by country music because I sang it for years when I was young, and that’s why I have a sort of rural take on the industry. The “You’re never bigger than your fans” outlook, meaning that you spend time with them and you’re open. The mall tour really solidified that as my foundation. But there’s something about Taylor in that she has that quality, where even though she has moved more towards pop and has the big machine behind her, she is still so personally engaging with her fans, and is sincere with them and works at building their confidence by being honest in her own life. She is a model in that way for a lot of young artists at the moment.

Q: Do you think pop stars and country stars still have a different type of relationship with the people who support them?

A: Sometimes. In pop music, I think you can forget a little bit as an artist that you are there because of your fans, and are not bigger than they are. There’s a “look at me” aspect to pop, where you sort of lead the way in the relationship. In country music, your success may have you leading the way, but you’re always aware that you are only able to do that because you are writing about your fans’ lives. That part of it is ingrained in what country music is, and makes it different from some pop. In country you’re a big star, sure, but you’re never too big a star to not tell the stories of your fans. That’s the job.

Tiffany promoting her new single, “Hey Baby.”

Q: My wife and I were on an elevator at a music event, and Mr. Mister’s “Kyrie” was playing loudly. There was another couple on with us, and we were all sort of mouthing the words and tapping our feet, until the elevator stopped and you got on. As soon as you recognized what song it was, you sort of started to modestly belt it out (Tiffany laughs) and we all gave each other a look like, “Now that’s what a real singer sounds like.” You mentioned sounding older when you were just a girl, but I honestly don’t think you hear that voice on your earliest records, in regard to how they were produced. I think the power of your voice really comes through on your latest records.

A: You’re right, and I have to credit Mark’s (Alberici, Tiffany’s guitarist, producer and boyfriend) production and all the new musicians in my life. I’m forever grateful for it. They listened to what my heart’s desire was, but also pushed me even further, and I love that. That’s what having great musicians as family can do. There’s a camaraderie there that just the right element of people can bring. Writing these songs with these people and knowing them through thick and thin, good times and bad, helps creative things come out of it. When we wrote and recorded, we just got together and engulfed ourselves in music. We didn’t go to a session and work for four hours, then go home to real life and do the dishes or take out the trash or whatever. We just concerned ourselves with music, and I think that contributed to the fact that you are hearing better sounds from me on both of these last two albums.

Q: And from the band as well, thanks in part to having two members of L.A. Guns (drummer Scot Coogan and bassist Johnny Martin) join. The YouTube clips from this tour sound like a rock show. This isn’t the first rock band you’ve fronted, but it is almost certainly the one that has the most punch.

A: I’m so thrilled to be doing this Shadows Tour with these people. That’s really where my main focus is right now — on every performance. It’s been fun having people tell me after the show, “I didn’t know what I was coming to watch. I was intrigued, but I had no idea it was going to rock like this.” We just played Woodlands, Texas, and after the show a bunch of Johnny and Scotty’s fans had all these L.A. Guns records and other things for them to sign, and they brought me a present as well, which was great. And as I was meeting them, they were saying, “I’m so sorry that I underestimated you. I didn’t know what I was getting into. This was great.” (laughs)

Q: You’ve been generous with your time and I know you’re out and about so please feel free to cut out whenever you need to.

A: That’s cool because I’m actually meeting my niece right this minute to take her shopping to celebrate her art show. And you’re going to love this Robert …

Q: Love what?

A: I’m in the mall. (laughs)

Robert Ferraro engages in conversations with pop culture figures. Recent interview subjects have included Melissa Etheridge, Paul Stanley, Ann & Nancy Wilson of Heart, Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Darryl McDaniels of Run-DMC.

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