Daddy’s Little Girl
Six years after her stunning debut, LeAnn Rimes is battling her father for control of her careerand suddenly the life of America's country princess doesn't seem like a fairy tale anymore.
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She now lives in los Angeles, where she has just spent $2 million for a 4,000-square-foot home, complete with a wine cellar, a pool, a spa, and a 1,500-square-foot guesthouse. She has a handsome young live-in boyfriend, 21-year-old film and television actor Andrew Keegan, who has been described by Entertainment Weekly as a “hunk-in-training,” and she has hired a beefy personal-assistant-trainer-nutritionist-bodyguard, Robert Lavetta, to accompany her almost everywhere she goes.
She is, says her new manager, Tom Ross, “finding herself, embracing the Babylonian spirit of young L.A.” She is doing yoga. She is taking acting classes. She is going to parties. She is shopping for the finer things in life. Among her purchases have been a $350,000 Bentley convertible for herself and a $125,000 Ferrari that Andrew drives. She also has a BMW that she lets Andrew’s mother drive.
She is just eighteen years old.
“Your life’s gone by in a hurry,” I tell LeAnn Rimes when I see her in March in Houston, where she is performing on the closing night of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.
“Tell me about it,” she says. I realize that her voice sounds different. It’s as if her old country twang has gone away. Her country outfits are long gone too. She is dressed in a chic denim jacket, a white T-shirt that doesn’t quite reach her navel, tight tan pants embellished here and there with shiny buttons, and a pair of soft-leather loafers. She wears no lipstick, no makeup around her eyes—only a light dusting of powder on her face. Her blond hair is straight and shoulder length, pulled back over her ears, and her arms and legs, thanks to her daily workouts, are nicely chiseled.
“Do you remember that night back in January 1995, when you gave that show at the little Dallas theater for all those Nashville record executives?” I ask.
“Oh, yeah,” she says.
“That was six years ago,” I say.
She pauses, arching her eyebrows. “Six years,” she says wistfully. She looks away for a second. “Six long years.”
You should have seen her that night. She was so young, so untroubled, so naive—a marshmallow-cheeked twelve-year-old child who knew nothing about life, who believed that all she had to do to make her dreams come true was sing.
She was dressed in a white tuxedo shirt, a black leather jacket, and black jeans. A huge belt buckle covered with rhinestones spelled out “LeAnn.” “Thank y’all for coming. Thank y’all so much for coming,” she exclaimed in a squawky voice as she walked out onto the stage. She beamed at her mother, Belinda, a devout Scripture-quoting Baptist who worked part-time at Supercuts to help pay the bills, and then at her father, Wilbur, a snuff-dipping, coon-hunting oil-drilling supply salesman who was in cowboy boots and blue jeans that were held up by a big Western belt. “She’s a gift from God,” Wilbur and Belinda liked to tell people about their only child. “A gift from God.” When they were both just seventeen years old, living in Pearl, Mississippi, they had skipped school, driven across the state line into Alabama to get married, and then spent the next twelve years trying to have a child. When Belinda finally got pregnant, she told her friends that the Holy Spirit had spoken to her and said, “Your child will touch hearts everywhere she goes. She has been chosen.”
LeAnn Rimes—the chosen one. It was a beautiful story, a kind of countrified fairy tale, especially because the child did have a gift. She was able to sing on pitch when she was eighteen months old, long before she was able to speak clearly. At the age of five, she won her first local talent contest, and when she was six, her parents moved from Mississippi to Dallas to get her more exposure. “We just want to give her a chance to fulfill her dreams,” Wilbur used to say. “That’s all we want her to do.”
Those dreams came true on that January 1995 night. A group of Nashville record executives had flown in to see her at a specially arranged concert. A handful of local reporters, including me, were also in the audience, swapping dubious looks. There had been so many Shirley Temple-size singing sensations who had tried to make their marks, little freaks of nature with horn-blast pipes who could throttle high notes and skillfully execute that catch in their throats on long, drawn-out syllables. Almost all of them had disappeared by puberty. Why did anyone think that little LeAnn Rimes would be any different?
One hour later, the place was in an uproar. The audience was on its feet for a fifth standing ovation, and the record executives were pushing their way toward Belinda and Wilbur. They couldn’t believe what they had just heard—a voice so powerful, so throbbing, so full of hurt-to-the-bone emotion, so strangely . . . mature. “It’s like Patsy Cline has returned,” one executive murmured, shaking his head in bewilderment, watching the dazed girl as she hugged her mother and father and said “thank you, oh, thank you” over and over to those who came backstage to congratulate her.
By the summer of 1996 LeAnn Rimes was the hottest act in country music. With her debut album, Blue, she won five Billboard Music Awards, including artist of the year; a couple of Academy of Country Music Awards; and a Grammy for the best new artist of the year, the first time the honor had ever gone to a country musician. Previous teen country princesses—including Brenda Lee, who was just twelve when she had her first hit song, in the fifties, and Tanya Tucker, the Seminole native who was thirteen when she reached the top ten in 1972 with “Delta Dawn”—had never come close to experiencing this kind of fame. There seemed to be nothing, absolutely nothing, that LeAnn could do wrong. For the next three years nearly every one of her albums soared straight to the top of the charts.
And then it all collapsed—inexplicably, breathtakingly collapsed. In May of last year LeAnn sued her own father and his partner, Dallas attorney Lyle Walker, claiming they had fleeced at least $7 million of her earnings by rewarding themselves with wildly excessive management and producer fees and skimming money from her company for their own personal use. She demanded that everything he and Walker had made while working for her from the years 1996 to 1999, more than $14 million between them, be paid back. She then sued her Nashville record label, Curb Records, claiming that the recording contract she was asked to sign when she was just twelve years old unfairly committed her to making as many as 21 albums for Curb instead of the industry standard, 7.
Wilbur fired right back with a countersuit, portraying his daughter as a “spoiled brat” who once told him, “I am not the sweet little girl you think I am. There is a dark side to me, and you are going to see it.” Wilbur described himself in the lawsuit as a loving, hardworking father who had “devoted his life to his daughter’s dream of becoming a star.” Yet she turned on him, he said, after she moved to Los Angeles and fell under the influence of her stylish, urbane new boyfriend, Andrew Keegan, and her personal-assistant-trainer-nutritionist-bodyguard Robert Lavetta, who were deviously trying to control LeAnn “for their own personal gain.”
Suddenly, the countrified fairy tale that had charmed a nation—the transformation of an unsophisticated, small-town girl into one of the best-selling artists in the history of popular music—turned into a vicious family feud, complete with allegations of stealing, adultery, boozing, teenage promiscuity, and the wrecking of very expensive automobiles. Wilbur, a plainspoken son of a Florida truck driver, indignantly claimed that LeAnn had been using her credit card to buy liquor. He declared that she had wrecked her $350,000 Bentley almost immediately after she had bought it. He went so far as to suggest that she was a little hussy, first carrying on with young country singer Bryan White when she was just sixteen before shacking up with the olive-skinned, brown-eyed Keegan, who has starred in the teen movie 10 Things I Hate About You and the teen television shows Party of Five and 7th Heaven. In a written response to my questions (he would not consent to an interview), Wilbur stated that his daughter was spiraling out of control in Los Angeles, surrounding herself with duplicitous lawyers and unscrupulous “yes-men” and “potential boyfriends wanting her money or access to the Playboy mansion or a party at Steven Spielberg’s because they can’t get an invitation without her.”
Family feuds are not unusual in show business, but this one, to put it mildly, is unique—a very public case study of the vicissitudes of fame and fortune, the create-and-destroy cycles of American celebrity, and the baffling love-hate relationships between stubborn daddies and their feisty daughters. In many ways the whole mess would make a fairly entertaining comedy—a producer pitching the Rimes saga to Hollywood might describe it as a twisted, surreal version of The Beverly Hillbillies—if it wasn’t for the fact that the fight is over an immensely talented teenager, who, despite her big Los Angeles house and her expensive automobiles and her phenomenal name recognition, is still just that—a teenager. A teenager who, at the moment, seems adrift.
Although LeAnn is scheduled to host the nationally televised Academy of Country Music Awards this month, she has few concerts scheduled in the coming months, and because of her fight with Curb, she refuses to deliver a new album. She has even taken the extraordinary step of denouncing the album that Curb put out earlier this year, I Need You, which is made up mostly of songs she says she never wanted released. She wrote a letter on her Web site telling her fans that “this album is not a reflection of myself as an artist,” and she went on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and suggested that people not buy the album. In the best of worlds, LeAnn, who has already sold 20 million albums, should just now be hitting her prime. “You should hear how much richer and more developed her voice is today,” says a producer who recently heard her sing. But today her career is buried under a pile of lawsuits, and there are a lot of people wondering whether LeAnn will ever be able to dig her way out.
“When LeAnn was a little girl, she wanted a show business career more than she wanted her next breath,” says Marty Rendleman, who worked as LeAnn’s manager when she was getting her start in Dallas. “She always used to talk about becoming a star. But I think what people don’t know is how much her parents wanted her to be a star too.” Her mother, Belinda, a chatty woman with a fondness for cream-colored pantsuits, was always hovering near LeAnn with a brush in her hand, refusing to let a single hair on LeAnn’s head fall out of place. Wilbur took it upon himself to act as a kind of Colonel Parker to his little female Elvis. In the living room of the Rimeses’ cramped two-bedroom apartment in the middle-class Dallas suburb of Garland, he set up a miniature studio for LeAnn with a Little Girlmicrophone and speakers, even a multitrack recorder and mixing board. Every evening he’d get out his guitar, strum the handful of chords he knew, and coach LeAnn through one song after another. On weekends he and Belinda would take her to sing at Johnny High’s Country Music Revue, a Texas version of the Grand Ole Opry. They took her to Texas Rangers baseball games, where she sang the National Anthem. Wilbur took her to Los Angeles so that she could sing on Ed McMahon’s Star Search, where she was named champion for two weeks in a row.As a young man, Wilbur was known to have an excellent country music singing voice, but he always said that he was too shy to go onstage. “I think, deep down, he would have loved to have had a career,” says Rendleman. “And I’m sure, like so many parents, he started living vicariously through his daughter. But he wasn’t the typical stage parent, who had to push his daughter onstage. She wanted to be there.” Nor did the rough-around-the edges Wilbur, who often would stop whatever he was doing to shoot a stream of tobacco juice into a paper cup, pamper his daughter the way other stage parents did. LeAnn has told many people that he sometimes spanked her with a belt if she tried to avoid rehearsing with him. He heatedly denies this, telling me in his letter that he spanked LeAnn only “for mouthing off and being extremely disrespectful, mostly to her mother.” He did admit that he made her work, but he insisted she didn’t work any harder “than anyone else’s teenagers who flip burgers at McDonald’s every day after school.” He was so serious about her work, in fact, that he withdrew her from school in seventh grade, saying that jealous classmates were diverting her from her career.
People warned him about going too fast. In 1994 Jimmy Bowen, then the head of Liberty Records and one of country music’s most famous producers, agreed to let the Rimeses visit him in Nashville. After listening to LeAnn sing two songs, Bowen sighed and said to her, “Honey, you’re not supposed to be able to do what you just did at eleven years old.” But then he looked at Wilbur and said, “This talent is not going to go away. Take her home, let her be a child for a few years, and don’t let this business screw up her life.” It was an eerily prescient remark, and Wilbur ignored it. Yes, everyone knew about Tanya Tucker’s personal wipeouts soon after her “Delta Dawn” fame: She battled liquor and cocaine and was involved in a tumultuous relationship with Glen Campbell. But Wilbur said he wasn’t going to let his baby self-destruct. And he would ensure that by not letting some shady music promoter or producer control his daughter’s burgeoning career.
In the spring of 1994 he met Lyle Walker, a Dallas lawyer who had suffered a run of bad luck (he had been forced to file for personal bankruptcy in 1991) but who did have, at least for Wilbur, one intriguing asset. Walker had a large ownership interest in a recording studio in Clovis, New Mexico, that had once belonged to a former client, Norman Petty, the highly regarded producer for Buddy Holly. Although Walker had no professional musical background whatsoever, he had begun frequenting places like Johnny High’s Country Music Revue, hoping to find undiscovered talent who would record an album in Clovis in return for a split of any profits. For Wilbur, it was the perfect setup. He could be in charge of LeAnn’s recording sessions, hiring musicians and engineers, then sitting in the control room and determining how the songs would actually sound.
Whether Wilbur knew what he was doing is a matter of debate. One person who was there for LeAnn’s recording sessions in Clovis said that Wilbur did have a good ear, but he didn’t know the first thing about creating a good background sound for LeAnn’s songs. Not that it mattered. When Nashville music executives heard LeAnn’s voice on her first demo album, and when they saw her uncommonly poised performance in January 1995, they were falling all over themselves to sign her. Among those who came calling was Mike Curb, the head of Curb Records, a charming former musician and former California politician who, depending on whom you talked to, was either a shrewd or malicious dealmaker. Nashville insiders have jokingly referred to a Curb artist contract as “life plus fifty years.” But Curb did know how to relate to a kid like LeAnn (he had two daughters close to her age), and he did have a proven record with such young talent as Donny and Marie Osmond and Debby Boone. He also knew exactly how to woo Wilbur. Curb allowed Wilbur to manage LeAnn’s career (another record company reportedly had wanted Narvel Blackstock, the husband and manager of Reba McEntire, for the job). He also guaranteed in writing that Wilbur could remain as the producer on LeAnn’s albums.
For the Rimes family, it was too good to be true. Little LeAnn would sing, and her daddy would quit his job selling oil-field pipe and become a full-time music producer. They were so excited that they told Curb they wanted to record lots and lots of albums—not just mainstream country music albums, but inspirational-gospel albums as well. No problem, said Curb. Because LeAnn was legally a minor, the Curb lawyers had her go to courts in Dallas and Tennessee to get an order affirming the contract. The Tennessee court was asked to remove LeAnn’s “disability of minority,” which is a legal provision that allows a minor, upon turning eighteen, to disavow a contract he or she entered into as a child.
It was a savvy—and perfectly legal—move on the part of the Curb attorneys. With the disability of minority provision eliminated, LeAnn would belong to Curb for many, many years. Her deal would force her to make at least 14 albums and, according to one lawyer who later reviewed the contract, perhaps as many as 28 albums. (The typical contract for a new artist consists of 1 initial album and the record label’s right to exercise options for 6 more.)
LeAnn tells me today that she was so thrilled to get a national recording deal that she had no idea what she was signing. (Curb’s attorneys insist that the then-twelve-year-old girl had her own attorney and knew exactly what she was doing.) Nor, she says, did she have any questions about the company, LeAnn Rimes Entertainment, that had been set up by Wilbur and his partner, Lyle Walker. She does say she was somewhat disappointed that Marty Rendleman, the manager who had worked so hard for her since 1992, was let go, but her father had told her that she was no longer necessary. Wilbur and her mother and Walker, who was shutting down his law practice, would be with her day and night.
What Wilbur didn’t mention, LeAnn’s attorneys now say, was how well he planned to compensate himself and Walker for all that work. (LeAnn would not comment on the record about her lawsuit against her father.) As the president of LeAnn’s company, Wilbur decided to pay himself a producer’s fee of 31 percent of any album royalties that LeAnn received, and he reserved the right to pay a quarter of that to Walker’s studio. He then decided to pay himself and Walker to be LeAnn’s managers. As such, they would split an additional 30 percent of whatever album royalties were left, and they also would take 30 percent of any other earnings she received, from endorsements to concert revenues. Still, Wilbur wasn’t finished. Because in many entertainment contracts with children there are provisions to compensate parents for the time they must devote to their children’s careers, he decided to pay himself and Belinda a “guardian fee.” Wilbur believed that he and Belinda should split another 10 percent of LeAnn’s earnings, although he arranged for the entire 10 percent to go into an account in his name.
For Wilbur, there was nothing wrong with the arrangement. This, after all, was going to be a family business. He would take care of everything. All his daughter had to do was sing.
It is still hard to comprehend what happened next. Despite the industry buzz about her, LeAnn was still completely unknown to the American public in May 1996, when Curb released her first single, “Blue,” written by longtime Dallas country music disc jockey and songwriter Bill Mack. Mack had originally pitched “Blue” to Patsy Cline in 1962, but she died in a plane crash before she got the chance to record the song. It mostly stayed in Mack’s desk for thirty years before he heard LeAnn’s voice. Country music disc jockeys, entranced with the story and even more entranced with the way a young girl could sing such a brokenhearted ballad, played “Blue” around the clock. When the album Blue was released in July, it sold more than 123,000 copies in its first week—the largest first week of album sales for a new country artist since SoundScan started tracking sales in 1991—and LeAnn found herself knocking Shania Twain off the top of the country music charts. Blue became the best-selling debut album ever by a female country artist—selling 7 million copies—and country music fans clamored for more.Wilbur didn’t disappoint them. He and Walker set up a tour that had the thirteen-year-old LeAnn crisscrossing the country, performing at concerts, holding autograph sessions at Kmarts, and doing interviews at radio stations. To get her and her entourage from one city to another, Wilbur, who despised the standard tour buses, spent more than $800,000 on what he called Peterbuses, high-horsepower Peterbilt truck cabs that were fused to the bodies of standard motor coaches. Following in the footsteps of his father, Wilbur drove one of the Peterbuses himself.
Meanwhile, Mike Curb and Wilbur were pushing to get out another album. Curb’s motives were understandable: Why not get every cent he could out of his overnight sensation? There was no way to tell, after all, just how long her popularity would last. In February 1997 Curb released Unchained Melody: The Early Years, consisting of songs Rimes had recorded when she was eleven and twelve years old in Clovis. It debuted at number one on both the Billboard 200 and Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart. In September 1997 came her third album, You Light Up My Life: Inspirational Songs, which debuted at number one simultaneously on Billboard’s Top Country Albums, Top Contemporary Christian Albums, and the Billboard 200. Three Rimes albums in fourteen months—and they were all monster hits.
Suddenly, as one magazine put it, LeAnn was “America’s fastest-growing brand name.” She was signing deals to star in advertisements for milk and cell phones. She was taking meetings with executives from the Creative Artists Agency to discuss the possibility of her landing starring roles in feature films and on Broadway. She “co-authored” a novel about a young country music singer titled Holiday in Your Heart, which then became an ABC movie starring herself and Bernadette Peters. She performed in front of the pope, and some of her fans thought the teenager, the chosen child of God, had spiritual abilities herself. A Nevada mother whose seven-year-old daughter had fallen into a coma after being thrown from a pickup begged LeAnn to come see her at the hospital. LeAnn arrived and sang a lullaby version of “Blue” to the comatose child. That very day, the girl began waking up.
When LeAnn was profiled in newspapers and popular magazines, she politely would pose for photos next to her smiling parents. What reporters never knew, however, was that Wilbur and Belinda’s marriage was falling apart. Despite their dramatic teenage elopement, their marriage had never been a happy one. LeAnn once told Entertainment Weekly that she knew her parents “always lived for me more than for their relationship,”and LeAnn’s success only exacerbated their problems. They began having heated arguments over LeAnn’s breakneck schedule. Belinda pleaded for Wilbur to let her spend more time at home, where she could be around girls her own age. She said that LeAnn should not be spending her teenage life among adults, riding in the back of one of those Peterbuses, and occasionally having to take showers at truck stops. Wilbur replied that the only way for LeAnn to build her audience was to be on the road, and that’s the way it was going to be. “I think Belinda was anxious that it was already becoming all business for Wilbur,” says a longtime family friend. “LeAnn had stopped being the child for him and started becoming the source of the family income.”
Such comments infuriate Wilbur, who in his letter to me said, “We all made every effort to keep the schedule bearable. She traveled in the lap of luxury, and she was surrounded by people there to wait on her hand and foot.” But Tom Carter, a veteran Nashville writer and country music insider who has ghostwritten more than a dozen autobiographies of country music celebrities and who was hired to “co-write” LeAnn’s novel, noticed as he traveled with her that she would often break into tears. “Wilbur was booking her to within an inch of her limits,” Carter says. “She was doing concerts several nights a week, traveling five hundred to eight hundred miles between shows. She was a stressed-out little girl.”
Her parents’ battles only added to her stress. On more than one evening, when Belinda and Wilbur were shouting at each other, a hysterical LeAnn would step between them, screaming that she wished they would just be her mommy and daddy rather than her business managers. Belinda will speak only briefly about that period in her life, but she does say that she was so devastated over the end of her marriage that she felt as if she was becoming emotionally unhinged. Says the longtime friend: “Belinda thought she was losing not just her husband but her own daughter, who had to return to the road with Wilbur because of all the touring commitments that had been made.” What also hurt Belinda was her discovery of Wilbur’s romantic relationship with a younger woman, Catherine “Cat” Dickenson, whose father owned the motor coach company from which Wilbur bought LeAnn’s touring buses. LeAnn has alleged that he had Catherine ride with him on his bus during LeAnn’s concert tours, while Belinda and LeAnn were in another bus. Wilbur says it’s a lie. He and Catherine say that they didn’t begin their relationship until after Wilbur and Belinda separated, in March 1997.
By the summer of 1997 divorce proceedings were under way. LeAnn says that her father and Lyle Walker kept telling her that her mother was “very sick” and that if she started a protracted court fight, the publicity would ruin LeAnn’s career. At LeAnn’s urging, Belinda quickly agreed to a settlement. Wilbur would pay her 50 percent of the producer and manager fees he had received so far working with LeAnn, and he promised to pay 33 percent of the producer fees for any future albums. But according to LeAnn’s lawyers, there was another result of that quick settlement: Belinda and her lawyers never discovered the full assets of LeAnn Rimes Entertainment, or learned how Wilbur was paying himself.
Perhaps to appease LeAnn for enduring the divorce, Wilbur presented to her for her fifteenth birthday in August 1997 a Dodge Viper, a sports car that could reach speeds over 175 miles per hour. Since she was too young to get her driver’s license, she had to ride in the passenger seat. Then it was back to work. According to her booking schedule, she made almost five hundred appearances between early 1996 and late 1998, and she put out four albums. With each album, music critics were getting more impatient, claiming that she was being given mediocre mush to sing. (You Light Up My Life, for instance, featured “Amazing Grace,” “God Bless America,” and no kidding, the National Anthem.) Many critics laid the blame right at the feet of Mike Curb, saying he was exploiting her instead of working to help her develop a more personal, artistic style. The respected Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly ripped into Wilbur Rimes as LeAnn’s producer, noting that he always stuck plodding arrangements and maudlin piano chords around LeAnn’s songs. Tucker also called LeAnn “a pint-sized, country-fried version of Michael Bolton.”
By 1998, Wilbur was living with Catherine at the horse farm he had bought outside Nashville. Belinda was living in a house back in Garland. LeAnn, of course, was still touring, chaperoned around the country either by Lyle Walker or by her father. She was a frustrated, lonely adolescent. The time had come, she began to say, for her to get a life.
In march 1998 leann flew to los angeles for a photo shoot, stopped by her publicist’s office, and saw the face of actor Andrew Keegan on the cover of a teen magazine. LeAnn said he was cute, the publicist made a phone call, and that very night, nineteen-year-old Keegan picked up fifteen-year-old LeAnn at her hotel and took her to dinner. They liked each other immediately. On her next trip to L.A., several weeks later, Keegan took her on another dinner date and then to a Lakers game. Until that point, Wilbur had been fairly successful in keeping male suitors away from LeAnn. He says he stopped a fledgling relationship between LeAnn and country music heartthrob Bryan White (LeAnn says there was no relationship), and he had even fired an older member of LeAnn’s band because he thought the musician was talking to her too suggestively. Yet he knew he couldn’t keep LeAnn away from guys forever—and even Wilbur had to realize it was somewhat hypocritical for him to tell her she couldn’t have a relationship when he was just starting a new one himself. His solution with Keegan was to make sure they were chaperoned whenever they were together (people close to LeAnn say he missed the couple of occasions Andrew sneaked onto LeAnn’s tour bus at night). To Wilbur, the relationship seemed harmless, a lighthearted teen romance.
Then, in October 1998, when her tour commitments were finally over, LeAnn, who had just turned sixteen, told her father that she was not going to move to Nashville, as he had thought; she had persuaded her mother to rent a house in Los Angeles so that she could take acting lessons. A flabbergasted Wilbur saw what was happening. She was loading up the truck and moving to Beverly to be with that damned Andrew.
Off the road and away from her father, LeAnn did indeed let loose. She got a credit card, and she started hitting every trendy boutique in town, buying herself such items as a $5,000 blouse and dozens upon dozens of pairs of shoes, as well as Armani suits for Keegan. Because she couldn’t legally purchase automobiles until she was eighteen, she got her mother to sign for them—a Bentley for LeAnn, which was rear-ended on Sunset Boulevard while she was driving it home from the dealership, and a Ferrari for Keegan, which he ended up wrecking too. Concluding that a Bentley was probably not right for her after all, she decided to drive a BMW and a Range Rover. Still, she felt, her life wasn’t complete. After meeting 44-year-old personal trainer Robert Lavetta, who had been training Keegan, she hired him full-time to work for her as her trainer, chef, personal assistant, and bodyguard (her previous part-time bodyguard had been one of Lyle Walker’s grown sons, who carried a water pistol). And it wasn’t long before she was having Keegan spend the night at her house.
Andrew had grown up around show-business people and had listened to many conversations about contracts, net profits, and gross revenues. One day he asked LeAnn if she knew where her money was going. She said she knew she made a lot of money, but, no, she didn’t know how much of that money actually went into accounts that she said her father and Walker had set up for her. Andrew kept asking more questions. How much was her father making off her? What about Lyle Walker? And what about Curb Records?
Soon, LeAnn was calling her father, saying that she wanted to know how much money she had actually made. She says that her father was resistant. He told me that he offered “many, many times” to let her and her mother sit down with the company’s attorney and the company’s accountants. Saying that she was going to need help understanding the information, she told her father that Keegan’s Los Angeles attorney had agreed to come with her to review the contracts and the company’s financial information. The attorney himself wrote Wilbur a letter asking for an appointment.
It was as if an atom bomb had gone off in Nashville. Wilbur, who had been seeing copies of LeAnn’s credit card statements and invoices and was already boiling, got LeAnn on the phone and bellowed that he was not about to let outsiders look at the company’s books. When LeAnn and Wilbur met at a concert she was scheduled to give in Las Vegas, he pushed her up against the wall of her dressing room and said, “I’m not letting Andrew and his lawyers get your money!” Wilbur then sent LeAnn a letter in May 1999 in which he ordered her to follow a midnight curfew and to pull back from Keegan. “I will not tolerate you and him [Keegan] having sex and living as if you were both adults,” he wrote. He threatened to take “civil and criminal” action against Keegan if they slept together again. “Suffice it to say that I have ample evidence to ensure that he won’t be taking sexual advantage of minor girls for a very long time,” he wrote. He then added, “I also will not tolerate his participation or interference in your business or your financial situation. . . . frankly, as intelligent as I know you are, it surprises me that you don’t at least question the motives behind his interest in your money.”
Wilbur had just made a huge miscalculation. As he was about to find out, his daughter was as stubborn and strong-willed as he was. She sent her father a blunt letter saying she wanted a new management team, and she refused to agree to any new deals Wilbur or Walker brought to her. She even turned down a $1 million offer to be featured in advertisements for a new perfume. Wilbur sent her a flurry of desperate letters about her spending (“This company will be broke before your next tour if you don’t control your spending”), her refusal to keep touring (“If you don’t wake up, girl, you won’t have a career”), and her association with Keegan and Lavetta (“a kid who doesn’t know his butt from a hole in the ground [and] a fifty-year-old wanna-be”).
But LeAnn would barely speak to him. Instead, she hired prominent Houston lawyer Cary Gray, who had been involved in several high-profile Texas family business disputes. He promptly launched a court fight to get access to the financial records of LeAnn Rimes Entertainment, and when the records finally landed on his desk in the spring of 2000, Gray realized that Wilbur and Walker had taken more of the money generated by LeAnn than LeAnn had received herself. From 1996 until the end of 1999, LeAnn Rimes Entertainment had received approximately $41 million in album royalties, concert tour revenues, promotions, fan club memberships, and merchandise sales. After expenses and taxes were taken out, Wilbur had paid himself around $11 million in producer, manager, and guardian fees. (He later gave $5.1 million of that total to Belinda to fulfill the terms of their divorce.) Walker received around $4 million as LeAnn’s co-manager, and his studio received a $539,198 fee. That adds up to some $16 million. But only $8 million was paid to LeAnn or invested for her benefit. (There is another $2 million in corporate assets, says LeAnn’s attorney, that she could also claim as her own.)
When other agents and managers heard about the percentages that Wilbur and Walker were taking, they told LeAnn she was being had. Wilbur’s 30 percent producer fee, they informed her, is usually reserved for the finest and most experienced producers in the business. The 30 percent co-management fee was also extraordinarily high. Most managers of unknown recording artists start out taking 20 percent of an artist’s gross, then they gradually lower their cut to about 10 percent or less once the artist begins to bring in significant earnings. What’s more, it is not a common practice in the recording industry to pay producer and management fees to the same person. And Wilbur wasn’t just double-dipping. With his parental guardian fee, he was triple-dipping from his daughter’s income.
As for her Curb Records deal, they said, she unknowingly had stuck herself in a contract that might take her at least another ten years to fulfill, thus preventing her, in the prime of her career, from negotiating a new contract the way other successful recording artists are able to do. One lawyer who studied her contract and her company balance sheet said that Curb made more than $50 million in profits off her.
The war was on. Besides her lawsuit seeking to terminate her contract with Curb, LeAnn’s lawsuit against Wilbur and Walker claims they should have collected $7.5 million less than they did. Walker agreed to a confidential, out-of-court settlement with LeAnn, but in his countersuit, Wilbur roared back that LeAnn was trying to crucify him “with venomous false and grossly misleading allegations orchestrated to receive national press attention and to destroy Wilbur’s reputation.” Yes, Wilbur wrote me, he was well compensated as her producer and manager, but those were fees that would have been paid to somebody else anyway. What really hurts, Wilbur said, is the fact that his daughter turned against the very person who had worked hardest for her: “I literally worked from the time the sun came up until late into the night every single day. I could never list all of the duties I performed for LeAnn, but I know it [would take] eight or nine people to replace me.” Brad Rhorer, Wilbur’s attorney, goes so far as to proclaim that LeAnn would be nothing without Wilbur. “Quite frankly,” he wrote in one court filing, “I think that Wilbur Rimes is the only person who was conceivably capable of elevating LeAnn to the stardom she once had.”
LeAnn and her supporters, of course, say it’s the other way around—that she was the one with the talent, that her stardom was assured with her voice alone, and that her daddy was riding on her coattails. To them, Wilbur has turned into a rustic King Lear, raging against a daughter’s impudence, terrified of losing control.
And so the war drags on, a classic case of hubris bringing down everyone. It’s not clear that LeAnn is going to come away winning anything. Although her father’s court claims about her immoral lifestyle are completely irrelevant to her lawsuit, and although he seemingly has gone off the deep end about Keegan and Lavetta—saying without a shred of proof that they are trying to become LeAnn’s managers and that they’re trying to get her money to finance films they want to be in—it’s hard to imagine a jury at the upcoming trial (which could be held this summer) going along with LeAnn’s demand that he pay back the entire $11 million he made working for her. For all his bullheaded posturing, the man did work hard.
Furthermore, it looks as though LeAnn is losing her battle with Curb. Mike Curb and LeAnn aren’t speaking, but Curb’s lawyers say they have always administered the contract leniently. They are insistent, however, that they are not going to let her out of her contract. The courts are agreeing with Curb’s lawyers. At a hearing in mid-March in a Nashville court, a judge sided with the record company. LeAnn began shaking with sobs; then she turned around to her father, who was sitting a few rows behind her, giving her an I-told-you-so look, and blurted out, “I hate you.” Wilbur told reporters after the hearing that he was hurt and confused by his daughter’s remarks since he was only there as an observer. However, he could not help but toss out one more fatherly rebuke, saying, “I’m very pleased with the judge’s decision because . . . she should be made to honor her word, rather than to be able to wriggle out of it simply because she has the star power.”
On the day before leann’s show at the Houston Rodeo, about a dozen of her friends and her mother have gathered at a home to see her and eat lunch. She hobbles into the living room, keeping weight off her right foot. “Sorry,” she says with a sigh. “I sprained my ankle a couple of days ago walking to my car.” Andrew Keegan is beside her, gingerly guiding her to a chair, propping her right leg onto an ottoman, and pulling off her right loafer so she can relax. “The life of the boyfriend,” he says with a good-natured smile, and then he goes over to give a generous hug to Belinda and to shake the hand of Belinda’s new husband, Ted Miller, a man she first met years ago at Johnny High’s Country Music Revue, where he came with his then-wife to take photographs of performers like LeAnn.Since her marriage last September, Belinda has moved back to Garland. LeAnn, who will not turn nineteen until August, bought her new Los Angeles home in January and is now living there alone with Keegan. They seem utterly in love, teasing each other, finishing each other’s stories about their recent trip to the beach in Mexico. “But there are plenty of nights,” Keegan tells me, “when she lies in bed crying, torn up about, you know, the other stuff.”
I notice a diamond ring on the ring finger of LeAnn’s left hand, and I ask if she’s engaged. “Well, Andrew gave it to me, but it’s not an engagement ring. We’re calling it a promise ring,” she says, and she tosses back her head and laughs, a free and melodious laugh. It’s one of the few times the entire afternoon that she seems cheerful. She also becomes animated when she talks about songs she has been privately writing and recording at Rosewood Studios in Tyler. The songs are more pop-oriented—she says Curb Records will not hear any of them until her fight with them is resolved—and her favorite new song that she has recorded, she notes, is titled “No Way Out.” It’s about a woman in an addictive romantic relationship, but the chorus could just as well describe her relationship with Wilbur:
I try to run, but I keep on falling.
And every time I turn around,
I hear your voice, and it keeps on calling.
There’s no way out.
“It’s not like those inspirational songs you used to sing a few years back,” I say.
“Tell me about it,” she says.
We talk briefly about her father. She tries to put a good spin on the situation, saying that someday she and her father will become friends again. But she doesn’t smile. She knows their relationship will only get worse. LeAnn’s stepmother, Catherine, has now gotten involved, releasing to the news media a taped phone conversation in which LeAnn is supposedly praising the new album that she had denounced on her Web site. LeAnn’s attorney, Cary Gray, countered in court that Catherine is engaged in a “smear campaign” and that LeAnn’s taped remarks referred to an earlier album, one that was to be released in Europe. LeAnn does say she is still enjoying her sabbatical from the profession—”It’s the first time in I don’t know how many years that I’ve had time to myself”—but she is feeling the itch to perform again. “I know I’m meant to sing,” she says. “I’ve got many years ahead of me. All this mess will be over soon.”
One can only hope so—for the next night at the rodeo, her concert is listless. She comes onstage barefoot because of her sprained ankle, and then she tells the audience that she was afflicted with a virus earlier that morning and had to spend the day in the hospital. “The doctors say I’m not supposed to be out here tonight,” she says. “But I’m not the type of person who cancels. So here I am.”
Mechanically, she goes through some of her hit songs, including “Blue,” and she ends with an a cappella version of “Amazing Grace.” Before she finishes, I look around the Astrodome and realize that many of her fans who bought tickets long ago for this night are already heading toward the exits. Whether they are trying to beat the rest of the crowd out of the parking lot or whether they are simply disappointed in LeAnn, it is hard to say. LeAnn gamely finishes, then steps into the bed of a pickup truck that drives around the floor of the Astrodome while she waves at the fans who are left. There isn’t much applause, and I wonder if LeAnn even notices. Her eyes are closed as she waves, and she is straining to smile.
Then the spotlight aimed at her is turned off, and she is gone.