Daddy's Little Girl

Six years after her stunning debut, LeAnn Rimes is battling her father for control of her career—and suddenly the life of America's country princess doesn't seem like a fairy tale anymore.

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

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