Rimes and Reason
Executive editor Skip Hollandsworth tells the story behind this month's cover story, "Daddy's Little Girl."
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texasmonthly.com: What possessed you to go to that show back in 1995? What impressed you most about LeAnn then? Why do a story on her now?
SH: What makes LeAnn so interesting is that she came to Texas to start her performing career as a little girl, and so many of us watched her take off into a kind of stardom no one could have predicted. I remember hearing about her when she was eight years old, nine years old, and ten years old. She was this little Shirley Temple—like child who had a set of God-given pipes and a composure fit for a veteran seasoned performer. She would sing the National Anthem at the Texas Rangers games, and the roar from the crowd would be louder than any roar you would hear once the game began. We all began to root for her to make it. So many of these prodigies never last past puberty. Their voices change, or they don’t have the support from their parents, or they don’t have the willpower to stick with it. But LeAnn had everything–and she, more than anyone, wanted a career in show business. Then came that night when she was twelve years old and performing for Nashville executives. Many local reporters, including myself, came to cover the concert, curious to see what would happen, wondering if this fairy tale really was going to come true. And what she did was simply unheard of in the business. She was so powerful, so poised, so brilliant as a performer that every executive wanted to sign her right then and there. There were five standing ovations by the crowd. I think everyone there knew they were part of a rare moment in modern music history. It was literally a moment where you saw a little girl turn into a major star overnight. Within a year, she was the best-selling female artist in the U.S. And then, within three years, it was all falling apart. That story–of a rise and a fall and the question of how she can rise again–was, to me, a very compelling one.
texasmonthly.com: What impresses you most about LeAnn now? How has she changed since that 1995 show?
SH: Think about LeAnn’s life. This is a girl who has had no semblance of a normal childhood. She spent almost all of her time around adults once she signed her record contract and started touring at the age of thirteen. Because of her parents’ divorce, she went through serious trauma–you’ll see in the story how she seemed forced to choose between one or the other. Then came these battles with her own father. Essentially, by the age of sixteen, she had moved to Los Angeles and was on her own. She then started living a wildly extravagant life. She was the quintessential teen diva. She bought a $350,000 Bentley on an impulse. She bought the most expensive clothes, even a $2 million home soon after she turned eighteen. She hired a man to work as her personal-assistant-trainer-nutritionist-bodyguard. Yet even then, when she sat down to talk to me, she was still a teenager just like so many you meet–a girl who was confused; a girl who was devastated at what had happened to her, her life with her father, and her career; and a girl who wasn’t sure what to do next. It’s what makes her so fascinating. Despite all the accoutrements of life that surround her, she still has so much to understand, so much perspective to gain, so much to recognize about what it means to be happy. Her journey as an adult is just beginning.
texasmonthly.com: How long did you work on this story and what kind of research did you have to do?
SH: I started working on the story in February when it became clear that the fight between LeAnn and her father and between LeAnn and her record company was not going to go away. Often these kinds of spats get settled fairly quickly, and no one will talk. When I started out working on the story, it seemed no one would talk–and why should they? This was an intense personal dispute between family members. But then I read the volumes of court pleadings that were already on file regarding LeAnn’s allegations against her father and his allegations against her. What I realized was that both sides had not hesitated to go public in legal documents about their feelings. Here was LeAnn, suing her own father for stealing from her, and here was her father, countersuing with some vicious allegations, including the one that his own daughter was acting promiscuously. There was a tabloid element to the feud that naturally drew your attention–but there was something more here too. It was the end of a fairy tale that we had spent the past five years believing was true, a fairy tale about a little small-town couple who had believed in their daughter’s talent and together they had ascended to the greatest heights of American celebrity. How could it have gone so wrong? How could the fairy tale have been such a lie? That was the question I wanted an answer to.
texasmonthly.com: What, if anything, surprised you about LeAnn?
SH: This was a more complicated parent-daughter relationship than you usually find among stage parents. What surprised me about LeAnn was how much she pushed, early on as a child, to have a show-business career. There were times when it seemed she was pushing her parents more than they were pushing her. Her ambition is little known, I think. Usually, with child stars, there are parents pushing hard from off-stage, forcing the kid to perform. Granted, Wilbur, LeAnn’s father, was tough on her about practicing, but she wanted the career. She wasn’t forced to sing to support the family. Of course, once she did hit it big and Wilbur became her manager and producer, then he did put pressure on her to keep performing, to keep recording, to keep working, to sacrifice her adolescence.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most difficult aspect to writing this story? Why?
SH: The most difficult part about writing this story was trying to balance two completely opposite versions of events. Whatever LeAnn would say about one aspect of the fight, Wilbur or his representatives would say something different. Many times there was no third way to verify interpretations of an event–many of these events were private encounters between LeAnn and her father–so the challenge was to persuasively argue both sides of the story without trying to take sides and at the same time offer some perspective on the events.
texasmonthly.com: What was she like when you talked to her? Was she what you expected?
SH: I found LeAnn surprisingly cheerful when I spoke to her. She could have done the typical teenage act and broken down in tears and become overly dramatic, but she remained the consummate professional as she talked about the heartbreaks and controversies in her life, speaking calmly, shaking her head on occasion with a kind of bewilderment or slight disgust–and that was it. It was only later that her boyfriend told me that she breaks apart late at night, crying over the ruined relationship with her father.
texasmonthly.com: Do you find that she longs to be singing and performing again? Do you think she will make a comeback? If so, why? If not, why not?
SH: LeAnn is so committed to regaining her place on top that she is privately recording at a studio in Tyler with a group of engineers and producers she has long worked with. She is writing some of her own songs and trying to develop a newer kind of sound than the usual country fare. Perhaps this time in her life is going to turn out to be great for her. It’s taken her off the road, out of the pressure of being number one on the country-music charts, and away from the media spotlight. She finally, for the first time in her life, has time to develop and nurture herself as a young-adult artist instead of a teen sensation. There is no question that somewhere down the road, she will make a comeback.
texasmonthly.com: Do you find profiles easy to write? If so, why? If not, why not?
SH: I think profiles are extraordinarily difficult. You never have enough time with the person you’re profiling, especially if that person is a celebrity. There were so many times when I was writing that I wanted to call up LeAnn and ask her to tell me a story one more time. But, as you know, you don’t just call up LeAnn Rimes.