On June 23, 1987, a 15 year old singer named Tiffany Darwish played the first of ten concert dates at a plaza in Peramus, New Jersey. The Beautiful You: Celebrating The Good Life Shopping Mall Tour was sponsored by Adidas, Clairol, and Toyota.
Brad Schmidt, co-manager: We wanted to take her to where her peer group hangs out all summer long–shopping malls. If Tiff is going to make it, she’s going to do it first among 12- to 18-year-olds, and what better place to expose her than in America’s playgrounds, the malls.
Tiffany Darwish, singer: The label didn’t really know what to do with me. They put me in clubs and I was 16 and it wasn’t working because I wasn’t even old enough to be in a club. People liked the music, but it just wasn’t gelling. It was my A&R guy over at MCA Records who was at the mall with his kids one day and looked around and said, ‘What about singing in a mall?’
Tiffany performed three 20-minute sets a day, on stages set up in front of Cutlery World and Great Expectations. Her co-manager George Tobin shot the footage used in the video for I Think We’re Alone Now, capturing bygone temples to commodity fetishism the moment offshoring began its long, slow burn across the American economy. It was seven years before Jeff Bezos founded Amazon, a world of RadioShacks and Merry-Go-Rounds, conjured up by a Muzak version of One Note Samba and the aspartame aftertaste of Mrs. Fields’ homemade-style cookies. There were no waste containers for recycling.
Brad Schmidt: Kids buy kids. The record companies are starting to be open to the possibility of there being a youth market out there.
Tiffany: Looking at my idols, I want to be like them, dress like them and dye my hair like them. But the average teenager doesn’t have $200 to spend on a nice out outfit just to be like their role models. I look at people like Madonna–which is not my image–but when she started she had bows. You can get a bow for 25 cents and girls all over were wearing bows. So she started something kids could copy because it’s affordable and that’s very important. You can’t have something that’s real glitzy and glamorous because the kids are just going to say, ‘That’s beautiful but I can’t afford it.’ They want to copy the way you dress.
Larry Solters, MCA vice-president: We’re getting many more than the normal 16-to-25 age group. We’re hitting every demographic. This is grassroots promotion.
Tiffany: The first couple of weekends weren’t successful at all. We had like two people show up. We had people yelling at me because I was too loud, and business owners were not too happy with me being outside their stores. But as radio stations started to play the single and say that I was appearing at the local mall, it started to catch fire. We went from people sitting in the chairs just because they were there, to the point where you couldn’t move. It was overwhelming.
George Tobin, co-manager: She’s a trend setter, not a trend follower. She wears black in August and there’ll be 15,000 girls who decide: ‘You know what? Black ain’t so bad in August!’
Tiffany: I met Michael Jackson. Girls copied my earrings and my crimped hair
Janie Williams, mother (court documents): She has frequently travelled accompanied only by men, despite my request that she have a female chaperone.
Tiffany: I was singing to backing tracks, and when the guitar solo came on, I was left filling in that time. When you have a live band, people can look at the guitar player, but in that situation, all people had to look at was me.
heather A, YouTube comment: The first tapes I ever bought with my own money were ‘Tiffany’ and ‘Debbie Gibson’ I used to listen to Tiffany with my yellow and black Sony Walkman.
Tiffany: I still remember that middle period where we had between 200 and 300 people show up and I would sign autographs… I would get to meet some really cool people and we’d walk over to the food court and share pizza. It was a pretty innocent time and it felt normal to me. It got harder when the crowds got bigger and I would be mobbed. I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere in the mall.
Sister Francom, Church of Latter Day Saints missionary at Woodfield Mall: She’s sincere and seems to have great love for the people. And it was very clean, not low-cut and trashy like Madonna.
YouTube comments under the ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ video:
Tinted Hourglass, September 2019: I miss the days when nothing in the world seemed cooler to me than a teenage girl in a jean jacket.
Will Moshe Carr, September 2019: teenage girls in jean jackets are still cool lmao
Ensad Miljkovic Psihoterapeut, October 2019: But also creepy and illegal if you are 40+ year old man:)
Dan Williams, former stepfather: There’s a little country-and-Western bar there in Norwalk, right by the American Legion hall. That’s where she had her first public performance. The band had this flatbed truck and they wouldn’t let Tiff up there. They made her sing down on the ground. But she sang the song so good they brought her up on the flatbed. And she sang three, four songs and they took up a collection: $235. We used it to buy an outfit for her the next year.
Tiffany: I have a stepfather who kind of looked at this as . . . ah . . . more than something to do at weekends. He saw it as something that could pay his rent.
Dan Williams: As soon as I saw Tiff sing I said, ‘Boy, I’m going to have the Rolls-Royce.’
George Tobin: When I first met Tiffany she was 12 years old and under contract to a manager whom she had met at a talent show. This man had no connection whatsoever to the music business, and I was later told that he turned out to be a con artist with a federal criminal record for selling guns and was under police surveillance for suspected drug dealing. He had persuaded Tiffany’s mother to let him manage her. As a bonus for Janie (Tiffany’s mom), he started paying her bills and even had Tiffany living with him part time. He brought her to my recording studio in Los Angeles and was interested in having me produce songs for his non-existent production company. I turned him down because I felt he had no business being in this business, and I don’t work for hire. However, when Tiffany sang for me I was really impressed.
In January of 1988, Tiffany’s eponymous debut album knocked George Michael’s Faith out of first place. In February, she filed for emancipation from her mother and she was classified as a runaway by the Norwalk Sheriff’s Station.
Captain Robert Pash, Norwalk Sheriff’s Station: It’s not something we put people in jail for, but we do try to locate them and return them to their homes.
Tiffany: Together, Brad and George managed me in the beginning of my career. Then one day, Brad disappeared. At the time, I was given no explanation. Only recently did I learn that Brad was basically kicked to the curb by George.
George Tobin: No one has ever allowed me to give an unedited account of the true facts regarding my history with Tiffany. After all these years I’m still amazed at how little the fans and the critics really understand about the music business, and the role of the manager, the record label, and the producer.
Janie Williams, mother (court declaration opposing her daughter’s emancipation): Tiffany is very devoted to Mr. Tobin. She relies completely on his advice and direction. Whenever she even begins to question him, he advises her that her success is due to him and that if she does not cooperate he will sell her contract to the highest bidder. This threat leaves her in tears. On other occasions, he attempts to induce guilt to secure compliance. By eliminating the people who Tiffany respects and trusts, Mr. Tobin prevents any challenges to his decisions concerning Tiffany. I believe the emancipation proceeding to be a disguised attempt for Mr. Tobin to obtain de facto custody of Tiffany, without proving that parental custody would be detrimental to her.
Tiffany: Tiffany is the voice. The songs are George Tobin and the arrangements are George Tobin. All the production values are George Tobin.
George Tobin: Tiffany is signed to me, 100 percent to me.
Anonymous music industry source: George is as capable as anyone in this business of creating a hit. His record-making process is to dissect the Top Ten and incorporate every hook he can find into his next record. And he’s good at it. I don’t care who the artist is: He delivers hits. That’s what he did with Tiffany. It’s just too bad that he’s a control maniac.
Tiffany: I don’t want anyone to think I’m controlled. I’m not. I’m the only one who can tell you when I can and can’t work, what I will and will not do. There’s not some drill sergeant ordering me around.
George Tobin: When Tiffany went through the process of emancipation from her mother, Janie hired lawyers and a ‘forensic accountant’ to see if I had cheated or misappropriated any monies due. Their team scoured though millions in revenue and couldn’t find one dollar unaccounted for or missing. Had they found something, the contract could have been broken immediately. She continued under the agreement, what does that tell you?
Janie Williams: Tiffany has never taken any responsibility for her own health care. I have always made all of her doctor’s appointments and obtained her prescriptions. She keeps irregular hours and is not accustomed to eating regular meals. I have found her vitamins in the trash. Tiffany’s homework has not been done for close to a year. She is seriously behind.
Tiffany: I have my best friend with me when I’m on the road and I think I benefit from being on the road also in having a tutor with me because I learn things. For instance, we visited Martin Van Buren’s house. We were going to Albany, so it’s kind of in the middle in nowhere land. Rather than looking at a history book and thinking about it, I’m actually doing it! Walking through. Taking a tour. It’s more interesting that way.
Tiffany reached a settlement with her mother, who had testified that her daughter’s tutor was also the drummer in her band. She replaced George Tobin with Maurice Starr and went on the road with the New Kids on the Block, where she was heckled by their enraged fans. Credited as co-headliners, Tiffany became the opening act of the Hangin’ Tough Tour. She reconnected with Tobin in 1990.
George Tobin: When Tiffany and I got back together in the early nineties radio taste had completely changed, and not one pop ‘teen act’ from the eighties survived though to the nineties. (I know this very well because I invested my money a little differently than Tiffany did, and at the time I owned a top rated Las Vegas pop/alternative radio station, which I sold ten years later for more money than I ever made with Tiffany).
Tiffany: George was back in my life as my manager, and unbeknownst to me, he had me record an album of remakes. But these weren’t just any remakes. They were songs that were currently available in Japan by another act that George was managing. I remember hearing ‘Can’t You See’ on Japanese radio and it wasn’t my version. It was the same track, the same key, but a different voice. I totally lost it. It was a complete rip-off. So George and I split yet again.
George Tobin: Sure, ILIB, Can’t You See, and Almost In Love were recorded previously, but it didn’t work out. They were never hits, and the act dissolved. And what about the writers who wrote great songs? Should I toss out the baby because the bath water went down the drain? As it turned out, ILIB was a hit song for Tiffany in Southeast Asia…remember?
The video for I Think We’re Alone Now remains the Gimme Shelter of Tiffany’s mall tour. The comments section on YouTube is a slow cooker of Generation X nostalgia and regret; a mixture of pride (‘The 80’s were literally the best’), poignancy (‘The reason why I’m listening this is because I’m alone now’), and intergenerational warfare (‘But if you were a teenager in the 80s it means you’re an old hag now’).
The most common theme is a longing for the time before the technology existed to summon up thirty year old videos at will. Celebrating the good life, in the decade before PCs, smart phones, tablets, and likes began their irrevocable re-arrangement of the human brain. ‘The mall was our social media back then.’ People use the technology they’re complaining about to complain to thousands of like-minded strangers, bemoaning the reduction of our capacity for boredom. ‘You actually went outside if you were bored. You met up in person with your friends.’
Tiffany: I still have ‘Children behave’–the first words of I Think We’re Alone Now–on my T-shirts. I love the song now and never tire of singing it.
Tiffany Darwish remains indomitable. She has released ten albums, most recently in 2018. She bears no grudges:
I’m kind of an old soul and I also think that real-life situations helped me avoid certain things. As much as I love my family, they suffered with a lot of addiction problems and drama, so I saw all of that firsthand. I think I always knew that when it comes to the music industry, people never want to rock the boat with a celebrity, so you can pretty much get whatever you want. I definitely had a time when I thought I was all that and a bag of chips. But that was short-lived because I really care about people. I want people to work with me and respect me, and I respect people who told me, ‘No, I don’t think that’s the best thing for you.’ I wasn’t insulted by that.
Not even against George Tobin:
Tiffany: I learned a lot about the business from George. He made me face, head-on, the realities of the music industry. He would drag me into meetings with radio program directors, retailers, and label executives. In the end, I just couldn’t operate the way he wanted me to.
George Tobin: Two things I’m grateful for: the day I decided to manage Tiffany, because I knew she would be huge even though nobody else could hear it–and I’m glad I went ahead and recorded I Think We’re Alone Now, even though she thought it was an awful idea. I sincerely wish Tiffany well.
Tiffany marked the thirty year anniversary of the Celebrating the Good Life tour in St. Louis, Missouri. Cutlery World is likely extinct; Tiffany performed in front of a Victoria’s Secret, whose time may be running out. Proctor and Gamble sold Clairol to Coty, which reigns alongside Adidas and Toyota on the Forbes list of the top public companies in the world, borderless nation states earning hundreds of billions a year. There are still no recycling receptacles at the Mid-Rivers Mall, and every single person in the audience was holding up a phone.
Compiled from reporting (and one note) by: Steven R. Churm (Los Angeles Times), Steve Dougherty (People Weekly), Erin Hill (Parade), David Lustig (People Weekly), Dennis McDougal (Los Angeles Times), Douglas McPherson (classicpopmag.com), Michael Paoletta (Billboard), Graham Reid (Elsewhere.co.nz), Lisa Russell (People Weekly), Dave Simpson (The Guardian), George Tobin (www.tiffany.org).