It all started with a dress. A white dress with black polka dots and red trim. Crinoline skirt. Red belt. Red shoes. Like Minnie Mouse wears. Only this is TMarie, at age six. She is competing for Tiny Miss Miami 1994. Her hair is pulled back in a poof. Her black eyes are enormous. She is singing "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" -- by Connie.
"You know Connie, from Sabado Gigante," says TMarie, age 13.
Her mother walks into the conference room and corrects her: "Cyndi Lauper sang that song, honey." Then she tells the reporter, "Connie was the first little-girl star on Sabado Gigante. She used to be on the show all the time, singing "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.'"
TMarie is not interested in Cyndi Lauper. She continues her story: "I told my mom that if she bought me that dress, I would sing "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,' like Connie."
"Back then $110 was not cheap," explains her mother, who manages the office for TMarie's developer dad, Luis Rodriguez, until the end of the school day.
"And then she runs her second business" -- her daughter beams -- "TMarie."
Back in 1992, a pageant organizer approached the preschool TMarie, then Tiffany Rodriguez, and her mother, Rosa Rodriguez, at Toys R Us.
"She told me, "Your daughter is so beautiful,'" remembers Mama Rodriguez, "and I thought sure, she's a kid. All kids are beautiful. But Tiffany wanted to be in the pageant." She laughs. "She leads me."
At four and a half years old, TMarie lost Mini Miss Miami. She refused to walk with a boy.
"I hated boys," she shrugs.
"But she never forgot," says her mother. "One of the judges came over and told her, "You did really well, but you didn't follow the rules. You can't cut corners. Whatever you do in life, you can't cut any corners.'"
She never lost again: TMarie took Miss Iberoamericana and Miss Southern Charm in 1993; Tiny Miss Miami in 1994; Little Miss Malibu in 1995; and Young Junior Miss Hialeah in 1996. To say nothing of all the first-place prizes in drama and singing competitions in between.
"I was a finalist for Selena as a little girl in The Selena Movie," she says, her dark skin and mestiza features bearing strong resemblance to the slain Tejano star, "but I guess they wanted someone else."
Just under 4 feet 11 inches tall and weighing 90 pounds, TMarie is dwarfed by the unpacked boxes, framed celebrity photographs, and massive Chinese urns strewn about the new Miami Lakes offices of KC Productions, named for Sunshine Band leader Harry Casey. The Boogie Man is on the road, as he has been 200 days a year since coming out of retirement eight years ago. He talks about his protégé over the phone. "I sent the troops out looking for a young girl, and they found Tiffany," says KC. "It just seems to be the way things are going today. I wanted someone that we could kind of groom and be a part of the process of helping her reach her dreams. I've had mucho success; now I have the time to help someone else."
TMarie is scheduled to open for Albita and Nil Lara at an outdoor concert tonight, but the weather is not cooperating. Thunder rumbles.
"Okaaaay," she says to herself, wiggling her ponytail, "it's not a pretty day."
Her mother is in another room talking to artist-development man Lee Gatch, the soldier who discovered TMarie performing on the Fourth of July 2000 at Hialeah's Milander Park. He scheduled the young singer's interview for a Saturday morning, he says, "because, you know, she's in school."
And dance class. And voice class. And acting class. Or in the studio. Or on stage.
TMarie has shown up in national commercials for JC Penney and Kmart. Like her idol Connie, she has appeared frequently on Sabado Gigante and a host of other shows on Spanish- and English-language television. She sings at festivals from the Hollywood Spring Jamboree to Calle Ocho. Backed by her 14- and 15-year-old male dancers at Radio Disney shows and the recent Y100 Wing Ding, she breezes through Latin-tinged jazz routines set to the songs she is recording for KC Productions. She executes the pivot turns, grapevines, and splits as easily as she tosses her hair.
In her spare time, TMarie says, she likes to design clothes.
"I design all my own costumes and do my own hair," she says, leaning in close and taking a deep breath. "That's what I love: hair, clothes, dancing, singing." She punctuates each passion by thrusting her open palms into the air. "I'm going to be Barbie for Halloween, because everyone else is going to be a cheerleader. I'm going to be Generation Barbie, because she's the only Barbie who wears low-cut pants. Everyone else is wearing those short skirts that split on the side." She shifts in her chair and draws an imaginary line on her thigh. "I'm a trendsetter. I like to wear shirts that show my stomach and low-cut pants."
This is a problem, because next week is no-uniform week at M.A. Milam K-8 Center in Hialeah, and the rules state clearly that there are to be no bare midriffs and no spaghetti straps.
By the following Monday, TMarie has found a solution. When she bounces into the Kendall home studio of Pete Massitti, she is wearing low-cut jeans disguised by a stretchy gauze shirt. The pink and lavender ribbons holding her ponytail match the shirt's layers. "All day I was like this," she says, tugging the shirt over her belly, "The teachers watch to make sure you don't break the rules."
She has news for Massitti, who is also producing a project for the young Iglesias, Julio Jr. "You know that song you wrote for me," she asks, ""Call Me'?"
"Well, my friend is using that song as a stragedy."
Massitti is bewildered.
"You know, a stragedy. Like whenever she wants her boyfriend to call, she tells me, "Play that song; I love that song.' And you know what? He calls!" TMarie pouts, "I told her, "You can't use my song like that.'"
Even though no one's waiting for a phone call, Massitti plays "Call Me." With the vocoder and echo ("That's what we call the "Cher effect,'" says Massitti) TMarie's voice sounds incredibly mature. Even the natural track, the recording of her voice without effects, sounds like a woman much older than thirteen. For all the exposed midriff, this is nothing like Britney's saccharine whine. "What's really unusual for her age is that she conveys feeling really well," observes Massitti. "Not many people when they begin recording can do that."
TMarie connects the songs to her eighth-grade life. "It doesn't have to be a boyfriend you want to call," she points out. "You could be waiting for someone to tell you [about] homework. You're like, "Please call. I need you to call.'"
The song she is scheduled to record today, about a woman who feels her partner's love waning, is an even bigger stretch. TMarie learned "Come Apart" from a recording, so she's had to guess at some of the lyrics.
"What's a tare raid?" she asks Massitti.
"You know, "as your tare raids fade away.'"
Massitti pulls up the words, cowritten with a lyricist in New York City, on his computer. He decides he doesn't like the line "as your tail lights fade away."
"Let's try, "As the memories fade away,'" he suggests.
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It's too late. On the first two runs through, TMarie's voice cracks with as much emotion singing about the fading tare raids as when she sings about her lover's lips "tasting so sweet."
"Is that too much, Mom?" Massitti asks about the tasty lips. "Should we change that?"
"It's already been approved," Rodriguez confirms, waving the question away.
As Massitti coaches TMarie on her diction, however, her mother admits, "I just worry so much. She's so young. But she's not a kid anymore, my husband tells me. We have to let her grow."