Trisha Yearwood: All business -- An image overhaul, new manager, and Revlon deal prove that the country star is savvy about more than just music

By Kate Meyers
Updated April 16, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

Trisha Yearwood stands center stage at a New York City club in a long black velvet dress, her straight hair positioned perfectly, her skin flawless. She looks a whole lot more than one record campaign away from the countrified ingenue, curly-haired and denim-shirted, pictured on her first album 17 months before. It’s as if some fairy godmother had sprinkled her with sophistication dust. Cinderella gone Nashville, you might say.

Sure, she’s still a down-home Georgia peach with an angel’s voice who hasn’t forgotten her one-horse-town roots. But Yearwood, 28, is also one commercially conscious country cookie. And as dazzling as her ascension has been — her first big job was in 1991 as the opening act for Garth Brooks, her first-ever single, ”She’s in Love With the Boy,” hit No. 1 on the country charts, and her first two albums, Trisha Yearwood and Hearts in Armor, have both gone platinum- — here’s a lot more to it than divine luck. She has a manager who’s a Harvard M.B.A., a personal trainer-nutritionist, a full-time stylist, a Broadway director masterminding her stage show, and — drum roll, please — a new fragrance from Revlon.

Cinderella-with-a-business-plan would be more like it. A less dysfunctional Cinderella, too, since Yearwood grew up happily on her family’s 30-acre farm in Monticello, Ga., with no wicked steppeople anywhere in sight — just Mom (Gwen, a third-grade teacher), Dad (Ed, a banker), and an older sister (Beth, now a homemaker). Trisha had Elvis posters on her bedroom walls. She admits she had a ”brief Shaun Cassidy” period, watched M*A*S*H twice a day, got all A’s, carried water for the football team, played softball, sang in the school chorus, was named ”Outstanding Senior Girl” of Piedmont Academy, Class of 1982, and never divulged her dreams to anyone except her curling iron. ”Even before I sang in front of anybody, I always knew I wanted to do this,” she says. ”But I’m from a pretty conservative family and, you know, to say, ‘Oh, I’d like to be a country-music star in Nashville’ was kind of crazy.”

Instead, Yearwood went to that big city to continue her education. She majored in music business (foreshadowing alert) at Belmont College. A senior-year internship in the publicity department of the now-defunct MTM Records (yes, Mary Tyler Moore had a Nashville dream, too) evolved into a receptionist’s job there. She began singing on demo tapes for local songwriters. In 1989 she recorded a duet with an unknown crooner named Garth Brooks in the attic studio of songwriter Kent Blazy’s house. The harmony was instant, and Brooks promised that if he ever made it big, he’d take her with him. Two years later Yearwood’s phone rang, and it was the world’s hottest hat act on the line, inviting her to open his tour.

Riding the crest of Brooks’ seven-month tour and the success of ”She’s in Love With the Boy,” Yearwood felt she needed a more aggressive strategy. ”It seemed that so much happened to me in such a short time. And instead of anticipating the next thing, I found myself just reacting to everything.” Realizing that her management, Doyle-Lewis, already had plenty on its hands with Brooks, she did what many in Nashville considered careericide and severed ties with the company in September 1991.

For a month Yearwood was without a manager, but one person did come to mind: She had saved her notes from an eight-hour business seminar she attended in April 1991, ”The Stardom Strategy,” given by Kenny Rogers’ manager, Ken Kragen. Phone calls were made, and a meeting in L.A. arranged. By the time she and Kragen pulled into the MCA Records parking lot for a meeting with the president, Al Teller, Kragen wanted the job. ”Nothing had been agreed to,” he says. ”So I turned to her and asked, ‘Am I the manager or the chauffeur?”’

Enter the fairy godmother — of sorts. Kragen wasted no time drafting 17 pages worth of memoranda recommending alterations in her look, her stage show, and her public profile. A stylist, Sheri McCoy-Haynes, aided the transformation with more elegant duds (emphasis on DKNY, Kamali, and Anne Klein), which suited Yearwood just fine. And the singer went back to her naturally straight locks. ”I didn’t want sequins and big hair. I wanted a classy image because I feel that the music is classy,” she says. ”I will more typically wear a suit. If you saw me on the street you wouldn’t say, ‘I bet she’s a country singer. You might think I was a business executive.”’ Kragen also insisted that she lose weight and get in shape. Jarrah Herter, her now-full-time trainer-nutritionist, introduced her to the joys of the StairMaster, a low-fat diet, and plenty of water. She dropped ”lots” of inches and about 15 pounds in a year. While Yearwood is thrilled about being in shape, she resists being model-thin; she’s a 5’8” big-boned gal and proud of it. ”I’m not perfect, I don’t have a perfect body, but there’s a real attractiveness about a person who is comfortable about who they are no matter what size they are.”

Her stage show got an equally intense overhaul. When Yearwood hit the road with Brooks, she had never performed for an audience of more than 100. Thrown before thousands, she was admittedly pretty stiff. Kragen called in Broadway producer Joe Layton to help. ”Instead of creating something for me, he just made me more comfortable being myself,” she says. The reserved Georgian is learning to let go a little, walking the stage and working her skirt.

As for the master strategy, Kragen isn’t leaving anything to chance. His plan: Create enough events to keep her in the public eye, insuring one very long night at the ball. That’s where Revlon comes in. The company’s $7 million ad campaign for Wild Heart cologne ($16 for the large bottle) presented a perfect opportunity. Yearwood saw it as a way ”to expand my audience to the millions of women who buy Revlon and watch TV but still don’t know what country music’s about.” And she had the good sense to insist on being herself. ”I told Revlon, ‘If you’re looking for a model, you’ve already got Cindy Crawford. But if you’re looking for a real person, I could be that person.”’ She also negotiated to sing and write (with Jude Johnstone) the commercial’s song so people would get to hear a snippet of her style.

This month, besides the Revlon push, and in between tour dates with Travis Tritt, Yearwood goes back into the studio to record her third album, slated for a fall release. Later this spring MCA releases a Trisha Yearwood home video for overseas markets. This summer she’ll make her acting debut in the Peter Bogdanovich film The Thing Called Love, which will feature two or three of her songs, and she’ll shoot a one-hour music special for Disney, to air when her album is released. And Get Hot or Go Home, a case study of her lightning rise (published by Morrow) will also come out in the fall. If time permits, she may do a Christmas album; Garth Brooks wants to record a duet album. Tired yet?

And lest you think all work and no play make Trisha a dull girl, not to worry. Yeah, she’s ambitious, but she’s also an Elvis-movie-loving homebody who’s just as happy spending quiet time with boyfriend Robert Reynolds (bass player for the country band the Mavericks), her family, and her dog, Roseanne. If she’s lucky, she’ll even find time to unpack the cardboard boxes that have cluttered the front hall of her two-bedroom Nashville house for the past 10 months. Then we’re really talking happily ever after.