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Less than a year ago, Tiffany Renee Darwish was playing the Bergen Mall in Paramus, N.J. with dates at Cleveland's Great Northern Mall, Chicago's Woodfield Mall, and Minneapolis's Southdale Mall stretching like a Valley girl's dream before her.

Today the 16-year-old auburn-haired pop singer's debut album, "Tiffany," has gone triple platinum. Which only goes to show what a little talent and a few White Sales can do for a career in the '80s.The now famous "Shopping Mall Tour '87" that is credited with launching Tiffany's career was engineered by MCA Records, the company smart enough to sign the strong-voiced singer as a relative unknown at age 14.

She did some time as the opening act for teen pop family The Jets before MCA hit upon an idea that, mentioned jokingly at first, proved to be a natural. If it was a bubble gum audience they were after, they reasoned, what better place to find it than at shopping malls? And so the most modern of musical marketing strategies was born.

The three-month tour paid off.

Tiffany's first two singles, a remake of Tommy James's "I Think We're Alone Now" and "Could've Been," both went to No. 1 on the Billboard chart the first such achievement since Brenda Lee scored the debut double way back in 1960. Her third single, a remake of the Beatles' "I Saw (Him) Standing There," is currently on its way up and enjoying plenty of air time as a video on MTV and the like.

She has appeared on the gamut of television music and talk shows, including "The Tonight Show," "Entertainment Tonight" and "Solid Gold," and lately can be found on the pages of every publication from Newsweek to People magazine.

Not since Bobby Sherman and David Cassidy has bubble gum been this hot.

And not since Madonna took a leave of absence from the pop music circuit for a stint on Broadway (where she opened in David Mamet's "Speed the Plow" this month) have there been so many pre-pubescent pop queens jockeying for her title.

Though speculation may be a bit premature, since Madonna's bleached crown is hardly even cold, Tiffany's competitors for the throne include 17-year-old Debbie Gibson ("Out of the Blue") and 14-year-old Shanice Wilson ("No Steppin' "). Gibson, the nearest threat, also writes and performs her own material something critics say Tiffany will have to do if she hopes to have any staying power.

For right now, though, this latest entry in the roster of one-named singers is doing just fine on the strength of recycled hits and a singing style that is part Stevie Nicks, part Debbie Boone.

The best offerings from her "Tiffany" album have yet to be released as singles. "Spanish Eyes," a catchy Latin-flavored pop number in the spirit of Madonna's "La Isla Bonita," and "Kid on a Corner," a backbeat-laden ballad that seems particularly suited to her girlish vocals, are surefire hits. "Danny" features impassioned, strong refrains helped along by the urgency of the singer's youth.

The influences of Fleetwood Mac's Nicks (a favorite of Tiffany's) are apparent on many songs, none more so than "Should've Been Me," which features raspy, knife-edged vocals with a Rachel Sweet nasal tinge. The sultry Nicks-styled vocals may seem a bit incongruous given Tiffany's fresh-faced image, but she gets away with it on that song, largely because the tune is a such good one.

"I Saw Him Standing There," however, takes on the truly silly sound of a 16-year-old trying too hard to be something else. The revved-up version of the Beatles classic ends up playing like Joan Jett meets Annette Funicello, and it is exactly the kind of record Tiffany should stay away from if she hopes to have an ounce of credibility with anyone over the age of eight.

She's also going to have to decide, at some point, just what kind of an image it is that she's out to project.

With her shopping-mall background and clean-cut appearance, many fans had her pegged as the all-American teen.

"When I'm not around music business people, I like to talk on the phone, watch cartoons, eat pizza with my friends, hang out at McDonald's," she is quoted as saying in her MCA bio. "I don't get dressed up in glittering costumes. Anything I wear, kids can get themselves. I want to come across as a real person people my age will identify with that."

All of which may well be true, but recently the newsiest thing about the all-American pop star has been a court battle with her own mother in an effort to gain legal adult status, not to mention custody of her millions of dollars in earnings thus far.

Pair that with reports of a Svengali-like manager-producer, who apparently does everything but lip-synch for the singer on stage, and you have the makings of yet another bizarre chapter in the music business and an image problem for a performer who's targeting a very impressionable audience.

Perhaps the best thing Tiffany could do at this point is accept that she's a 16-year-old albeit a rich and famous one. Songs like "I Think We're Alone Now" use her youthful spirit to the kind of advantage that made the Jackson Five such a hit.

There's nothing wrong with being "a kid on a corner." Tiffany's best bet is to hang out there for a while.