Webster Groves R&B sensation Toya prepares for the big-time

It's been a very good year for Toya, the 18-year-old R&B sensation from Webster Groves whose single "I Do!" earned the "Greatest Gainer/Sales" designation in Billboard this week when it jumped from No. 41 to No. 27 in the "Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles" category. (Just two weeks ago, it was at 99.) Last year, the Mary Institute grad was taking business courses at St. Louis University, working part-time as a restaurant hostess and, like so many other teenage girls, dreaming of stardom. Here's where it gets all Cinderella-ish: One day she goes to visit a friend at a local studio, where Nelly happens to be recording. She meets his manager, Tony Davis; performs an off-the-cuff, a cappella rendition of a gospel song for him; knocks his socks off; records a demo; and, in a few short weeks, signs a contract with Arista. Before she has time to blink her beautiful almond-shaped eyes, she has a hit single and is touring with Nelly and the St. Lunatics ("It was great," she gushes. "They all treated me like their kid sister or something!")

"It's all happened so fast. I still can't believe it," she marvels, as she picks daintily at her breadstick. Toya's just finished doing a television interview with TV reporter Al Wiman at the St. Louis Bread Co. on Delmar, and she has about an hour to kill with Radar Station before heading down the street to do an in-store autograph signing at Streetside Records. Caveat lector: Radar Station is horribly starstruck. Try as we might to maintain our critical objectivity, the requisite Radar Station froideur, Toya manages to melt our tiny little rock-hard heart about two seconds into the interview. She conscientiously answers all our dumb questions. She giggles politely at our lame jokes. She acquiesces sweetly to the sadistic demands of our photographer. She gives us a big hug. Lester Bangs rolls in his grave and pukes in protest as we simper idiotically, completely besotted with the girl despite her perfectly flat stomach, her blindingly white teeth and her relentless sincerity -- qualities that usually make us nauseated if not outright hostile.

Thing is, Toya doesn't act like the type who gets the full-on glamour-puss treatment in Vibe, whose billboards are plastered all over the city, whose video airs on BET, The Box and MTV every few minutes. To quote Radar Station's grandmother, she's not just pretty, she's got pretty ways. It's impossible not to like her, watching her open doors for people, autograph a baby's diaper (ewwww!), smile at the asshole who, instead of standing patiently in line inside the record store like the rest of the people, hunts her down outside and demands that she either sign his bank envelope or sell him a copy of her single right there on the street (does she look like she's hiding a CD in those skinny white hip-huggers, dumb-ass?). "They're always having to pull me away, 'cause I could sign autographs for fans all day long," Toya admits. "I mean, I remember what it was like to be a fan. I'm still a fan! I just love Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, Inda.Arie, 'N Sync -- I'd get their autographs in a second!" But she's got to draw the line somewhere: "I had to tell my mom to quit giving my cell-phone number out to fans. People are calling all the time! It's nice, but I'm gonna have to change the number."

If she sounds uncannily poised for an 18-year-old, it's probably at least partly due to her middle-class, suburban, religious upbringing. Born on an Air Force base in North Dakota, Toya moved with her family to Webster Groves when she was 4. Soon she began singing at a Baptist church on Martin Luther King Drive, where her grandfather serves as pastor. "I always had to be the center of everything," she says ruefully. "My mom says we'd be at the Galleria, and she'd turn around and there I'd be, performing for people." In high school, she hooked up with Harold Guy (her business manager and the co-writer of "I Do!") through a modeling agency, where he was the VP of public relations. "We became good friends, were hangin' out all the time, and then six months after we first met, we found out we were cousins! Then I met Shené (King) and DT (Dawntanya Smith) -- they got a management company together -- and then when everything started happening, I thought, 'Who else could better represent me than people who already know me, who'd been helping me out from the beginning anyway,' you know?"

According to the billboards plastered all over Delmar, Toya "represents the softer side of St. Louis." When asked what the hell that's all about, Toya shrugs. "I really don't know what it means, but I kinda like it." Is it a tie-in with Nelly, who presumably represents the "harder" side of St. Louis? "Yeah, maybe, but Nelly's got a softer side, too. He's a real sweetie," she giggles confidentially. We'll find out for ourselves next week, when the multiplatinum pinup finally grants Radar Station the interview we've been begging for.

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