Have you ever been to a gay club when “No Scrubs” comes on? Because you’ve never seen anything gayer or more inspiring.
T-Boz and Chilli: (Laughs)
Chilli: You know what’s funny? One of my friends works for VH1 and, oh my gosh, it’s hilarious. He’s gay and I’m the only girl who could be his play girlfriend he tells me, and he always sends me – and, I mean, he just sent one the other day – video of when “No Scrubs” comes on, and he’s like, “Chilli, I love you!” And he’s singing and showing me everybody singing. It is crunk!
So, I take it you’re aware of your LGBT following?
T-Boz: Oh, very aware. Very, very,very! The thing I love about our fans is, we’ve grown with them and they’ve grown with us. Some of them have kids now, so we have generations there. But, yes, we are very, very, very aware of the community, honey, ’cause all of our friends let us know. I love it!
When did you first know you had a gay following?
T-Boz: I did a party around (1994’s) “CrazySexyCool” and that was one of the best parties I hosted. I learned so much! Like, I didn’t know there were certain terms and stuff! They hooked me up with a lot more knowledge of stuff that went on than I really realized. I was like, “Ohh?!” It was just such a free, fun party. No judging. No anything. It was just one of the best environments I had ever been in, so I thought that was cool. So, probably around ’95-ish when I was really aware.
What did you learn about the gay community that night?
T-Boz: I learned what a top was, a bottom was. And versatile! (Laughs) I learned all of those terms! I was like, oh my god – this is so cool.
Chilli: Oh, Lord. Oh, Jesus. I wasn’t at that party!
Sounds like you really missed out, Chilli. When was your gay awakening then? Ha!
Chilli: (Laughs) I don’t know why I feel weird saying it now, ’cause you already said it! The bottom part. And you know… the top. I keep laughing!
Ha! Moving on to the new album: Which songs on the new album do you hope become gay club anthems?
Chilli: It’s funny that you kind of break it down like that. But really and truly, for me personally, I just kind of feel like when we make our songs, we make them for everybody. I mean, everybody. So, you never know who’s gonna like what the most. I guess we’ll find out in time by what song really speaks to whomever and what’s the most popular one that’s being played at certain clubs. It’s kind of harder to gauge that one for me.
T-Boz: I think “Perfect Girls.” The three I’ve heard mostly from my gay friends have been “Perfect Girls,” “Scandalous” and “Start a Fire.” Those are the top three. But I think “Perfect Girls” has a message that’s been universal no matter what sex you are – anyone who’s ever felt like they don’t love themselves from the inside out or have a goal they’re trying to reach but can’t ’cause they’re looking at people who they think are perfect. But there’s no such thing!
What do you remember of the LGBT community’s response to “Waterfalls” when it first came out?
T-Boz: We did a campaign for Pfizer, and there was a new cocktail out. We did seminars and it was really cool because we let it be known that there was a new drug from this company and it could help HIV/AIDS patients. They would come up to us; they felt like we were their voice. It was such an epidemic at the time, so they just felt like we were speaking for them.
Chilli: It was basically about bringing more awareness (to it) because nobody really talked about it. It was kind of just hush-hush, even though these things were happening. It was like, “People are getting sick, they’re dying and nobody is really talking about it much.”
T-Boz: People even said they thought about committing suicide and it helped save their lives. We started really seeing the seriousness of it, especially when we did charity events. We got a lot of calls for charity events for AIDS benefits, so it started making a really big difference. We basically got one of our wishes through that song, because we always wanted to help change and save lives.
Gay icon Bette Midler covered “Waterfalls” a few years ago – what was it like hearing her rendition?
Chilli: That was an honor. It was an honor because she is legend, oh my god. That’s legendary right there! And not only that, but she contributed to our Kickstarter campaign. We were shocked. We couldn’t believe, like, “Bette Midler?!”
During “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” Tatianna showed some TLC love when she did T-Boz drag. Did you tune in for that?
T-Boz: (Laughs) I absolutely saw it and I loved it! I put it on my page; I reposted it.
Chili: I don’t think anybody ever has (dressed up as me). Maybe I’m boring! I’m no fun, I guess. (Laughs) I just got the long, wavy hair. And I don’t hardly wear any wake up, so I don’t think I’d be a fun person to dress up as, is what I’m thinking.
T-Boz: Yeah, I’ve seen T-Boz drag more than once, actually. It’s cool to see different renditions of myself. It makes you go, “Oh, that’show you see me!” (Laughs)
What do you remember from RuPaul’s visit to the set of the “No Scrubs” video in 1999?
Chilli: I remember the first time I saw him – and at first I didn’t know even it was him because he wasn’t in drag! He was just walking around with no makeup and it was so funny. But then, when he smiled, it was like, “Oh, that is RuPaul.” You know that smile anywhere. And he was so sweet too. And really tall! (Laughs)
T-Boz: He just came to show love. He was just there to support us, which I thought was awesome. That was it. He was just showing love.
At the start of your career, you rocked a tomboy look. How intentional was your subversion of gender? And what did that do for your lesbian following?
Chilli: This is how we looked at it: We call ourselves “prissy tomboys” ’cause we’re super girly, but we’re tomboys at the same time, so we felt like we represented all the girls who did not feel comfortable wearing a tight dress. We represented that crew. Then lettin’ everybody know you don’t have to wear a tight dress to be sexy – it’s the attitude. So, even though we had baggy clothes and all that kind of stuff, we were still feminine, So, again, whoever gravitated toward that and felt comfortable, we helped them feel more comfortable. That’s how it was, because we didn’t wanna wear tight dresses! We still don’t really like dressing like that.
Did your style give the ladies the wrong idea – that you were lesbian? What do you remember of those rumors?
T-Boz: I got most of it! They was always after me, child! (Laughs) All the lipstick lesbians – everybody! Child, I got everything. But that doesn’t bother us. Ultimately, no matter what your sexual orientation, we were standing up for anybody that felt like they didn’t fit in. We were letting them know you can still be sexy in boy clothes, you can rock this, you don’t have to be naked or half-dressed. You can be yourself and be just as fly.
T-Boz: Mostly the fans asking for it. Of course, when Lisa passed away things changed, and some people wondered what would happen to TLC. And then some people understood it’s not the same but you have to find your new normal, and we still have the talent.
Chilli: It’s a blessing for us that we can still continue and make sure her legacy goes on through us. We’re very different from most groups, I don’t think there will ever be a group like TLC. So, when she passed away, people were like ‘people replace group members all the time’, it was like foreign talk to us. No one can be replaced in TLC. Each original member is an original member, and that’s it! It just has to be that way.
The importance of lyrical content in their music
T-Boz: Lyrical content is something that’s missing in today’s music. I think that there’s a difference when there’s a song that when you hear it you remember where you were and how you feel, it healed you or helped you get through something.
Is this the final album?
T-Boz: Yes, it is. I mean, you never know if there’s a Christmas special or a single or something like that. We’re open to that but as far as this being the final TLC studio album, yeah it’s the last album.
How the Left Eye Interlude was brought to life
T-Boz: The interlude on this album we had such a problem, we used a lot of vocals that we had of Left Eye. Before she passed, she was on more of a poetic type of thing, some of it was gangster rap and NINA (New Identity Non Applicable) that she had created, that was a solo thing she was doing and it didn’t fit with TLC. So, we tried to creatively come up with something that was the essence of Lisa that you will remember her for. That high energy and cute little voice. That’s what that interview stood for, so you could remember the essence of why you loved Lisa.
TLC’s fashion style
Chilli: When I look back at the clothes that we wore, pretty much everything I consider to be a thumbs up, because it was authentically us. It was our own style, even if we had taken whatever was popular at the time, we took it and made it TLC style, and that was before we even had stylists. Our stylists sit down and talk to us about what we want, we’re not the type of artists to rely solely on the stylist about what to wear, we have our own sense of style and know how we want to be presented in photoshoots and on stage. Whatever it is will definitely have a TLC flare to it.
First UK festival appearance at Mighty Hoopla
T-Boz: It’s exciting, man! I’m so excited, we’ve been waiting to do that. I’m so happy this day is here! It’s a high powered show, even on the slow songs you find a pick up or something going on. There’s always something to watch, no matter what song it is on stage. I think people leave with a good feeling.
One of the greatest legacies in music history can be summed up by just three letters—TLC.
Those characters merely hint at the talent of Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas, and the late Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, but they immediately evoke an unparalleled journey nonetheless. That journey encompasses immortal anthems such as “Waterfalls,” “Creep,” “No Scrubs,” and “Unpretty,” to name a few, as well as sales of 70 million records worldwide, four GRAMMY® Awards, two RIAA diamond-certified albums among a total of four multiplatinum albums, ten Top 10 singles, and four Number 1 singles. Meanwhile, the VH1 original film CrazySexyCool: The TLC Storychronicled their rise and broke records as the highest-rated television film premiere of 2013 and the highest-rated original premiere on the network between consistent touring.
Given the legacy behind this timeless moniker, it’s fitting the undisputed “best-selling American girl-group of all-time” chose the name TLC for their fifth and first album in 15 years.
“We’re still TLC,” affirms Tionne. “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. We kept the same recipe, which is strong lyrical content and talking about things that affect all of us. When you have time between albums, you have more to speak on. We talked about what was on our minds and hearts.”
“There’s no glitter or sprinkles about it,” smiles Chilli. “It’s just our name. It’s who we are. We’re back. We’re here to stay. This is a continuation of our evolution. So much has changed since we first came out, but the issues that men and women go through haven’t changed. We love talking about that stuff, and there’s a place for it.”
There’s definitely a place for it, as countless fans quite literally “demanded” a new TLC album in 2015. Unassumingly, the girls launched a Kickstarter campaign to simply gauge interest. What they got was an overwhelming and seismic groundswell of support. Fans worldwide—including Katy Perry, New Kids On The Block, Donnie Wahlberg, Bette Midler, —enthusiastically contributed to this next chapter. Raising over $400,000, it became the “fastest and most funded pop project in Kickstarter history.”
“We’ve always been involved with our audience, especially during FanMail,” Tionne continues. “To have the fans do this album with us was perfect. There was this freedom that came with it. The packages made it even more enjoyable for everyone. If Michael Jackson told me I could go to the movies with him, I would’ve given my rent money and all of my clothes to do that,” she laughs. “It was a fun way to bond with the people who support us even more.”
“The fans kept asking for new music,” recalls Chilli. “It had to be the right situation though. The opportunity never presented itself until the whole Kickstarter thing came into play. We were hesitant at first. Then, we realized we could incorporate everybody who loves our music in a way we hadn’t yet. They literally helped us create the album. The love kept pouring in, and we were really touched. It was such great motivation for us when we got back in the studio.”
TLC went as hard as ever in the booth. As a result, the music picks up exactly where they left off just sharper, smarter, sassier, and even a little sexier than before. The same inimitable chemistry simultaneously drives all twelve tracks.
“I’ve always felt that vibe between us,” says Chilli. “The chemistry has empowered us to touch so many in a positive way. Even if they don’t know us, fans think of us as their homegirls. It’s because we believe everything we say and it’s relatable.”
The girls introduced the record with the appropriately titled “Way Back” [feat. Snoop Dogg]. With its sun-kissed Southern California bounce and smooth Snoop cameo, the single lives up to Chilli’s description as “the perfect summer record.” It quickly cracked 2 million Spotify streams and earned acclaim from Time,Rolling Stone, Spin, and Pitchfork who claimed“‘Way Back’is a fine way to kick off their hard-earned victory lap.”
From the get-go, “No Introduction” sets the stage with fast and furious verses reintroducing the girls. Meanwhile, TLC combats bullies head-on with hip-hop swagger and pop poise on the clever and catchy “Haters.” Then, there’s “Joyride,” which offers up a heartfelt “thank you”to the fans worldwide who made this record a reality. Steeped in soul, the poignant and powerful plea of the single “American Gold” continues a tradition of social consciousness the girls began on “Waterfalls.”
“With ‘Waterfalls,’ we were the voice for HIV and Aids,” Tionne says. “We thought it would be awesome to now take up for the troops who have lost lives on this American soil and fought for it. They bled American gold, so on “American Gold” we’re saying, ‘Thank you, we appreciate you, and your work hasn’t gone unnoticed.’ We notice.”
At the end of the day, it’s TLC through and through, and there’s nothing more CrazySexyCoolthan that…
“I hope people hear this and think, ‘Damn, they did it again’,” concludes Chilli. “I want them to feel just like they did when they first heard us. I know I’ll be up there shaking it at 100!”
“There’s something on here for every age and walk of life,” Tionne leaves off. “That’s what we’ve always aimed to do, and I think we accomplished that again.”
Chilli took time out to join Hit 92.9 in Australia for a whole morning co-hosting the show to promote their final Australian show this month at Metro City! Chilli discusses everything from TLC to finding love on the beaches of Australia!
Where is T-Boz?
She is not a morning person! She doesn’t talk, she looks mean! So, I’m like, “you know what, I got this!”
Stand out career moment
Honestly, we have many. We always go through something crazy. Every album, inbetween, after, it doesn’t matter, it’s always something. But yet we stay together, we stick it out, our bond is tight.
TLC without Left Eye
You never expect something like that, especially when you’re young. We all think we’re going to live to be older, which is a blessing but when it doesn’t happen it’s very devastating because you don’t see that coming. It’s not even in the back of your mind. We never said we were breaking up, we were just hurting very badly. The record company were like ‘how are they gonna do it without the other member’, so when we were kinda able to heal, we knew that Lisa would want us to go on, and that’s exactly what we’re doing. We always represent her and the fans love it. This is the new TLC, no one will ever take her place in the group.
I’m a huge Bruno Mars fan because his music is not new, it’s really old school music but this person doing it today and it has a lot of substance and it feels good music.
Connecting with fans and ‘Haters’
It’s definitely easier today to communicate with your fans because right there, there’s your phone. But then there’s the ugly side, when people say the craziest and meanest things. It’s funny, because when we confront them they are like ‘oh my God, I didn’t know you read your own stuff and I love you guys’. It changes quickly.
Favorite song to perform
We don’t perform any covers. It’s hard for me to pick but I like to perform the uptempos better because I love singing and dancing and stuff. I like ballads but that’s my least favorite.
Atlanta compared to TV shows
It’s not quite like that. Maybe some parts, every city has their [grimy] parts but, no (laughs).
Valentine’s Day and Finding Love
My son [is my special Valentine]. I’ve been looking on the beach! I would absolutely take an Australian guy home if I found the right one! I’m not too fussy, but I know exactly what I want!
I love kids, you have no idea! It’s such a blessing when you have fans that young. When our movie came out we got this whole new generation and with this new album we have out. They knew all the words and the dance routines, it’s crazy.
How TLC got their nicknames
So, there was another girl in the group before I was in the group. They were called 2nd Nature. Pebbles renamed them TLC because their names were Tionne, Lisa and Crystal. She was eventually kicked out of her own group! Then, when I got in the group, my name’s Rozonda. TLR? No, so, we were all throwing out names and one of them said Chilli and I said yes, that’s it! So they kinda got their nicknames because I had one. But, mine’s the coolest!
The lawyer is a skinny man with a string of fat wooden beads around his neck and a wad of Kleenex in his right hand. When standing he is more than six feet tall, but at the moment he is sitting in his office, slumped down so low that only his head is visible above the top of his desk. Then he straightens up, slumps again and coughs damply into his tissue. All the time he’s directing a patter of words at the person sitting across from him, Ron Lopes, a 27-year old man sporting stylishly baggy clothes and corn-rowed hair.
It is early August, 2002. The lawyer’s office is located in the commercial heart of La Ceiba, a port city on the Caribbean coast of Honduras. Ron’s eldest sister died in a car accident south of the city about three months ago. Her name was Lisa, but for the last decade of her three-decade-long life she was also known as “Left Eye”, the most notorious member of TLC, the best selling female pop group of all time. The lawyer did some work for Lisa when she was alive, then did some work for her family after she died. Ron is here to pick up a variety of documents relating to that work, and to clear up some apparent discrepancies in the billing for it.
“Well, you see, those bills, they are like that because there are some other things included there, hidden expenses,” the lawyer is saying, trying to explain some of the seemingly inflated medical charges accrued after Lisa’s accident. “Somebody at the hospital, you know how things work in Honduras, a friend of mine, I had him put some other things into the bills. There’s an airplane ticket, you see, an airplane ticket was included in the hospital bill… it makes it easier, you know, all in one place.”
There are old home videos of Lisa performing in mock interviews, accepting fake awards, luxuriating in imaginary fame. Along with her father’s musical gifts, Lisa inherited his temperament as well. While Ron and Raina were usually cowed into a corner by his rage, Lisa would fight back, shouting with a strength that belied her size, tapping into a deep-seated anger of her own. She was not yet in her teens when she began drinking her father’s beer, sharing, finally, not just his gifts and his rage, but his vices as well.
Eventually, the toxicity of her family life and her dreams of stardom combined to propel her from home. At the age of 18 she drove from Philadelphia to Atlanta, a city she’d never been to before, one she’d heard had a vibrant music scene.
The morning after we arrive in Honduras, Ron and I are in a mudbrick hut at the base of a green mountain. The hut is filled with Lisa’s belongings, belongings that were left behind in the tumult that followed her death and now have to be shipped or carried back to the States. Ron is packing the last keyboard that his sister ever owned into its carrying case. The keyboard is a Novation Supernova II. It retails for more than $2,000, and bears about as much relationship to the toy that she composed her first songs on as a Stradivarius does to a Stratocaster. The Novation Supernova II is an instrument fit for a pop star. Which is, of course, what Lisa became after moving to Georgia.
The story of TLC is rich in nicknames. The Atlanta-based trio composed of Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas, and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes was originally managed by Perri “Pebbles” Reid, then-wife of Atlanta music impresario Antonio “L.A.” Reid. (Lisa’s nickname stemmed from a former boyfriend’s remark that her left eye was slightly larger than her right one.) In 1991, Pebbles secured them a record deal with her husband’s label, LaFace Records. By blending Watkins’ smoky growl with Thomas’ diva-ish stylings and Lopes’ pixie-voiced raps, the group’s songs created a new and successful blend of R&B, hip hop and funk. Buoyed by a sartorial style that morphed from condom-strewn casual to sexy-cool elegant to space-girl chic, TLC’s three albums generated five Grammies and seven No. 1 singles.
On the day that TLC signed it’s first contract with LaFace, Lisa’s father was shot and killed by his own cousin. While some in her family found the news to be almost a relief, Lisa took it hard. In interviews, she described the day as both the best and worst one of her life, and it proved a grim harbinger for a career that was notable for both lofty highs and subterranean lows.
In 1993, after TLC’s initial success, Lisa’s family followed her to Atlanta. They found that she had changed since Philadelphia. She was developing (and some say relishing) a reputation as the wild child of TLC. The drinking habit that she’d picked up from her father was deepening, her media profile was devolving and her relationship with her bandmates was deteriorating. When the group’s second album, CrazySexyCool, was released, it was no secret who the Crazy in the title referred to.
Perhaps the nadir of her career came one raging, drunken night, when her always volatile relationship with Atlanta Falcons football star Andre Rison turned literally incendiary, and his house burned to the ground. Lisa was charged with arson and sentenced to probation and a month in an alcohol treatment center.
It was very clear to her family and everyone who followed pop culture that Lisa Lopes’ rapid ascent from a Philadelphia garage into the celebrity firmament had not healed whatever wounds she bore, and had perhaps exacerbated them.
Ron closes the keyboard up tight and takes it out of the mudbrick hut, into the sunshine, where the air is filled with the hum of the insects and the lisp of flowing water. He is in the village where Lisa stayed on her last trip to Honduras. Rows of huts identical to the one we’ve just walked out of stretch up in one direction toward the green mountain, in the other toward a narrow two-lane highway.
The mountain is a small one, but the sun is high and the trail is steep and I am tired. It is three days into our trip, and Ron is downtown, checking his email at an internet café. I’ve decided instead to hike one of Lisa favorite hikes. My guide, a middle-aged Honduran man named Ines, is as tired as I am. He pauses frequently, ostensibly to point out some or other detail of the local foliage – a tree with peeling red bark, he tells me, is called an indio desnudo, or “naked Indian” – but he’s using the pauses to catch his breath.
As we move higher, the landscape below us unfurls through the breaks in the trees. Directly at the base of the mountain is the Usha Healing Village, with it’s parallel rows of huts stretching toward the highway. Ines works as landscaper there, cutting acres of grass with a weed whacker every day. He has been working at Usha off and on for years, and first met Lisa four years ago, during her first visit there.
“She was much stronger than us”, says Ines. “Much faster. She would not be sweating like we are.” Usha is named after the daughter of Alfredo Bowman, a 68-year old Honduran herbalist. Bowman, who goes by the name Dr. Sebi, built Usha to be a vehicle for his controversial medical theories. According to Dr. Sebi, all sickness, from cataracts to cancer, stems from an excess of mucus in the human body. He claims that by following a strict diet based around pure strains of fruits, vegetables and herbs, one can cleanse the body of mucus and all its attendant ailments.
For a sliding fee, those who come to Usha live the strict regimens of diet and exercise that Dr. Sebi prescribes for them. On any given day, they might bathe in the sulphurous waters of a nearby hot spring, drink acrid herbal concoctions, or purge their toxins in sweat baths.
They might also climb the mountain that Ines and I are climbing, which is what Lisa did almost every morning during her frequent trips to Honduras. She met Dr. Sebi through a friend in 1998. At the time of her meeting, according to people close to her, she was deeply unhappy, unsatisfied with both her public and private lives. Dr. Sebi promised that he could help her, and she soon became a believer in his ideas, dieting according to his specifications, cutting way down on alcohol, replacing with little fat she had with muscle. Along with body weight, Lisa also seemed to shed much of the stress and rancor that had plagued her since childhood. According to her family, Dr. Sebi’s prescriptions for clean living transformed Lisa, leaving her happier than she’d ever been. By 1999, the wild child of TLC was wild in a different way, surprising her friends back in Atlanta with offerings of such sundries as sea moss smoothies.
While she continued the life of a pop star, touring and recording and making public appearances in the United States, she spent more and more time four countries to the south. She also began work on her first ever solo album, a spiritually minded suite of songs that were unlike anything she’d ever done with TLC. Many of the songs on the album, which will soon be released in the United States, were clearly inspired by both Dr. Sebi and his country.
Last March, Lisa organized a month-long trip that would allow her friends and family to experience all aspects of her transformative health kick first-hand. Ron and Raina, along with a group of Lisa’s musical protégé’s called Egypt, a documentary film crew, and a few other close friends travelled to Honduras and checked into Usha’s spartan accommodation. In an echo perhaps of the Lopes’ strictly regimented upbringing, the trip was run like a boot camp. Lisa was the taskmaster, insisting that people wake up at 6am for yoga, martial arts, a mountain climb, or some other activity, then leading them in downing noxious herbal bitters, soaking in hot springs, building fire pits. Their days were full, exhausting, and, in many ways, wonderful. This was the first time in years that the Lopes siblings had spent so much time together. It was a chance for them to get to know each other all over again.
Ines and I climb higher and more of the terrain comes into view. Directly to the east of Usha is a 50-plus acre tract of lush undeveloped land. This belongs to Lisa, although at the moment it is in Dr. Sebi’s name. She had plans to build a house and a non-profit children’s center there. Eventually, Lisa wanted to live here full-time.
As Ines and continue our climb, I recall how, shortly before departing for Honduras, I’d attended the Atlanta Music Awards with Ron and Raina. The two were presented with a plaque in Lisa’s honor. It read, “For Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez (sic): May you find the peace that you could not find here on earth.” I remember how, according to Ron, the plaque missed the point. “She had found peace,” he told me. “She found it in Honduras.”
At the summit, Ines and I take in a wide panorama. We can see Usha, Lisa’s land, and, a couple of miles to the west, a small fishing village with the unfortunate name of Sambo Creek. Lisa was a frequent visitor there. On April 25, four days before she was due to head back to the United States, she organized a final outing from Usha. She wanted to get some footage of Egypt performing for the locals of Sambo Creek.
The band, the camera crew, Raina and several others piled into a rented Mitsubishi Montero, with Lisa taking the wheel. (In a move that people would later imbue with prophetic meaning, she had just minutes earlier changed from an all-white outfit into an all-black one.) The packed Montero turned onto the narrow two-lane highway that fronts Usha. As they picked up speed, Lisa made a comment to her sister, Raina, about how she’d like to unwind with a card game later that night. Then a truck stopped abruptly on the highway ahead of them. Lisa swerved left and drove off the road, into a shallow ditch. The SUV hit a small tree and flipped. Lisa was not wearing a seat belt. She was ejected from the vehicle and landed on the hard rocks and soft soil.
On a glass table in the common room of our hotel suite is a boom box that belonged to Lisa. It is in the evening of the day that I climbed the mountain, and Lisa’s soon-to-be-released solo album, with the working title Supernova, is playing. A supernova is a star that burns too fiercely, generating an enormous amount of energy before dying prematurely. The song we’re listening to is called “A New Star Is Born”, and Lisa wrote it for her father. Some lyrics: “Dad, I know you’re listening / How you been? / Oh, I’m doing fine, just passing time, submerged in sin / Every time I take a bath I just get all dirty again / I’m trying to cleanse my mind, cleanse my soul and get in / Into that place you’ve been / No, I’m not trying to rush anything / I just want to visit you / Because I miss you.”
Ron has his eyes closed. He’s only recently been able to listen to the song without breaking down. His mother still can’t, and won’t let people play it when she’s nearby. Soon, she probably won’t be able to avoid it. It will be on the radio, in the clubs, on MTV. It is a possible first single. Lisa’s personal tribute to her dead father will catapult past the ears of her family members to those of people like me, who never met her. Each new listener will grieve for Lisa. Some will grieve for their own lost friends or family.
That’s what songs do. They transform the personal into the universal.
After the track ends, Ron tells me, for the first time, about the day of the accident, and the days following it.
He tells me about deciding not to ride to Sambo Creek with the others that afternoon because the SUV was full, and anyway, he was tired. He tells me about resting in his hut, then wandering toward the kitchen for a glass of water. He tells me about a sudden commotion, about cars pulling into Usha full of people screaming in Spanish. He tells me about seeing his sister Raina in the front seat of one of these cars, blood streaming down her face, and he tells me that when he asked her if Lisa was okay all she could say was that she didn’t know.
He tells me about riding in a pickup truck to the scene of the accident, and not seeing Lisa at first. Then he tells me about seeing her. He tells me about swallowing the panic. About lifting her into the back of the truck. About holding her in his arms during the ride to the hospital, feeling the warmth leak out of her.
He tells me about ill-equipped emergency rooms, about botched embalmings, about stepping over unsheathed corpses while dragging his sister’s coffin into cold storage. He tells me about news photographers chasing him down whenever he was outside the hospital, and sometimes when he was inside it. Some of these photographers took pictures of Lisa in the autopsy room, pictures which have since circulated on the internet.
He tells me that when things got really bad, he thought about all the times Lisa had taken care of him, and how if he couldn’t take care of her now, then what sort of man was he?
He tells me about the private jet that he flew back to the States in, accompanied by only two pilots and Lisa’s body. He tells me about the funeral back in Atlanta, and how overwhelming it was to have more than 30,000 people mourning his sister with him.
He tells me of all these things, and then he presses play and listens to Lisa again.
Later that same afternoon, Ron takes me to Sambo Creek. He says he wants me to see it because it was a special place to Lisa and it has become a special place to him.
The roads are unpaved, and dust kicks up a red haze behind us. Our headlights pick up a clump of young black men loitering on a corner, eyeing our expensive rental car menacingly as we approach. Ron lowers the window, sticks an arm out, waves, shouts Hola! All the young men drop their young-men poses, smile and wave back.
“Can you imagine,” says Ron, laughing, rolling his window back up, “what would have happened if I’d waved at a bunch of teenagers on a street corner in the Philly projects like that?”
We ride through the village all the way to the sea and visit a woman who lives in a house maybe 20 feet from the waves. Her name is Lesley and she has a baby named Desmond. The baby is 6 months old, chubby, with cappuccino-colored skin and large brown eyes. The eyes are familiar. They look like Ron’s. Or Lisa’s.
The woman is wearing the black headdress that, in the local culture, is associated with the recently widowed. She had Desmond with Ron’s uncle, Tony, who came to Honduras several years ago with Lisa, met Lesley, fell in love, and decided to stay. For a while he followed Dr. Sebi’s prescriptions for healthful living. Then he fell off the wagon, started eating too much fried fish, drinking too much Salva Vida (Life Saver), the local beer. He died of cardiac arrest less than two months after Lisa passed away.
As Ron coddles his cousin, people flow into Lesley’s house. They come to say hi to Ron, to pose for pictures with the baby, to ask after Raina and the other people that they’d gotten to know back in April. Alan and Fabio, two young men Ron had met during that previous trip, are among the visitors.
For the next few days Alan and Fabio will occasionally tag along with Ron and me as we do our errands. They show us shortcuts and help us find the big cardboard boxes and small box cutters that we’ll use in packing up some of what Lisa left behind. For both of them, just riding in a late-model car is a thrill.
They ask lots of questions, fascinated by the lives lived by people blessed with the exotic gift of an American birth. They talk about their dreams of going to America themselves, about the difficulties of making the journey the legal way and the dangers of going as mojados, or wetbacks. They point at Ron’s white Nikes and say that it would take three, no, four months of work to save up enough money for a pair like that.
When I remark that Lisa wanted to make the opposite trip from the one they contemplate, wanted to move from the States to Honduras, they shrug.
“It was different for her”, Alan says. “When she came to Honduras she was still Lisa Lopes from Atlanta. I am just Alan from Sambo Creek.”
The next afternoon, after our contentious visit with the gaunt, coughing lawyer, we visit the Atlantida headquarters of Banco Occidente in downtown La Ceiba. Atlantida is the name of the state in which La Ceiba is located. (I can’t help noting the similarity in names between the city Lisa Lopes lived in and the state she died in. Atlantida is simply Atlanta with more id.) Among Lisa’s belongings at Usha we’d found a deposit book from the bank, and Ron wants to try to close out her account. The deposit book documents a series of modest transactions, with a final balance of about $450.
Honduras is a poor country, made poorer by the ravages of Hurricane Mitch in 1998, and the bank is heavily guarded by men with automatic weapons. Once inside, Ron and I are ushered into the air-conditioned office of a matronly manager with reddish dyed hair.
She tells us two things. First, the booklet is not up-to-date, and the balance of the account is substantially higher than we thought. Second, somebody other than Lisa has been making withdrawals from it.
“Cristian Virgilio Avila,” says the bank manager. “That’s his name”. Ron recognizes it.
During her last trip here, Lisa paid Mr. Avila $6,000 to help get Osami Bowman, a son or Dr. Sebi, out of prison, where he’s been locked up for the last two years on marijuana-related charges. Avila claimed to have valuable connections with certain high-placed judges. Perhaps he did. Regardless, the money disappeared, and Osami Bowman is still in prison.
Although it appeared to everyone she told that she’d been scammed, Lisa, perhaps unwittingly, continued to pay Avila to work toward Bowman’s release. She’d given him a note, according to the bank manager, authorizing him to withdraw $165 every two weeks. He apparently continued using this note even after she died, though the bank eventually put a stop to it.
The news doesn’t surprise Ron. He’d long ago discovered both the extent of his sister’s trust in people and all the willingness of them to take advantage of it. Lisa was, after all, a woman who managed to go bankrupt the same year she sold her nine millionth album.
It happened in 1995, when a remarkably unfair record contract left one of the most popular bands in the world mired in debt. Although TLC eventually renegotiated their contract, they still never made the sort of money that some comparably popular groups do.
Although her family is unwilling to give me an exact figure, Lisa Lopes did not have much money saved up when she died, and the family is currently adjusting to a new and less secure financial situation. While she is in no danger of having to move back into a garage, Wanda Lopes is in the process of selling her house, after which she will move into Lisa’s. Raina, having sustained a back injury and a fractured ankle in the accident, is currently unemployed, unable to continue her work as a personal trainer. She has no health insurance.
Ron, for his part, is focusing on the future, throwing himself into managing Lisa’s posthumous affairs, convinced that the next few years can be some of the best of her career.
The afterlives of musicians can be lucrative. Six of the 10 dead celebrities whose estates earned the most money last year were musicians. The estate of Tupac Shakur, the most recently deceased entry, earned $7 million in 2001. (Incidentally, if Lisa ends up making the list next year, it may be with Tupac’s help. Her soon-to-be-released solo album contains a duet with Tupac, recorded after his death. Lisa and Tupac used to date, and she asked his mother, Afeni Shakur, to give her access to one of his many unreleased vocal tracks.)
Ron predicts that the upcoming new TLC album, 3D, which includes Lisa on numerous tracks, will sell more copies than any previous one. He believes that Lisa’s solo project will ride the wave of the TLC album’s success and achieve some high sales numbers of its own.
Lisa’s family is currently at odds with her record company, Arista, over its handling of her musical legacy. The executive producer of her solo album, “L.A” Reid, is currently giving artistic control over the Supernova project to Suge Knight, the notorious head of Tha Row, a West Coast label that specializes in gangsta rap. Ron would prefer that control over Supernova stay with Arista and the Lopes family.
To supplement their income from the upcoming albums, the family already has a book deal in the works, as well as a documentary film project incorporating much of the as-yet-unreleased footage shot in Honduras in April. Even Lisa’s song for her dead father, “A New Star Is Born”, may be reworked for maximum saleability.
“We’re going to try and get Babyface to tweak the mix,” Ron tells me. “N’Sync might redo the chorus.”
Of course, his sister’s continuing commercial viability hinges in large part on the lifespan of her fame. For now, at least, Lisa’s celebrity is still intact. We are in the bank manager’s office for about 20 minutes. By the time we leave, word has gotten out about who Ron is, and most of the bank’s employees stare as we make our way out of the air-conditioning, past the guards with their automatic weapons, and into the crowded, noisy streets.
La Ceiba’s prison, which houses Osami Bowman, is as well-guarded as its banks, though here the difficulty lies in getting out, not in. On the day that we visit the prison, guards give Ron and me numbered squares of fibreboard as we pass through the barred iron gates, and tell us that they won’t let us leave if we lose them. I assume they’re joking, but Ron tells me they’re not; On his last visit here with Lisa in April, they stayed a few hours and had to grease more than a few palms in order to avoid spending the night.
In Honduras, a prisoner’s comfort is largely determined by his wealth. The government doesn’t have the money to provide for the upkeep of its miscreants, so it instead pays solely for their containment. A prisoner’s family is expected to bring him food, as well as the money he needs to pay rent to the prison managers. This rent goes toward living accommodations of varying sizes and lavishness. The poorest prisoners live in rooms crammed full of people, with honeycombed tangles of 30 or more bunks rising to the ceiling. The richest have their own cells. Osami Bowman lives in a private cell about the size of a highway toll booth, with an adjourning private bath.
The last time Lisa came here she brought along the members of Egypt, and they gave an impromptu concert in the prison courtyard, singing and dancing for the same people we see here today, these shirtless young gang members, these old men, their faces covered with either tattoos or sparse grey stubble. There are pictures of Lisa taken during the performance. She’s playing a bongo drum, looking as relaxed and joyful in her sweatpants and t-shirt as she ever looked in the elaborate costumes that she wore on elevated stages in packed arenas all over the world.
The bongo drum that she’s playing in the pictures is now hanging on the wall of Osami’s cell.
Ron promises Osami that he’ll do what he can to finish what Lisa started, to get him out of prison.
Ron, in fact, wants to carry out all of Lisa’s plans. “I look back and its like I’ve been preparing my whole life for this”, he says, “to do Lisa’s work.” He wants to build the children’s center that she envisioned next to Usha. He wants to build a house there too, and he wants to live in Honduras someday, like she wanted to live here someday.
Visiting hours come to a close. We don’t lose our numbered squares.
On our last day in Honduras, Ron gives his clothes away. Not all of them, just the ones that he’d left down here in April. Fabio and Alan of Sambo Creek are his chosen recipients.
We meet them in a house in their village, and Ron hauls a large zippered duffel bag into the living room, tells them to have at it. Fabio asks whether perhaps it wouldn’t be better if Ron doled the clothes out himself. No, Ron tells him, you guys figure it out.
Fabio is reticent and gracious, and is hesitant about taking too much. Alan has no such qualms, and once the bag is fully plundered his pile disproportionately large. Alan takes the FUBU shirt, the Nike jumpsuit, the Yankee’s pullover hat, the Tommy Hilfiger sunglasses and the Regal leather jacket. Fabio winds up with some sweatpants, an old pair of Adidas sneakers, and a few t-shirts.
Noticing the disparity, Ron tells Alan that maybe he should even things out a bit and give up a few items of clothing. Alan refuses.
When we leave Sambo Creek that night, I worry that Ron shares at least one of his sister’s weaknesses, that he’s too trusting of the wrong people. I wonder if he’s liable to get burned by this, just like Lisa did, and how this bodes for his future in shepherding his sister’s posthumous career through the cut-throat music industry.
The next day, however, I find that my worries were perhaps unfounded. “I’ve been thinking that if I ever get Lisa’s center going here I might want to hire some of the people from Sambo Creek to work for me,” Ron tells me. “Now I know who I can trust. I’d hire Fabio in a heartbeat. Not Alan.”
A few days after we get back to the States I receive additional proof that Ron is no pushover.
He had previously told me that I would have access to a trove of as-yet-unseen Lisa materials, ranging from the diary that she kept in Honduras to some of her earliest photographs, poems and drawings. I would also have the opportunity to screen hundreds of thousands of video tape that were shot during the weeks leading up to her death.
But after consulting with the proposed author of the upcoming licenced book project about Lisa, Ron informs me that the Lopes family has decided not to provide me with any more exclusive information or material, as that might hurt their marketing efforts for the book. As a reporter, I’ve understood for a long time that access to a celebrity is a valuable commodity.
Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins took a moment to talk to Celeste Headlee about her brand new book of memoirs “A Sick Life: Stories From On and Off the Stage“, and opens up about her greatest life accomplishments, as well as her many experiences in the music industry!
T-Boz vs Tionne
“I’m the same person, ultimately. It’s just another alter ego of mine. But, at the end of the day I’m always Tionne, I was born that way and I’ll die that way. T-Boz is just my performance person. You just basically put on more. I wouldn’t walk around being like that.”
Celebrities who act as their celebrity personas in real life
“I don’t like a lot of celebs, because they walk around like they are on stage all day, it’s annoying. I know people who don’t want to be called by their birth name, they only want to be called by their stage name or they just act like they’re on all the time. If you’re behind closed doors and we’re real people, leave that alone. Why are you still going on? It makes no sense to me.”
Problems with Aretha Franklin
“Difficult sometimes? Everytime I met her! Everybody in the industry was like ‘she is so mean’. She was difficult, but hey, I take it with a grain of salt. She doesn’t hinder my career, so I guess we just won’t be cool and I’ll just like her from afar. It’s just sad when you look up to someone as a child then meet them and they are just not how you wish they were.”
Keeping her children grounded
“I don’t give my kids the celeb life. I don’t care how rich my kid was at 17, my child wouldn’t be buying a mansion, because that’s not normal parenting. My 17 year old is not buying a house even if she could afford it, that’s just crazy.”
Sexual harassment in the entertainment business
“It happened to me too, but I just didn’t take it serious. Some are deeper than others. I think it shouldn’t have taken one person to say something for everybody to come out of the woodwork. Then you have to weed out the people who have legitimate issues and then those who just want a check and make up stories. It’s sad because people really do get raped and it’s horrible for you to do stuff like that. Maybe it’s the jolt people need to speak up. If you’re really violated and you’re not looking for a check, speak up. Especially if the person can’t get to you, harm you, make you lose your money or whatever, say something.”
“In the day of social media for this album I wrote “Perfect Girls”, because it seems like kids are striving to be perfect, and no one is perfect. We all have flaws, we all have insecurities. I’m not knocking anyone who has plastic surgery but let’s be real, the reason we get it is because we wanted to enhance something we didn’t like about ourselves. I hate when people lie about stuff like that. Some of these doctors need to be slapped! These girls overdo their butts, it looks crazy! They look out of proportion!”
Chilli took time out to talk to Ray Cornelius about her delight in playing the role of Zora Neale Hurston in the Thurgood Marshall biopic, ‘Marshall‘, which is out now in theaters.
She also touched on the importance of Black History Month, the upcoming TLC World Tour next year and her hopes to secure a Vegas residency!
TLC World Tour 2018
“At the end of January we go to Australia to kick off the overseas tour, promoting the album there. Then New Zealand, and then Japan and Europe in the Summer. So it’s gonna be crazy from the end of January all the way through to the Summer.”
“We just recently switched agencies, we’re with ICM now. We’re really excited to be there. Our goal is to secure a residency in Las Vegas, so that’s what we really want. It’s a dream of ours to be there. We’re in talks and the feedback has been really great, so we just have to make sure that we’re in the right place.”
“It was so much fun on set that day. Getting to put those clothes on. Time period pieces are so much fun anyway, because they dress so much better than we dress today. I was so excited, but I think my mom was more excited than I was! That was her girl. Anytime Reginald Hudlin calls you to do whatever, you just say yes. He is so amazing.”
A Diva’s Christmas Carol
“The director told me when we shot that, he was like ‘I’m telling you, this is going to be on for the next 30 plus years’, and he was not lying! Every Christmas holiday it comes on.”
Black History Month
“I don’t think it should just be one month. I think you should learn about your history, period. It shouldn’t be just one particular month carved out, and the shortest month of the year to find out about all these greats that paved the way for all of us.”
“Thurgood really kicked down doors in our justice department. To be that smart at such a time when a black man having an education, talking about changing laws, defending innocent people and having the knowledge to stand up in a court room opposite white lawyers, he knew the system. It teaches people you have to know your history. It’s such an important piece that I hope everybody goes and watches. Not just people of color, everybody needs to see it and learn from it.”