They’re the sexiest female stars in the world, making, yes, even All Saints look a little ordinary. We talk to TLC about men, ‘scrubs’ and erm, condoms as fashion accessories.
By Pete Robinson | September 11, 1999
TLC are exhausted. The whirlwind campaign for “No Scrubs” the album “Fanmail” and new single “Unpretty”, has all come to a head and now, for a few minutes at least, R&B’s foremost sex symbols can have a little sitdown, sip a few drinks, and talk dirty for The Sex Issue.
But first there is something to clear up. “Unpretty” has caused widespread confusion, to the point where respected music pundits such as, erm, Doctor Fox have spluttered comments along the lines of “Hey! But these babes are hot!”. What Foxy hasn’t considered, of course, is this is the point: that the insecurity in the song must be really bad for three (ahem) “beauties” to feel worthless. Except, as Left Eye explains, “that’s not what the song’s about at all, either.”
“It doesn’t have anything to do with good-looking people or bad-looking people,” she elucidates. “You can make me feel Unpretty, depending on how you see me through your eyes, but it shouldn’t be that way. What it all boils down to is being able to see inside of yourself and of other people, without necessarily using your physical eyes. We’re saying that we limit ourselves to our physical senses, but in fact there’s a life force, there’s an energy behind all of us and that’s what counts the most. We get too distracted by our physical senses to see and hear what’s real”.
But while “No Scrubs” has it’s precursors in musical history, there aren’t that many songs that challenge the listener with such a tricky subject matter as “Unpretty” — there must have been some catalyst for the single being recorded in the first place?
“Well, part of it”, concludes Chilli, “is that one day we were talking about breast implants in young girls. I feel really strong about that. Big breasts doesn’t mean you’re beautiful — it has nothing to do with beauty. If you naturally have them, then that’s one thing, but if you don’t, that’s okay, y’know?”.
“It originally came from a book of poetry I’ve written called ‘Thoughts‘”, T-Boz clarifies. “Actually, ‘Unpretty’ was the first poem I had ever wrote — then Dallas Austin, our producer, read it and he was like, ‘let’s make this into a song’. So we took a lot of the words from the poetry and made it into a song. So yes (claps) ‘Unpretty’ is my work! My little poem!”
House-burnings, bust-ups, ding-dongs and argy-bargies have plagued TLC ever since they stomped onto the pop scene in 1992 with the proto-Girl Power anthem “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg“, yet despite even bankruptcy a couple of years ago, they’re back on the toppest of all forms, and one can’t help but imagine (especially with the “stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to” aspect of ‘Waterfalls‘) that if Britain could call them their own, they’d be tabloid agony aunts by now: kind of a three-headed, PVC-catsuited Marje Proops.
But is there any romantic advice the girls have themselves been given, or that they can offer to those plotting their first expedition into the choppy seas of love and rumpo?
“I don’t know”, thinks Left Eye, who once torched a beau’s house, but who’s currently very much ‘with’ a new boyfriend. She pauses. “Uhhh… I’ve been given lots of advice. Um, oh man! I don’t know. Live and let live. I don’t know anyone who actually gave me that advice. (Laughs) but I do live by that!”
“You know what?”, squeals Chilli, jumping back into the conversation. “I’ve got my mom to thank for so much advice — I’m really sensitive now, but no way near as sensitive as I used to be when I was growing up. I mean, you’d just look at me and I’d cry. I would cry at the drop of a hat and at the time I always felt like my mom was too hard on me — kind of ‘Im only doing this because I love you’ stuff. My mom always told me to be strong and I always knew she was right there for me. She’s the reason I’m the woman I am today. All her advice was the best and I’d pass that on to anyone”.
T-Boz has the final tip. “Treat people how you wanna be treated”, she reasons. “Respect yourself, because if you don’t respect yourself, nobody else will. If you treat people good, that means you’re trying to be a good person. If you respect yourself, then you’ll do right by yourself”.
By now, you’ll be a little concerned about your chances of bagging a date with a member of TLC. Last year it would have been easy — why didn’t you give them a call then? Nowadays you’ll only need to hold a door open for them and they’ll deck you and call you a scrub. So how, exactly, might one chat up T-Boz, Left Eye or Chilli?
Best to cut to the quick: and while Chilli remains tight-lipped, her bandmates are happy to offer some quick, at-a-glance guides to their psyches.
“I am creative, intuitive, mental, physical and spiritual”, Left Eye announces.
“While I”, T-Boz adds, “am stubborn, funny, blunt, outgoing and a sweetheart. That’s me!”
TLC can almost boast an image that is very much their own. Yet for every ultra-cool item of clothing the girls have sported in their career, there must have been some hidden disasters. T-Boz, for example, has her own fashion crime: “An afro. I can’t believe my momma did me like that. It was so ugly! Ha ha! The afro did not look right on me. I look right in a haircut. “
“The worst thing that I have ever worn?”, Left Eye flams, clearly with something in mind. Probably the condom she used to wear under her (hence the name, etc) left eye. “Mmm.. that’s a toughie, because if I don’t look right, I won’t walk out the front door, mmh hmm hmm hmm. Um, and no one can make me wear anything that I don’t think looks right. There’s nothing I look back in TLC that looks bad. I’m pretty open-minded. I just try to be comfortable. Eww…!”
So what happened to the condom? She pauses, then laughs, “It’s the same reason why someone like Prince needs to take ‘Slave’ off his face. It’s just that people like fresh, new and innovative artists, so as long as you keep innovating and changing their ideas, people will keep looking to you for guidance”.
Do you still get recognised without the condom?
“Heh heh heh!”, she giggles, “TLC are too cool to not be recognised! Not be re-cog-nised!”
T-Boz, today, the picture of un-unprettiness, must at some point have looked f***ing awful. We all have at some point. When was the last time you went out looking an absolute wreck, when nobody would touch you with a bargepole?
“The last time? Well, that weren’t that long ago, honey! Umm (laughs) I don’t know, I feel like that occasionally. Sometimes you just have bad days and I just don’t feel I look good, which was probably last week! I’m the type of person if I’m tired or if I’m sick I have bags and dark circles — it runs in the family, so I think I look like a raccoon. A lot of people have complexes no matter who they are, but that’s my definition of feeling Unpretty”.
Looking like a raccoon. There we have it.
“So you liked the bit where we rubbed our butts?”, guffaws T-Boz, when the climax of the “No Scrubs” video — the trio backing up to the camera and patting their behinds — is brought up. “Really? Good, I’m glad you picked that part (laughs)”.
Yes, a saucy trio of vixens and no mistaking. Have they ever gone too far in their overt sexuality?
“I shocked my grandmother, I have to say!”, reveals T-Boz. Explain? “There’s this song called ‘Oh Honey‘ — it’s one of her favourites, but it’s nasty and she was like, ‘Oh dear! Oh my! I like this song but…’ cos the breakdown is really raunchy. Yeah, it blows her away, but I don’t really do anything that vulgar…”
OK. But what do TLC find really vulgar in other people? What would be the turn-off if a reader accosted you?
Left Eye: “That’s a hard one, because I can’t think of anybody who.. wait a minute. (Thinks). See, if I say that (thinks more). Uhhh… I don’t know. I don’t know, there’s a lot of sick people in the world”.
Who’s the worst? Who do you really, really horribly hate? Who’s the worst thing ever?
“I was gonna say Hitler”, she begins, not entirely unreasonably. “But I don’t even know the man, I don’t know. (Quiet laugh) there’s a lot of people who don’t have any respect for life and that’s a long list of people. Y’know, the mass murderers, the genocides… all those evil spirits”.
This hasn’t been much help. What about the perfect date — where could we take you? The movies?
“You know, I have a baby now,” states Chilli, flatly. “I don’t get to see movies. Dancing! Uh! Old school. Really bootie-shaking music. I love booty-shake music. There’s an artist out — JT Money — have you heard of him? JT Money is the bomb — I love his music. It’s a touch of bootie music. Are you familiar with Luke? That would definitely get me on the floor — dancing.”
Just — potential scrubs, take note! — don’t ask them to lend you a fiver when you go to the bar.
Was there much in the way of a backlash over the ideology behind “No Scrubs”?
“No”, Left Eye states, “but there was that Sporty Thievz song (‘No Pigeons‘). Which was pretty funny. But no, we haven’t been criticised at all. I mean when it comes down to it, there are so many female artists who have come out and sang songs with the same subject matter — (sings ‘Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ on but the Rent’ by Gwen Guthrie) ‘Gotta have a J-O-B if you wanna be with me…’ It’s not like we started anything new, heh heh”, she adds mischievously.
Sporty Thievz wanted you to pay for stuff, though.
“Erm, they said that, really? That they’d expect us to pay? Well, being that they want to go on the dates with us, I’d expect that they’d pay.”
Which is only polite.
“But if I was interested in going a date with the Sporty Thievz,” which judging from her tone she clearly isn’t, “I wouldn’t mind paying”. Cool!
So, date successfully over (hey, we can dream, can’t we?) we move on to… well, the interview is almost over. Let’s just go the whole hog. To the bedroom.
“The bad dream?” Left Eye mishears, though she’s probably along the right lines. “Oh, my bedroom! You wanna know what it’s like? Um, it’s eclectic and it looks like an oversized doll house”.
“My mom, you see, is an interior decorator and when I was a little girl and we couldn’t afford really nice things, she’d decorate our rooms with sheer pink material. She’d drape it from one corner of the ceiling to the other, she’d have it coming down and she’d have all different shades. She decorated for a lot of people in the industry, and she did my house so it looks like a princess’ castle”.
“Everything in my house is natural tone,” adds T-Boz. “Everything matches with my hair — even my dogs! Haha! I have a canopy bed with silk material hanging down, a whole bunch of pillows — I love pillows, and everything’s cream, tan and beige. And I love curtains — real elegant, like the fabric’s real thick, a silk type… and I have a real big TV”.
And, to conclude, one of the worst chat-up lines ever invented must be resurrected.
T-Boz, what do you like for breakfast?
“Well, I do like breakfast, but I’m just never up that early…”
“…Actually, today I ate French toast. And I love Pop Tarts.”
So with the image of T-Boz biting into a pastry snack and spontaneously spitting lava-hot jam across her posh kitchen, it’s time to leave TLC. Hopefully, readers, you’re now fully equipped with the knowledge to accompany the girls on a date. Keep us posted on your progress — but we can’t cover any medical costs.
Arson, bankruptcy, alcohol, abuse. For a group who used to dress like teenage girls, TLC have had to face some grown-up problems…
In the far corner of a London photographic studio, the three members of TLC are busy playing at being school girls. Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas certainly look the part. Running through a selection of nursery rhymes, hand jives, and the occasional high pitched shriek, the girls could feasibly pass for 13-year-old teenagers and not the mid-twenty-something adults they actually all are. But then it’s easy to misjudge TLC.
Quite simple just to file them with SWV and Eternal, or the multitude of other vocal troupes in the business. But TLC are different. You can sense it in the intensity and emotion in all three girls’ voices when they drag themselves away from their playground games and finally to sit down to speak. You can sense it in their refusal to dwell on familiar themes of love and romance. And when, in a break for photographs, the trio begin singing to the tape that plays the first three tracks from Nirvana‘s “Nevermind” LP — not just like fans, but with obvious empathy for the sentiments expressed by Mr Cobain — it’s also obvious that something’s not quite right.
In many ways, TLC are your archetypal American pop group. One of the foremost examples of how a black musical sound, R&B, has infiltrated the mainstream consciousness of a nation and proceeded to sell in the sort of numbers — 7 million copies worldwide for their second album, “Crazysexycool” — not seen since the halcyon days of Motown.
Shortly into my conversation with the group, I realise TLC could do without all the theorising about their success. “Sometimes it seems like the people we’d least like to give credit to are the ones taking all the praise”, insists Lisa Lopes. “And that hurts”.
So who really deserves credit for TLC’s success? For starters, a young woman called Crystal. It was Crystal who trawled the streets of Atlanta in a search for two girls to start her own group. And some time in 1990, Lisa Lopes and Tionne Watkins accepted her offer. Lisa was a rapper. She’d grown up in Philadelphia, but fled to Atlanta to escape family problems. Tionne had also experienced life in a broken home. First in Iowa and then in Atlanta. She worked as a manicurist, a shampoo girl and a hair model. She’d never really wanted a regular job. Besides, she could sing. “We all had very definite ideas about where we wanted to take it, you know?” says Tionne. “But it would have been a whole lot easier if both of us could have got on with Crystal. But it wasn’t meant to be. Me and Lisa, we decided to go off on our own”.
A friend of a friend introduced Lisa and Tionne to Pebbles — the wife of superstar producer LA Reid, and a moderately successful singer in her own right. Pebbles became the girls’ manager. It all made perfectly good sense. As did the entrance into the group of a third singer, Rozonda Thomas, whose sweet, child-like voice complemented the other two perfectly.
When TLC signed to LaFace Records — LA Reid and Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds’ newish label imprint — under the management of Pebbles, “we couldn’t have dreamed that things would work out better,” says Tionne. “We were three girls with plenty of ideas, with a woman manager who we thought could understand all about problems and look after all our needs. We really felt we were in control. TLC was always going to be about three female singers in the group getting their viewpoint across. That’s why we are happy. Maybe a little bit too happy, in fact.”
TLC’s 1992 album, “Ooooooohhh… on the TLC tip“, was, it has to be said, not a triumphant debut. The album contained two decent singles, “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg” and “Baby-Baby-Baby”. Beyond that, the group were more notable for their image than their music. Dressed in ultra baggy, Day-Glo costumes, and with Lisa Lopes sporting glasses featuring a condom attached to the left lens, in an attempt to promote safe sex, they looked tomboyish and quite ridiculous at the same time; the very antithesis of the airbrushed, pouting genre of a female band. As if they weren’t yet ready to grow up.
It was in 1992 when TLC went off on a huge tour of the States, alongside Hammer, Boyz II Men and Jodeci. Already the cracks were beginning to appear. Arguments flared over management, money and the future direction of the group. The debut album had sold over three million copies, and yet TLC (particularly Lisa Lopes) were far from happy about their role in all of this. It was producer/songwriter Dallas Austin who’d written most of the tracks for the debut. TLC wanted more of a say in their future. Increasingly, they wanted more money too.
So exactly what were the main arguments that blew up on tour?
“We found out what the other groups on the tour were earning,” says Lisa abruptly.
“When you’ve come from nothing, even $4,000 seems like a lot of money,” argues Rozonda. “But when you start to realise you’re part of a very successful group, you start to wonder what’s happening to the rest of the money that your record and tour is making”.
“You start to get angry about being told that you always have to mention the names of certain people that we were working with in interviews,” explains Tionne.
But throughout the years since the group’s formation, Lisa Lopes had had her own personal problems too. In 1991 her physically abusive father died. Lisa’s subsequent success left her shouldering responsibility for the rest of her family. She bought cars for her mother and paid the college tuition fees for her brother and sister. And she also began to drink excessively. Lisa admits that for a while drinking affected her career. But most of all, it almost destroyed her relationship with her boyfriend and soon-to-be husband, American football player, Andre Rison.
“My father was an alcoholic, so I became an alcoholic”, Lisa says. “There was a drink around me all of the time. But then in other ways he was really strict. He’d beat me and my mother. So when I decided to run away from home, it was alcohol that I looked to for support.”
Lisa’s relationship with Andre Rison was anything but conventional. She’d met the sporting hero when she was 17. Violent altercations between the couple were common. In September 1993 passers-by claimed to have witnessed Andre striking Lisa and then firing a 9mm handgun into the air when they tried to intervene. Charges were dropped, but the stormy relationship lived on. Ten months later, Andre Rison’s $2 million mansion was destroyed by a fire in the early hours of the morning and Lisa Lopes was involved in the incident. “I started a small fire, but I didn’t expect to burn down a whole house”, admits Lisa today.
Whatever the reasons for the fire — the most popular thesis being that Lisa was drunk and that Andre was violent — it was settled in court. Lisa received a suspended sentence for arson and a stint in Charter Peachford, an alcohol rehabilitation clinic. Remarkably, the couple’s relationship lives on. They are due to wed next July.
Against this catalogue of disasters — the group ditched Pebbles in the process as well — it’s a near miracle TLC got around to recording their second LP. Even more so that “Crazysexycool”, with tracks like the poignant, elegaic “Waterfalls”, turned out to be the near-perfect example of R&B-influenced pop that it was. Although half the tracks were again written by producer Dallas Austin, this time around the personalities of all three members seemed to shine through far more strongly.
Ironic then, that today, almost one year after it’s release, TLC wish to distance themselves almost entirely from “Crazysexycool”. And that despite the album’s multi-platimum success, the trio announced that they were bankrupt three months ago, citing liabilities in excess of $3.5 million. Debts incurred, they claim, from attempting to live perpetually on advances. Lisa, Tionne and Rozonda each owe their production company, Pebbitone (owned by ex-manager Pebbles), $566,434. The trio also owe a further £387,000 to their label LaFace.
You seem to pride yourselves on the control you exercised over your career — doesn’t bankruptcy prove you were in no control at all?
“Of course, I can see how people will think that”, says Tionne. “I can see that people will probably be laughing at TLC. But until those people have been put in the situation we’ve been through, those people will never understand”.
For a group who’ve been as successful as TLC, the announcement that you are bankrupt still sounds rather absurd.
“You try surviving off of advances”, reasons Lisa. “One advance after another — all of which has to be repaid”.
Were you happy with “Crazysexycool” as an album?
“We were happy that the original concept for the album — the idea that the album title was meant to describe something every single woman felt — was our concepts”, Lisa insists. “But it’s hard to be happy about an album once you’ve declared yourselves bankrupt.”
“I went to the producers with a set of tracks I’d written and not a single one got used for the album”, bemoans Lisa.
TLC are your archetypal female American pop group. From the Sixties, when groups like The Ronnettes and The Supremes began to enjoy major-league success, through to modern times with bands like SWV and En Vogue, it’s almost always been the male producers who’ve held the upper hand and influenced the final direction taken.
Lisa Lopes claims she presented her producers with several new songs she’d written for “Crazysexycool”, none of which were used. One in particular, dealt with her relationship with her father. It hurt immensely when her producers knocked it back. Where do TLC go from here?
“Back to the court to get the money we’re all owed,” says Tionne defiantly.
It was a natural expectation that the genuine and mutual love and respect TLC and Cardi B have for each other would eventually spark the possibility of a collaboration between the two at some point in the hopeful future.
Speaking exclusively to People this week, Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas gave Cardi B some moral support, following the very public breakup with her husband, rapper Offset of The Migos, as well as revealing that Cardi B is the only female TLC wish to work with!
Chilli states that she and her fellow TLC bandmate Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins typically don’t collaborate with women in honor of their late bandmate Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes — who died suddenly in a car crash in 2002 — she said they would be open to working with Cardi B.
“I don’t usually like to collaborate with females, and the reason why is because of Lisa,” she said. “That is just a little weird for me, personally. But I think with Cardi B, she is an exception to the rule. TLC and Cardi B all day long. We’ve gotten a lot of love from Cardi. It’s really an honor.”
Speaking on the breakup: “I have gone through a public breakup, and it is not easy,” Chilli said, referencing her split from Usher in 2003. “When strangers know your business and want to chime in while you’re still dealing with the pain yourself, it’s difficult. Breakups are hard on anyone, but can you imagine if strangers knew your business? It’s rough.”
“I am proud of her for being strong and standing up for herself during a time that is obviously a very hurtful one,” Chilli, 47, said. “She has a strong sense of self. That’s why fans have connected with her this way. She talks about her highs and lows; she is fearless.”
Chilli thinks Cardi “is braver” than she was because she “just sort of shut down” when her two-year relationship with Usher came to an end. After Chilli and Usher split, many thought the songs off his album Confessions— which hinted at an affair and impregnating another woman — were about their relationship, though Chilli has since denied this.
For more on Chilli’s words of support for Cardi B and to learn more about her latest fashion venture with DAYO Women, head over to People.com
After the booze, the bankruptcy, the arson, the self-inflicted scarring and the multi-million sales, the ‘crazy’ member of TLC has made her own record. Is teeny, tiny Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes the new Lauryn Hill? Or will her miseducation get in the way of solo superstardom?
Precious Williams, October 2001
Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes is a surreal affair. First off, Lopes — the TLC member who put the ‘Crazy’ into the group’s ‘CrazySexyCool’ mantra — can’t eat ‘solid food’. Or drink coffee. Or tea. She is on day 38 of a 40-day fast and her idea of a substantial meal is a big glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. On the rocks.
We are in a vast warehouse studio in midtown Manhattan with Bob Marley blaring out of the stereo and Lopes’s publicists and record label execs fitting around. Lopes seems oblivious to the commotion as she sits on a stool at her dressing table, clad in jeans, a black vest and a pair of yellow fluffy slippers.
‘Too many of us eat to satisfy our hunger when we really don’t need that much food to survive’, she says, staring serenely at her reflection in the huge mirror in front of her. ‘We need to eat to live, not live to eat’.
Make-up free and with a cotton bandana covering her hair, Lopes is not the statuesque babe you’ve seen in TLC videos alongside bandmates Tionne ‘T-Boz’ Watkins and Rozonda ‘Chilli’ Thomas. She is petite and elfin, with daintily pretty features, glowing skin and huge, soulful brown eyes.
At five foot one and six and a half stone (she’s lost a stone during the fast), she is formidably toned, but tiny. She is 30, but fulfils the cliche of looking half her age. It’s hard to believe that this delicate-looking creature once burnt her boyfriend’s (Andre Rison, a player with American football team the Oakland Raiders) house down in a drunken stupor.
Her screwed-up behaviour was a result of immaturity and guzzling too much booze, she says now. ‘I’ve been through a lot of experiences’, she sighs. ‘The way that I chose to deal with things had to do with my parents and how I was raised. But I’m tired of all that stuff.’
So Lopes kicked the booze. She claims she gave it up ‘absolutely alone’ with no help from friends or Alcoholics Anonymous. ‘I’m a strong-willed person’, she says. ‘I am so in tune with my body right now that if I was to take a drink of wine, I could literally feel it burning my stomach, like acid. I could feel it. It doesn’t feel good at all’.
While admitting minutes later that ‘occasionally I do give in to peer pressure and break down and drink wine – but it will be just one glass’, Lopes’s idea of fun these days is to flit away to a secluded holistic ‘healing’ village in Honduras. ‘Everything there is natural, she says dreamily. ‘There are huts made out of mud and they are gonna last for hundreds of years. But when they finally do crumble and fall to the earth, they are mud, so they will blend back into nature.’
Lopes’s distinctive rap style — all languidly drawled vowels and bouncy delivery — has helped make hits for a range of artists, from Melanie C (Spice Girls) to Method Man. But with her long-promised solo album, it’s all her shout.
‘Supernova’ is a blatantly autobiographical pop/rap ride which combines the eclecticism and beats of Missy Elliott with the soulful uplift of Lauryn Hill. Free of collaborations (Lopes had suggested there might be duets with Madonna, Prince and Lil’ Kim), the album showcases Lopes’s production and writing prowess, as well as her MC-ing skills.
First single, ‘The Block Party‘, takes a slinky, Eastern-inspired beat and laces it with a rap about shell-toe Adidas and fat gold chains. ‘I Believe In Me‘, with it’s feel-good chorus and self-affirming lyrics, is more reminiscent of a TLC tune, but the song’s lyrics are strictly about Lopes. ‘I am Diana Ross/And not a Supreme‘, she raps gleefully, before adding that she loves TLC and that people underestimate – or simply don’t know or understand – the real Left Eye.
‘This album is very personal and special to me. I’ve been talking about and wanting to do a solo project since after TLC’s first album. Just to show everyone what I can do and to really challenge myself.’
When TLC emerged in 1992 with the single ‘Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg’, from the platinum selling ‘Ooooooohhh… On The TLC Tip’, Lopes was, to most observers, the pretty, hyperactive little rapper with the trio. She has claimed since that she is in fact, ‘the creative force’ behind the group. Regardless of which band member had the most creative input, TLC topped the charts with their ground-breaking hybrid of pop, rap and R&B at a time when Destiny’s Child were still in junior high school.
TLC served up feminist ideology in a sexy wrapping, quickly becoming as famous for their surreal videos and out-there outfits (in the early days they wore Day-Glo condoms as accessories) as for the uncompromising, do-it-yourself lyrics of songs like ‘Waterfalls’ and ‘Creep’ from 1994’s ‘CrazySexyCool’. As well as earning TLC three MTV Video Music Awards for Best Video, ‘Waterfalls’ catapulted the trio from R&B leaders to mainstream pop mega-stardom.
Then everything went pear-shaped. Although they had sold over six million albums, Lopes, T-Boz and Chilli filed for bankruptcy in 1995, listing over $3.5 million in liabilities (including mortgages, production costs and a $1.5 million bill for torching Rison’s mansion). Lopes pleaded guilty to a charge or arson and was locked up in a detention centre for six months.
TLC looked almost certain to split and the three formerly close bandmates began to focus on carving out their own niches in the world. Chilli settled down with former TLC producer Dallas Austin, had a baby and then announced that she wanted to leave TLC to spend more time raising her son.
T-Boz launched a fashion line, Grungy Glamour, starred in Hype Williams’ hip-hop flick Belly and wrote an autobiography ‘Thoughts’, before marrying rapper Mack 10 and giving birth to a daughter.
Lopes got a job at MTV, presenting the daily talent show The Cut. And then in 1999, the trio bounced back with the hugely acclaimed ‘FanMail’ and the singles ‘No Scrubs’ and ‘Unpretty’.
‘FanMail’ won them three Grammys and made TLC best-selling female trio of all time. But the success was blighted by tension. T-Boz announced that she had sickle cell anaemia and couldn’t travel to promote the album. Meanwhile, the trio were arguing over who had contributed most to the writing of the album.
‘I didn’t care for ‘FanMail’, Lopes says flatly. ‘I was disappointed with it. If fans hated it, then I understand why. Lots of fans loved it and I don’t know why’, she chuckles loudly.
‘There are some great songs on the album, but overall, y’know, everybody has their opinion and mine is that ‘FanMail’ is not good. I just don’t care for it.’
The ‘FanMail’ fallout culminated with Lopes calling on her bandmates to ‘show and prove’ their talents — they should find out who was the most popular member of TLC by each recording solo albums. At the time of the challenge, Chilli retorted: ‘I thought it was ridiculous. Why would I compete with my own group member? I didn’t understand the mentality’.
Today, Lopes simply says that T-Boz and Chilli are ‘relieved’ that she has now finished the solo project she has talked of working on for close to a decade. Things are ‘cool’ with the group, she insists, and they are currently working on their fourth album.
‘We don’t hang out much but that’s not a reflection on anything we’ve gone through. Even before all of the problems, we weren’t really hanging-out types. We spent so much time together on the road that we needed space.’
Lopes leans forward and reaches into her beaten up little rucksack and pulls out what looks like a giant paper Rubik’s cube.
‘Here’, she breathes, handing me the cube. ‘This is a dodecahedron I made to go with ‘Supernova’. It’s got 12 sides, and each side represents a song on my album. You need to throw it and see where it lands.’ Each side of Lopes’s dodecahedron bears a song title and mantra, in her own scrawl.
As she puts the cube back into her bag, I see her left forearm clearly for the first time. The word ‘hate’ has been savagely carved into her arm in capitals, the raised reddish-brown letters standing out angrily against cafe au lait skin. Lopes smiles disarmingly as she fingers the scar.
‘I did this seven years ago’, she says matter-of-factly. ‘It was a bad time for me. I was in the detention centre, and I’d got this overnight pass to go visit Andre’.
‘But it wasn’t a good visit. So I guess I was in need of a lot of attention that night’, she continues, with a strange gurgling little laugh obviously masking a lot of pain. ‘It was just like the movies, I wanted them to come in and find me and rescue and bandage me up and give me some comfort. There was blood everywhere.’
Lopes was undoubtedly driven to arson by Rison’s well-reported anti-social behaviour. He allegedly cheated on Lopes, slapped her around and even fired a gun during a fight with her in a parking lot. Then Lopes split with Rison and began dating model Sean Newman. Last year, however, to widespread incredulousness, Lopes and Rison got back together and announced to the world that this time it was forever. Rison even raps on one of Lopes’s favourite tracks on ‘Supernova’, the autobiographical ‘Rags To Riches’.
‘He’s a producer and I asked him to produce a song on my album. Once he came to do that, one thing led to another. We want to be together. We’re spending a lot of time together, quality time.’
So far the marriage has been held up by Lopes’s work on her new album and by Rison’s complicated and manifold legal woes, including a lawsuit for $50,000 in unpaid child support to the mother of his two sons.
Why does Lopes want to settle down with a man who infuriated her so much that she burnt his house down? ‘There’s almost nothing we can hide from each other and that makes the relationship better. We have gone through so many challenges, you know. Situations. Nothing is that big a deal anymore’.
‘And he’s changed’, she adds, giggling girlishly. ‘In the same kinda ways I have changed. He’s been searching for himself and I think he’s starting to find what he’s been looking for’.
Lopes admits that, in the early days of a seven year relationship, Rison reminded her of her late father, a former soldier: ‘my dad was a disciplinarian. He was really, really strict. We was incredibly well-behaved kids.’ Lopes’s father also physically abused her mother in the presence of Lopes and her siblings. She refuses to go into details about the violence she witnessed as a child and instead reminisces about her father’s ludicrous rules.
‘I was on punishment for my entire time at high school’, she smiles wryly. ‘I wasn’t allowed to listen to the radio or hang out on the block with the other kids. I wasn’t allowed to have no boyfriend. I didn’t keep up to date [with what was happening in music] then and I don’t to this day. I don’t watch television or go to the movies. I don’t even really read books. I just skim through them and gather data. I guess a lot of people just don’t get it…’
Lopes claims that she only knows what is current in music because she ‘feels it. I don’t have a CD collection and I don’t listen to the radio’. She also doesn’t have any musical heroes as such. Apart from herself.
‘I really think that in five years’ time I will be like a superhero, she announces.
Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes stares expressionlessly at her reflection as she pulls off her bandana and runs her fingers through her thick dark brown hair, which is cornrowed back off her face.
‘I have a real purpose in life’, she says as she unbraids and fluffs out her hair and begins to work on the front section with a sizzling-hot straightening iron. ‘And my purpose is definitely not to be in TLC’.
So is it strictly solo projects ahead for the group formerly known as TLC? Lopes shakes her head.
‘No’, she says slightly unconvincingly. ‘TLC are still together. We are working on our album. We’ve only finished two tracks so far but those two tracks are good. I’m part of TLC but I am an individual. You know? I don’t ever see myself as, um, a smaller piece of a bigger wheel. I wanna be the wheel.’