Taken from the October issue of Dazed & Confused:
“I’ve always dreamed big. When I was seven, doctors told me I wouldn’t live past 30 years old. They told me that I’d be disabled and that I’d never have kids. When they said that, I just thought, ‘This ain’t my plan. I’m supposed to be on TV and travelling the world.’ But I have very strong willpower, so I just looked at it like, ‘I have a disease I was born with, but I’m not gonna let it take over me. If I’m gonna die before I’m 30, I might as well have fun doing it. I’m going all the way.’
My mom moved us to Atlanta from Iowa so my brother and me could grow up in the same place. I would have never been in TLC if I had stayed in Des Moines. I’m happy we got out of there, but when we moved down to the south, it was weird because I wasn’t accepted by other black people – they said I was too white and the white people called me the ‘n’ word. So I didn’t fit in with anybody. That caused a really big problem.
Doctors told me that I wouldn't live past 30 years old, that I'd be disabled and that I'd never have kids. I thought, 'If I'm going to die before 30, I might as well have fun doing it'
I got kicked out of four high schools just because people took issue with the colour of my skin. As if I could help the colour I was born. I never thought black people would say I wasn’t black enough. It didn’t turn me into a bully – it just put me on the defensive. I had to watch my back. It made me stronger because I learned how to deal with ignorance.
I never auditioned to be in TLC. I was working at a hair salon and the girl who still does my hair to this day told Pebbles Reid about me. I said, ‘Make sure you tell her to hit me up!’ I was just talking dirt, I didn’t really think they were gonna call me, but she did that same night. I was like, ‘Shut up!!!’ Prior to that I was in a group called 2nd Nature with Lisa and a girl called Crystal (Jones), who started it. Unfortunately, when we performed for Pebbles, she didn’t like Crystal, so Lisa and me had to kick her out. It was awkward. I heard she’s writing a book about it.
Chilli was brought in to replace Crystal. I was really standoffish at first because she came in and started hugging me and I was like, ‘Why you up on me like that? I don’t even know you!’ But we ended up vibing and we liked her. The same night that we met her, we went over and auditioned for LA Reid in front of Dallas Austin and Daryl Simmons. LA was like, ‘They make a perfect group, I want them.’ Everything happened just like that, back to back to back. We were out within a year. I was 19 when that happened, a baby.
I was a real tomboy when we first came out. Like, I do my hair and my nails, I just don’t wanna talk about it all day. I grew up around guys and got along with them better. I remember saying to mom, ‘They’re gonna think I’m gay!’ She said, ‘You can’t worry about what people think, just be yourself.’ I can’t tell you how many girls tried to hit on me. I’m not homophobic; I’m just not gay. But everyone swore I was!
I remember every one of our looks. I’ve had some doozies. I love my hairstyle and pyjamas in ‘Creep’. That’s my favourite song and look, but my favourite video of all time was ‘Waterfalls’, because the lyrics mean so much and it was the first video we collectively did together. Clive Davis didn’t believe in it at first, and we had to beg LA to do it. He believed in us and took a chance on it. It became our biggest song to date, I think because Aids was a big epidemic and people liked that we were standing up for them. And we did it in a way that was catchy and could still be a ballad.
When I talk, people think I’m gonna sound like a lad or something. I’ve gotten more praise for my voice than I thought I would. Producers would be into it, so I was like, ‘Okay, cool, they don’t think I’m weird!’ It was Jermaine Dupri who told me I should sing like that after I did a demo for Kriss Kross – he said, ‘You should make that your thing,’ and I was like, ‘Really?’ It just worked. The funny thing is, you couldn’t have paid me to believe it was sexy. When I recorded “Touch Myself” I wanted to talk about stuff that everybody can relate to. If that’s what helps you feel good and floats your boat, honey, do it. Hey, ain’t no safer sex than touching yourself, right? At least you know you ain’t gonna catch nothing.
When we came out with FanMail (1999) we were on some space age, digital tip – it was weird because at first people didn’t know what to think about it. We were like, no, just give it a chance, hear it out. It went over well in the end. 3D (2002) wasn’t my favourite album. It was a terrible time because of Lisa’s passing. I was just so depressed and we had to keep going. It was like floating in suspended air – you’re going and going but you’re not really there, mentally. You’re not really thinking things out. You try to but your thought process is blocked. So mentally, artistically and emotionally, I wasn’t on that album.
Right before Lisa passed, we were mad at each other. I was actually in the hospital and she came to see me. I heard her loud mouth coming down the hallway! She brought me a plant – that was her way of letting me know she was sorry. Even if we were mad it would never be enough to make us ever part. We were like sisters, we had arguments but always made up because we had respect for one another. She told me she was going to Honduras on a trip, so I was like, ‘Go ahead,’ because I was stuck in hospital anyways. We parted on good terms. She never came back.
Death always hits you hard. When you get those calls that are unexpected, out of the blue, that’s the killer. And then to live it out in public, that was terrible. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody in the world
Death always hits you hard. When you get those calls that are unexpected, out of the blue, that’s the killer. And then to live it out in public, that was terrible. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody in the world. Emotionally you’re trying to figure things out and you don’t want to see your friend’s death on covers of magazines, constantly reminding you all the time. It was the subject everywhere I went. So I stopped going outside, I became a hermit. I made people bring me Blockbuster movies, I didn’t wanna talk to anybody, it was really bad.
The funny thing about TLC is that no matter what was going on internally, our chemistry was so great with one another that you would never know there was a problem at any point. We respectfully learned to agree to disagree. It never got in the way of the creative process and we kept coming out with the hits.
When I was told I had a brain tumour, it was so hard to cope with. It took me three years to get everything back. I could have lost my sight, my hair, my balance and my speech. I pretty much got everything back, except for complete movement on the right side of my face. I only lost three per cent hearing, which is amazing. And I got a crooked smile – so that worked out perfectly for the J. Cole single! I find humour in things like that. If I’ve got a crooked smile or lose my balance on the right, that’s a small price to pay to still be here. When I trip, my family just pushes me back up.
I've been working for 20 years and I'm tired honestly. It's fun, don't get me wrong, but I can't do it like when I was 19 – that would be absolutely crazy
I’ve been working for 20 years and I’m tired, honestly. It’s fun, don’t get me wrong, but I can’t do it like when I was 19 – that would be absolutely crazy. Me and my cousin had the same disease. He didn’t make it, I did. There were a lot of times I didn’t know if I was gonna come out of hospital, but I did, so it has to be for a reason. I go to hospitals every Christmas and for the holidays when kids can’t go home, because that was me when I was little and I totally understand that feeling. I understand doctors and nurses being your friends because you’re there for months and months and you can’t go home. That was my life for years. I’m 43 now, and my daughter’s gonna be 13 in a couple of months, so I guess those doctors got it wrong when I was a kid. Things worked out. I’m happy.”
Follow Tim Noakes on Twitter here @TimNoakes