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Pretty Young Things:
The Women of TLC Stay Cool Under Fire

by Carol Cooper

THE WOMEN of TLC are sitting on a couch in a tiny New York production facility taping safe-sex commercials to supplement their interview for an ABC special, In a New Light: Sex Unplugged. Network television has never been quite this real during prime time. Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes offers perky instructions on how to improvise a dental dam with Saran Wrap. Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas describes losing her virginity as a Fractured Fairytale worthy of Voltaire. Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins explains convincingly why casual sex is vastly overrated.

There's a free-floating charisma that makes TLC stars. As a unit, the girls exude the psychic allure of a secret club that you've always wanted to join. When you watch them laugh or interact or finish one another's sentences, they seem to inhabit a closed universe, a world of secret delights that strangers can enter only by special invitation.

"You just wouldn't expect three little, adorable, sweet young girls to terrorize the neighborhood the way we do," says Thomas with her 1000-watt Cheshire cat smile. "It's like we pull out the craziness in everyone, while we stay just the same. . . . It's almost like our energy is so powerful that it affects everyone around us."

TLC are three atomic vixens famous for wreaking havoc in studios and on tour buses. Their food fights and practical jokes are legendary, and saner heads constantly try to calm them down.

CrazySexyCool, the second TLC album, is spreading that vibe into the mainstream. Certified triple platinum, sales of CrazySexyCool are approaching four million, and the LP hasn't budged from the top reaches of the pop charts. Just as the first single, 'Creep', describes the darker side of TLC's giddy hedonism, the current edition of TLC is a more serious bunch of girls than it was three years ago. TLC are not mere producers' tools.

Seeing this side of TLC -- the adult, no-nonsense side -- belies the fashionable bad-girl image that sent the band's controversial 1992 debut, Ooooooohhh . . . On the TLC Tip, to multiplatinum status. Back then nobody suspected that these three brassy brown ladies would make an album hot enough to be the breakthrough moneymaker for the then hitless LaFace Records (run by Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds and Antonio "L.A." Reid). TLC's first LP launched a sound, a look and not one but several careers. These three women have been the catalytic center of a thriving Atlanta R&B scene that would never have been quite the same without them.

TLC have also been the center of a storm of publicity. Controversy and melodrama have dogged the women of TLC on many levels since their commercial bow in '92. All the ongoing creative, financial and personal hassles peaked on the fateful evening of June 9, 1994, when a battered and tipsy Lopes set fire to the mansion of her fiance, Andre Rison, after an unusually violent lovers' quarrel.

In a scenario straight out of a TLC song, Rison (a professional football player) completely forgave his embattled lover; Lopes was fined and sentenced to a term of counseling, and the judge also urged Rison to seek help for his abusive tendencies. Then in mid-July of this year, Lopes and the other two members of the group filed for bankruptcy. The insurance companies weren't as forgiving as Rison; reportedly, a 1.3 million claim against Lopes by Lloyd's of London constitutes a healthy share of her personal debts. Rison lent the women of TLC $15,000 each so they could hire a bankruptcy lawyer.

"It's not to make LaFace look bad," Watkins insists. "But it is what it is. A lot of people have made money off of us, and we haven't." Such unrelenting pragmatism has always been part of TLC ? and not just in their music. "What I really loved about TLC when I first met them was that they had a definite opinion of what kind of group they wanted to be," says Reid. "TLC won't sing songs that don't represent their points of view ? I don't care who wrote it or how big a hit it could be."

"See, we came pretty much as is," says Watkins, the sultry caramel blonde whose reedy alto anchors the group's midtempo songs and ballads "We knew how we were going to sing, dress and everything. All you had to do was the paperwork and help us out with the business stuff we didn't know." Growing up, Tionne Watkins was a featured soloist in her church choir. As a teen in the College Park district of Atlanta, she hung out every week at the same roller disco where producer Dallas Austin and his crew came to dance and soak up the rootsy street vibes later poured into hit singles for Joyce Irby, Another Bad Creation and Boyz II Men. "He and his boys would dance in line and were really good!" Watkins says.

Watkins' favorite neighbor was Rico Wade, later a member of the production team Organized Noize. A righteous tomboy, she adopted so much of Wade's dress, attitude and choreography that the struggling young musician called her his "little brother in lipstick."

"I started wearing baggy clothes because of Rico," Watkins affirms today. And then Lopes chimes in: "And Rico sent me to the audition where I first met Tionne!" As usual, Left Eye's story is a little more unorthodox than you might expect. Unlike Watkins and Thomas, Lopes was discovered bouncing around Atlanta without benefit of parental supervision or support. She'd come to town on what she terms "a humbug," following a boyfriend-manager down from Philly on the rumor that a group he knew was looking for a female rapper.

"I didn't trust him, but I trusted myself," Lopes says. "I knew I could take care of myself because I'd already been out on my own all this time without a stable place to live."

Through Wade, Lopes auditioned for a girl group with Watkins. Thomas was already on the scene as a dancer with another LaFace act called Damian Dame. She also possessed a promising singing voice that a little training would round out into a fine midrange instrument. An elfin half-black, half-East Indian Atlanta belle, Thomas was the perfect visual complement to what Lopes and Watkins had to offer. When offbeat nicknames were chosen to enhance the raucous individualism of TLC, the name Chilli fit Thomas' exotic sensuality and sometimes spiky temperament like a glove.

From the first album straight through to CrazySexyCool TLC have had a hand in parceling out songwriting and production chores -- essentially doing their own A&R for free. "They are much clearer than anybody else on what is and isn't TLC," says Reid. "They make it very dear to the writers and producers on their projects what they will and will not sing. And because of that I think they'll always be a little ahead."

For the CD single of 'Red Light Special', Lopes produced a brilliant and darkly confessional B-side called 'My Secret Enemy'. On this relatively obscure track, Lopes explored the Rison incident ? and her own conflicted feelings about it ? with astonishing depth and style. It is such an exciting departure from the work the group has done with established producers that you start to feel that TLC's album output thus far only hints at the women's true capabilities. Now if they can just straighten out their business affairs in the meantime. "People are always looking at us, saying, 'Man, you guys have really come a long way,'" says Thomas. "But I'm sorry. We're not at the level we're supposed to be in terms of cash flow."

"The only thing that's going to keep me going," says Lopes, "is the man who can make me happy. . . . 'Cause all my happiness ain't coming from this career."

Published in: Rolling Stone, 24 August 1995