TLC never had to go chasing their gay fans – we came to them. And not just because “Waterfalls,” one of pop history’s most prominent HIV/AIDS-awareness anthems, made a generation of LGBT people more sexually responsible, or because “Unpretty” affirmed you’re fine just the way you are. Ever since their debut dropped in 1992, the self-proclaimed “prissy tomboys” – nobody could wear condoms quite like Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas – led us all to embrace our own crazy, sexy, cool selves, gender norms be damned.
But when Lopes, the trio’s swagging rapper, was killed in a car accident in 2002, T-Boz, 47, and Chilli, 46, took a long break from the recording studio to tour and pursue solo ventures. Now, 15 years post TLC3D, and thanks to a Kickstarter that funded the project, one of pop music’s flyest girl groups is taking their final bow with their self-titled fifth studio album TLC and opening up to their gay fans.
And no, they didn’t just stick to the rivers and lakes they’re used to. During our nostalgic and, ahem, educational interview, TLC talked about how “No Scrubs” gets the queers “crunk”… and, you know, just casually reminisced on that time they got schooled on what it means to be a top and a bottom.
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 it 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’s how 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.
As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. Reach him via his website at chris-azzopardi.com and on Twitter (@chrisazzopardi).