TLC knows how to start a fire, in more ways than one. While its latest release, FanMail, has already sold over 5 million copies and was recently nominated for six Grammy Awards, all is not well with the group. Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes -- you know, the one who set her then-boyfriend Andre Rison's house on fire in 1994 -- apparently feels she's the Diana Ross of the group, while Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas and Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins are the Supremes. In fact, she's actually challenged her bandmates to a duel of sorts. Lopes wants each member of TLC to record a solo album -- sales will finally decide once and for all who's the most talented and, more importantly, who's the most popular member of the all-time best-selling female trio. It sounds more like a stupid popularity contest than a gutsy career move.
"That's not happening," says Thomas, speaking from her car phone in Atlanta on the way to pick up her son. "Yes, we do have our ups and downs. The problem is that, when you're in a group, you have to agree to disagree and be cool with that. Whatever the decision is from the group, you have to stick with that. That's the unfortunate part. Lisa feels like she is the most creative person in the group, which is not true. She is very creative, I give that to her. But we all bounce off of each other.
"Left Eye did not get TLC here today," she continues. "All three of us got us here. And then, with that challenge thing, you don't send something like that to your own group members -- to make your fans choose who they like, when they love all of us. Even if somebody comes up to me and says, "Hi, Chilli, I love you. You are my favorite. I love the other two, but you're my favorite.' That does not mean because I'm that person's favorite, or even T-Boz is that person's favorite -- that they don't like the other two. So we told her that we weren't interested in the challenge thing."
In the past five years, Thomas has had more than her fair share of opportunities to sharpen her PR skills. And usually, it's either defending, debunking, or explaining something Lopes did or said. The obvious bad boy of the trio, Lopes might be better served if she changed her nickname to Black Eye, something with which TLC has been left more than once due to her actions.
But Thomas seems to be above all of the madness and infighting. Maybe that's because acrimony is something to which the ladies in TLC have become accustomed. Discovered in the early '90s by singer/manager Perri "Pebbles" Reid, TLC found success right away with its debut release, Ooooooooh! On the TLC Tip. With such hip-pop hits as "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg" and "Baby, Baby, Baby," the album sold over four million copies. It was during the recording of 1994's follow-up, CrazySexyCool, that Lopes set fire to Rison's $800,000-plus house. While she escaped the fire and didn't receive a jail sentence -- she was fined and given five years probation -- this act, ironically, paralleled what the next year or so would be like for TLC. Backed by the mega-hit "Waterfalls," their sophomore disc, produced by Babyface, Dallas Austin, and Sean "Puffy" Combs, sold over 10 million copies and was supported by a sold-out tour. Still, the threesome was in severe debt as a result of Pebbles's contract, which all three girls signed under their own free will. The only way out was to file for bankruptcy. A bitter divorce between Pebbles and TLC allowed the outrageously popular group to sign a more lucrative contract with LaFace Records.
"The thing that I don't like about [Pebbles's contract] was, I'm an artist," explains Thomas. "I know what it's like to go through bad contracts. So if I ever wanted to take on the role of managing a group, why would I want to do the same thing to them that I did not want Pebbles or someone to do to me? That's what I don't understand. She was an artist. It's almost like growing up as a child. If your parents were verbally abusive, and growing up you know how much that hurts you, you should learn from your parents to not do [that] when you become a parent. A lot of people can't break that chain. The cycle just continues."
Just as things appeared to be settling down for TLC, a new antagonist, surprisingly from within the tight-knit group, has divided the girls. Ever since setting fire to Rison's house, Lopes has become smitten with the limelight and publicity.
"I don't know," says Thomas, when asked about Lopes's antics. "Maybe after the fire, it put something in her head. She felt like she was the person that was supposed to cause all of the controversy in TLC. And when you take something like the fire, which was a real accident, I just thought it was really strange [what] she felt like, after all that happened, that she was the person that was supposed to cause stuff like that, and then she started purposely doing it."
During the five years between CrazySexyCool and FanMail, rumors persisted about a possible breakup. While Lopes stayed in the public eye -- in the not-so-flattering role as host of the MTV show The Cut -- T-Boz spent her downtime treating her sickle cell anemia, pursuing an acting career, and writing a book of poetry. For Thomas, her break was a special time. She had her son (Dallas Austin is the father) and was reunited with her father (eventually the two appeared on the Sally Jesse Raphael show). So when it came time to start recording FanMail, everyone was ready -- except for Lopes.
"T-Boz and I were in the studio a lot, and Left Eye really came in at the end of the project," says Thomas. "She wasn't really that much involved, but T-Boz and myself were really working our behinds off on that album. She came in at the end, and she wanted to do songs herself. But her songs just weren't up to par. She was just upset, had to get over it, and she came, did her parts, and that was it."
Amazingly, TLC seems impervious to outside distractions. Its popularity continues to grow with no end in sight. Still, Thomas maintains the band hasn't gotten its due.
"The only thing I don't like is people who don't give credit, like what the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync boys are doing -- that's not new," she says. "Boyz II Men did it first. All of the other black male groups did it first. So now that you have the white groups out now, it seems like such a big deal. It just kind of ticks me off, because they don't give the credit. It's like, don't make it seem like you came up with this stuff yourself. No. They have the black choreographers that worked with everybody, but there is some reason we don't get any credit.
"The only unfortunate thing [about] being in this business at this time is that we still have the racial issue going on. Rolling Stone won't put us on the cover because we're black. And they basically said just that -- "When we've had black people on the cover, it didn't sell.' And I'm like, when our album came out it debuted at number one, "No Scrubs' [the first single] was a success, and we're the biggest selling female group of all time, but nobody wants to talk about that. And it's because we're black. If we were white, we'd be on the cover of everything, and you would hear all the great success and all the records we broke."
Don't even bring up Britney Spears, who did get a Rolling Stone cover less than a year into her bubblegum fame. "Britney Spears needs to give Janet Jackson all the credit in the world," says Thomas. "Because she's totally trying to be Janet. Janet is totally her inspiration. And I'm sorry, she's no Janet Jackson."
With an eventual Lopes solo album on the horizon, the future of TLC appears murky at best, especially since Thomas maintains that the group won't continue if it's pared down to a duo.
"If it has to be a two-member project, it will be over, because TLC as a group is just too special," says Thomas. "No member is replaceable. But no one has to worry about us breaking up, because we're not. We're just ready to get on this second leg [of the FanMail tour]. This is just stuff we go through that we share with everybody else."
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.