(originally ran 1-2-2014)
By Allison Kugel
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas is surprisingly low key about her own legend. You have to nudge her to remind her of what she and her fellow TLC members, Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins and the late Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes mean to the music industry and to their tens of millions of fans who have collectively purchased more than 65 million TLC albums, worldwide. Chilli stands in awe of the people who are in awe of her, yet, it’s evident that there are still songs unsung in her heart. She speaks of a future TLC album with a combination of excitement and angst. It’s a longtime coming, and she knows it.
In the meantime, Chilli has joined the ranks of other music industry heavyweights, gracing the judge’s panel of the latest talent competition show, TruTV’s Fake Off. Fake Off aims to break the mold where talent competition television is concerned. Ten versatile and talented teams compete in the art of “Faking,” by re-creating iconic pop culture moments through a combination of dance, mime, illusion, synchronicity, lighting and scenery. Think Las Vegas spectacular meets the TV show, Fame.
As we drifted from topic to topic, Chilli’s demeanor lit up when conversation turned to the topics of motherhood and the idea of soul mates, as well as her loyal fan base of A-list musicians. Lady Gaga, Bette Midler and Prince all count themselves as proud TLC superfans!
Allison Kugel: I watched a couple episodes of Fake Off and it’s like watching the big productions in Las Vegas. The performance troupes are very outside-the-box in terms of what is considered commercially viable entertainment. How was the concept for the show pitched to you?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: They reached out to me and sent over some stuff you would see in Vegas, and [performances] from overseas as well. It was that type of entertainment and it was so different. Once they explained to me what “Faking” was, I said, “Wow, this is great!” I wanted to be a part of it.
Allison Kugel: Has that type of performance art been called “Faking” for a long time, or did they come up with that name just for the television show?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas : The reason it’s called Fake Off is because the groups are given themes from iconic concepts, movies, cartoons, television shows, and stuff that everyone’s familiar with. Then they have to put their best “Fake” on it. You know when you watch something and you feel like, “Wow! That was almost just like the original!?” That’s what the art of Faking is. It’s not necessarily what their gifts are, but it’s how they are entertaining you; the way they do it.
Allison Kugel: What’s it like for you to be judging other artists on this show?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas : It’s a little different because I’m not judging singers or just dancers. They’re dancing, but it’s not like what I do. But overall, it is entertainment and I enjoy entertainment. My thing is, can you captivate me the whole time you’re on stage, and can you captivate the audience? So, I can judge them and I love judging on that because that’s not an easy thing to do. It’s not easy to entertainment people and make everyone happy with what you just gave them.
Allison Kugel: Did you ever get a piece of constructive criticism early in your career that maybe stung at the time, but looking back you can see that it made you better in some way?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas : I don’t remember any one particular thing. The type of criticism that I got early on in my career, I don’t know if it was constructive criticism. It was just criticism. It wasn’t given to me in that constructive light. It hurt me very badly but I got over it, and I improved myself. But when it’s coming from a good place? I don’t really know if I ever got that from anyone.
Allison Kugel: Really? Not a producer, maybe?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: I just naturally have a respect for somebody that I feel is more advanced than myself. MC Hammer gave us, or me in particular, a lot of insight. He didn’t necessarily tell me, but I watched him every night, how he performed, and it helped me as a performer by watching him.
Allison Kugel: You’re talking about back when TLC was opening for him on tour.
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas : Yes. You have this man with so many people on stage with him, but he stood out. And that was amazing to me.
Allison Kugel: Watching these performers do their thing on stage when you’re filming Fake Off, does it give you a feeling of wanting to try something theatrical, like a Broadway musical?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas : I know I don’t ever want to do a Broadway musical, but I look at some of those elements like the shadowing and the lighting and stuff like that. I’m definitely interested in that as far as [TLC’s] show on stage, because I saw a lot of things in these performances that could take our show to the next level.
Allison Kugel: I want to talk about your non-profit organization, Chilli’s Crew, which works with teenage girls to mentor them and build healthy self-esteem. To personalize it a bit, what were some of your self-esteem issues as a teenager and how did you overcome them?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas : Just being the smallest one; that was always an issue for me. I didn’t care about the height part, but when I was in eighth grade I remember you had a few [girls] with the boobs and the hips and stuff. I used to drink this weight gain drink. It was this powder you mix with milk (laughs). I would get up every morning to see if I had gained any weight, and that never happened for me. I was a late bloomer, and that was my issue growing up. Now I love my small boobs and I have for many years. I’m alright with myself.
Allison Kugel: What do you hope the takeaway message is for these girls who are involved with Chilli’s Crew?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: The number one thing is their self-esteem. I really try to work with them on that and help them not to focus so much on the little things that seem sooo big to them right now. I do remember being that age and an older person telling me that. You just think they don’t know what they’re talking about. But the fact that I’m Chilli from TLC, they’ll listen to me more and I love that. I also tell them not to use their current circumstances as an excuse to not succeed. A lot of times young people will say that they’re a product of their environment and that is all they know. That’s not a good excuse. If you’re in a bad situation, whether you’re in foster care or were abused or whatever it is, you know that doesn’t feel good so don’t repeat that. Use it as a stepping stone to get out there and make a difference, and spread the word about it.
Allison Kugel: TLC has always been about female empowerment for young women. You’re the single mom of a teenage son. What has that journey been like for you, seeing life from the perspective of a teenage boy?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: I’ve found that the only difference between boys and girls is the attention span (laughs). That’s pretty much the difference to me, because at the end of the day and as a parent you have to equip yourself for whatever comes up, with a boy or a girl. There are some people that are better with boys or better with girls, but I think you should be the best you can be for whatever God gives you. I just put good morals and values in my son, and I’ve been doing that since he was a baby. That’s all you can do, and you obviously have to pay attention to your child’s personality. You see that very early on, and you have to shape the mold but you don’t want to break it. You don’t want to break their spirit. The teenage years are my least favorite, though my son is phenomenal. He does not get in trouble and he’s not a bad kid. But the fact that they think they know so much (she sighs, expressing the exasperation of parents of teenagers everywhere). I tell him, “Tron, I’m telling you, I said the same thing to my mom!” They just have to go through certain things, become more mature and get that wisdom. You just want to shield them from all the bad but you can’t do that.
Allison Kugel: I know, I know. I’m going to go through that at some point as well. Right now I have a five year old boy.
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: Oh wow! I love boys. I have nieces and I have a goddaughter and I am telling you, they are the most amazing kids. You can’t say boys are better than girls or vice versa. It just depends upon their personality and how you as a parent shape and mold them, and who you have around them influencing them, both male and female. But just love that boy, and I need you to get him hooked on WWE. Even if you had a girl I would tell you the same thing. It’s so good!
Allison Kugel: Right now he’s obsessed with superheroes. He runs around the house in his Iron Man, Spider-Man and Batman costumes all the time.
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: (Laughs). My son at five, Oh My God, he loved Ninjas. And sometimes he would want to sleep in his Ninja outfit, and I’d be like, “Tron!”
Allison Kugel: Yup!
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: Or I’d say, “Ok, let’s take a bath,” and he’d put the mask on and he didn’t want to move his face a certain kind of way because he was afraid that it might move the mask. It was hilarious.
Allison Kugel: I know. They stay in character. Its crazy (laughs).
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: It’s awesome. Kids are the most amazing gift ever.
Allison Kugel: In what major way do you see your son, Tron, following in your footsteps?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: For one, his character. He’s just a good guy. And I think I’m a good person, you know? We all have faults, but God has made me good. I have a conscience and I care about things, and he’s like that. Now the other thing, he definitely has the music bug. It’s in his DNA, he couldn’t help it, I guess (laughs). I just wanted to wait and see what he would show me. I didn’t guide him into this, although he’s been around it his whole life. He’s a drummer, he writes music and he’s really good.
Allison Kugel: Speaking of family, you and Tionne continue to work with your ex and your son’s father, producer Dallas Austin, to this day. What makes him an ideal collaborator for TLC?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: I think the last time we worked with Dallas was when we did the song… it was originally done for Lady Gaga. Lady Gaga went to him and she said she wanted a TLC record. It wasn’t released. But I think overall he gets it, and he really gets Tionne’s voice, probably more than anybody. She has a very different sound and [Dallas] knows how to write songs that are perfect for her voice, and he just knows how to produce her vocals better than anybody I’ve ever seen. When you have someone who knows you and knows your voice like that, it’s a win/win. Kind of like Janet Jackson with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
Allison Kugel: Let me back up for a second. When you said Lady Gaga called Dallas Austin and said she wanted a TLC type record, do you mean she wanted an album that had a similar quality to a TLC album? Or she wanted to collaborate on your next album?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: She wanted a song that felt like a TLC record, like the format of how we sing our songs and the messages and that kind of stuff. She was like, “I want a record like TLC.” And so she called the guy. She went to the right person.
Allison Kugel: How do you feel when you hear that Lady Gaga wants a sound that’s similar to yours, or when a young Beyonce, when she was getting started in the music business, was screaming and jumping up and down at the idea of getting to meet TLC? When you hear how impactful you have been to some of the world’s biggest artists, how do you process that?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: Beyonce and Destiny’s Child, they went on tour with us and I didn’t meet them when they were little, I think maybe Tionne did but I really don’t remember. It’s just a good feeling. Michael Jackson had the What About Your Friends dance in Remember The Time. I was totally in love with Michael Jackson, so to see that, I couldn’t breathe! Or Prince saying, “TLC is my favorite group,” and you’re like, “What?!” Bette Midler, as iconic as she is, she covered Waterfalls, and she said some really sweet words in an interview recently. That is crazy to me! It’s been good on so many levels when anybody says those things about us, because it continues to justify certain things. We’re so happy that we did not go against what we really wanted to do or say. Sometimes those things got us in trouble, but I think the majority of the time it worked for us. The fact that it inspired people or caught their attention just means everything.
Allison Kugel: Better to get in trouble for being yourself than to go through life disingenuous.
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: Yes, exactly!
Allison Kugel: Do you ever feel Lisa Lopes’s presence with you when you’re in the recording studio, writing or on stage? Something unexplainable, maybe?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: Not where it was an eerie feeling. I’ve had dreams where in the dream she’s alive. But it’s crazy, because in my dream I know that she passed away but when I see her I’m like, “Oh My God! We have to let everybody know that you’re alive!” It’s like that. I haven’t had one of those dreams in a few months, but that’s how it is when I dream about her. Her passing was definitely one of those times when I hoped she was pranking us. She would do stuff like that. She would just go missing. That was the one time I would have been alright with it if it had been that. Unfortunately, it was not.
Allison Kugel: It’s been all over the news that you are on this season’s The Millionaire Matchmaker with Patti Stanger. Are you into commenting on it right now?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: Oh Lord! (Laughs)
Allison Kugel: I guess my question is, are you looking for love or are you looking for a fairytale?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: I’m definitely looking for love. When it’s real, it is like a fairytale. When it’s real and when it’s healthy and all those things are aligned, to me that is a real life fairytale. I don’t mean a fairytale in the way you’re thinking, because that really does not exist. Everything that I want in a relationship or that I need and require from a man, I also bring to the table. I exist so he has to exist, right? Will I meet him in this lifetime? I don’t know. He might be in another country trying to make some other relationship work (laughs).
Allison Kugel: Do you believe you have a soul mate out there?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: I believe we have many soul mates. I think you may have a soul mate that works for a certain time in your life and then you grow apart. It doesn’t mean that you’re not soul mates anymore. It just means that your time with that person is up. The soul mate that you can be with for the rest of your life, it’s rare for many of us to meet that person. I was very, very, very hesitant about doing the show, and the only reason I did it is because I truly wanted to meet someone. I’m not gonna do the online dating…
Allison Kugel: You can’t do online dating Chilli, you would create chaos!
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: (Laughs) Yeah, I can’t do that one. With The Millionaire Matchmaker, I thought, “You never know.” You could meet the person at a gas station. You just never know when or how that person is going to walk into your life. I was being adventurous, which is something rare for me to do.
Allison Kugel: When is the much anticipated fifth TLC album coming out?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: I know, it is well overdue. We’re going to talk about this really soon. We have a lot of information we’re about to get out there. We were hoping it would happen a couple weeks ago, but things got changed and it was out of our control. People will get those answers very soon.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment columnist, and author of the book, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel and at AllisonKugel.com.
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