Twenty years ago, Tionne Watkins, Lisa Lopes and Rozonda Thomas came together for the first time to sing and dance for music executives in the hopes of landing a spot in a singing group.
Those three women — T-Boz, Left Eye and Chilli — are now better known as TLC, one of the best-selling female groups of all time. It was clear to see early on that the members of TLC were not interested in competing with your average girl group.
"The funny thing is, we used to look at men as our competition, not women," T-Boz says. "Men can go out there and pump and 'Ooh, yeah!' and girls will fall out and everything. Honestly, the easy way out is to take off your clothes and sell sex. But we have proven and become the biggest American group with our clothes on. So, that says a lot."
As the group members' careers progressed, they also made headlines for some of the wrong reasons: their highly-publicized bankruptcy, and the day Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes torched a bathtub full of her boyfriend's shoes in a jealous rage, consequently burning down his house. And then there was Lopes' fatal car accident a few years later.
The group's career will be revisited in CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story, a biopic set to premiere Monday night. Surviving members T-Boz and Chilli spoke with NPR's David Greene; hear more of their conversation at the audio link.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Twenty years ago, Tionne Watkins, Lisa Lopes and Rozonda Thomas came together for the first time to sing and dance for music executives in the hopes of landing a recording contract.
They became T-Boz, Left Eye and Chilli, better known as TLC.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONGS, "NO SCRUBS," "DON'T GO CHASING WATERFALLS," "CREEP," "WHAT ABOUT YOUR FRIENDS")
MONTAGNE: TLC went on to sell more than 65 million records and one of the best-selling female groups of all time.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The trio also made headlines for some of the wrong reasons, their highly-publicized bankruptcy and the time when Lisa Left Eye Lopez torched a tub full of her boyfriend's shoes, in a jealous rage, and wound up burning down his house. Then, a few years later, the sad story of Lopez death in a car accident.
MONTAGNE: Tonight, VH1 airs the new biopic "CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story." T-Boz and Chilli tell our David Greene, the group bonded over something they had in common: All of them were raised by single mothers.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Did being raised by strong women make you more powerful as women on the stage when you started?
T-BOZ: Oh, yeah.
CHILLI: Hell, yeah.
T-BOZ: And then some.
T-BOZ: We will stand up against men all day, every day...
T-BOZ: ...kick them in the shin and start running.
CHILLI: Yup, ho - hello.
GREENE: When you started performing, I mean the three of you seemed resistant to, you know, a stereo typically girly look. You are baggy jeans. You are loose clothing, sort of fitting the style that male hip-hop artists were going with at the time. And he seemed pretty adamant that that was going to be your style.
T-BOZ: We were adamant, This is T-Boz. You know what? The funny thing is, is pleased to look at men as our competition, not women...
T-BOZ: ...because men can go out there and pump and (Singing) Woo, yeah. And then...
CHILLI: All of that - get wild.
T-BOZ: ...girls will fall out and everything.
CHILLI: On stage.
T-BOZ: And honestly, the easy way out is to take off your clothes and sell sex. But we have proven and become the biggest American group with our clothes on. So, that says a lot.
GREENE: The third member of the group, Lisa Left Eye Lopes, I mean the movie doesn't hold back in a lot of ways. But certainly we see her as such a firecracker. And I wanted to play this one scene and we'll just set it up. She's thinking about busting up the group and going out on her own.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CRAZYSEXYCOOL: THE TLC STORY")
T-BOZ: We never had a problem with her going solo. It's just when she chose to go solo, we were under a contractual obligations; meaning we had a deadline. We had already signed the money and she had already burned down Andre's house. We have lost so many...
GREENE: Andre Rison, her boyfriend.
T-BOZ: Right, at that time. And we had already lost so much money, endorsement deals, and so many things because of her decisions and personal issues. Especially because of the things that she had did with burning down the house, we were in a position to where we had to work.
GREENE: You keep mentioning this house and that was no small thing. I mean she, Lisa, burned down her football player-boyfriend's...
T-BOZ: It was an accident.
T-BOZ: It was an accident though.
CHILLI: It really was an accident. She didn't try...
GREENE: Although in the movie, I mean she'd lit something on fire.
CHILLI: Well, no. Let me tell you. The first time, you know, they got into an argument - it was just a toxic relationship to begin with. And she had taken all the teddy bears that he bought her, put them in the tub and burned him up. And the tub was ruined but that it wasn't a flammable tub. So they replaced it but with a flammable tub. But she didn't...
T-BOZ: A Plexiglas tub.
CHILLI: Yeah, she did not know that. So...
GREENE: She thought it was a nonflammable tub.
T-BOZ: The second time, and again.
CHILLI: So that's why was like, OK. Well, let's go back to the tub again.
CHILLI: And when she wanted to make her point again, you know, the tub was different.
T-BOZ: She lit the tennis shoes, honey, and the whole house went ba-boom.
CHILLI: And everything went up.
GREENE: OK. Well, I'll let our listeners decide accident versus non-accident.
GREENE: But let me - I guess I just wonder at moments like that, did you worry that it was all going to be lost? Kind of the three of you were going to be judged for this, and a lot is going to be lost here.
T-BOZ: I mean of course people will judge. But I didn't think that was like a deal breaker, whereas it's just over...
CHILLI: I did.
GREENE: Did you?
T-BOZ: You know, I didn't think it was just going to be over. I just thought it was going to be a lot of negativity for awhile...
GREENE: So you were worried it was all over?
T-BOZ: I was worried. I said oh, my God, please do not let this ruin in our career.
GREENE: In the film, we relive Lisa's death in a car accident down in Honduras. It's been a decade since then, and it took this long for the two of you to consider coming back together. I mean was all that time the healing process?
CHILLI: Well, first of all, we've always been together. T-Boz and I have, you know, we've done shows a lot overseas. And as far as the, you know, hurting part of her being gone, I mean we still hurt. You know? But as time goes on, it does make it easier for you to deal with but you never get over it a hundred percent. That's impossible. Yeah.
T-BOZ: Right. I had some health issues, too, that took some years off. But we're still together. We're always TLC.
GREENE: T-Boz, I want to ask you about those health challenges. I mean you've been struggling with sickle cell anemia your entire life. And some doctors said you wouldn't be alive today. And then on top of that, a brain tumor?
GREENE: When was that and what happened?
T-BOZ: In November this year, it will be four years. And it took three years of physical therapy to get everything back together. But...
GREENE: Wow, and you're beating it. I mean it's you are healthy now.
T-BOZ: Yes, I did.
CHILLI: Yes, she is.
T-BOZ: I, in my heart, feel it won't come back even though the doctors say - doctors practice medicine - that they can come back. But I, in my heart feel, feel that it won't. So, and that's what I'm going to choose to believe.
GREENE: How is all of this changed your approach to your career and to living?
T-BOZ: It was crazy because I lost everything that deals with my job - my hearing, my sight, my speech. I was, like, Lord - and my balance. And I'm a dancer. It's in my soul. So I don't take things for granted that the way I used to.
GREENE: Well, as we say goodbye, I mean will play a song from the single that you just released, "Meant to Be." But talk us through it. I mean why does that capture the story of TLC?
T-BOZ: This song is like the title song for the soundtrack for our movie. And it just gives you a ride down memory lane.
CHILLI: And it helps you to understand better all of the things that we've gone through, and the love that we have for each other to this day.
GREENE: Chilli and T-Boz, thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate it.
CHILLI: First of all, I have to say I love your voice.
T-BOZ: Yeah, you have a good voice.
GREENE: Wow, that's going to - you're making money...
CHILLI: Ooh, it's sexy.
T-BOZ: Oh-oh, big sexy. Oh, you big sexy.
CHILLI: I'm serious. I like, dang.
GREENE: Thank you.
T-BOZ: So, your new name is Big Sexy.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEANT TO BE")
MONTAGNE: That's the new single "Meant to Be" from TLC.
You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.