By ALLISON KUGEL
TLC’s Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins’ life is one filled with overcoming insurmountable odds and finding blessings in unexpected places. Watkins was diagnosed with sickle cell disease at the age of seven and spent much of her childhood in and out of hospitals due to episodes with this potentially fatal condition. She was told she wouldn’t make it past early adulthood. Her family’s move from Des Moines, Iowa to Atlanta, Georgia when Watkins was nine and a chance meeting former singer and music executive Perri “Pebbles” Reid and her then-husband LA Reid would launch T-Boz, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas into the stratosphere as the biggest-selling girl group in music history, taking home four Grammy awards and selling 65 millions albums, worldwide throughout their career.
For all their success, TLC has endured a roller-coaster of ups and downs over the last 30 years, the biggest blow being the loss of Lopes in a 2002 car cash, taking away one third of the lightning in a bottle that made them superstars. Resolute in their will to go on, T-Boz and Chilli have continued to record music and tour, most recently co-headlining a tour with Nelly and Flo Rida.
These days, T-Boz is revelling in the most recent chapter of her life as mom to daughter Chase and son Chance, author of the 2017 memoir A Sick Life, and co-creator of a line of CBD-infused healthy and beauty products, aptly called TLCBD.
Is there a prominent memory or flashback from your life, whether it’s a great memory that you love to re-visit, or even something that wasn’t so great, that helped shape you?
I always think about the first time I saw each of my kids. No matter what’s going on in my life, that will give me a good feeling and a smile. Anytime I’m having a terrible time, I try to think about what the best thing in my life is, and that is my two kids. I think about the first time I ever saw them, and that’s a feeling you can’t really describe.
At what age did you feel yourself make the transition from a girl into a woman? Was there a particular event, or did it just kind of hit you one day?
It’s probably when we did the video for the song Creep. Everybody thought we were so mature-looking in that video, and I didn’t think of myself like that until grown men started trying to talk to us. Before that there was always this stigma about us [looking] so young.
Is that when you felt like a woman, or when you felt like people saw you that way?
I think that’s when people saw me as a woman, but then that started making me feel like I was a woman, you know? And when you start seeing yourself as that, you start acting a little differently, like, “Oh, I got some grown and sexy going on now!” I used to be so skinny and I would wear two pair of pants to look curvier. I was tired of guys saying, “She’s cute.” I was like, when are they going to say, “She’s fine,” and when am I going to get some grown woman hips?
Were you happy with the way TLC’s final album [the group’s fifth and final album, TLC was released in 2017] turned out? Do you feel it was a good swansong?
No, I don’t. I feel like it wasn’t worked good enough. I don’t even like the song Haters. I think that was a terrible choice as our second single. I believe there were better songs we should’ve gone with, that were deeper. We have a song called American Gold. It was right before Trump came into office and there was all this uproar with black men who were dying and being abused and killed by the cops, including my cousin who was murdered by cops and shot 18 times with an AR15, and he was mentally ill. The reason that song is so important is because we hit on all of that, and you know how you bleed and die for your American gold? Just being American is tough these days, especially when you’re black. That song would have really hit home in a lot of places, kind of the way Waterfalls did, if the right visuals had been put to it.
You think the music video for Waterfalls was a key element for people getting the song?
Some people didn’t get Waterfalls at first, until the visuals came [with the music video] and brought that song to life. If visuals were put to American Gold, it could have been a big song. It could have been deep for certain people, especially for people who fought for our country. At the end, the album was too rushed, and I felt forced to not finish some of the songs that I could have finished.
Let’s get into your CBD line. Over the years, you’ve had a rough time recording music and touring, while dealing with flare-ups and hospitalisations from your sickle cell anemia. On the last TLC tour with Flo Rida and Nelly, you’ve said that using CBD kept you healthier.
Oh absolutely! Before I started taking CBD, you can go back through our history and they would tell you, “T-Boz is sick, T-Boz has ruined another tour.” It’s not a cure, but since being on it, I don’t get sick as often. I’m way stronger and when I do get sick it’s not as bad or for as long. On this last tour, I broke my rib and I was able to still perform with a broken rib. A long time ago, that would have sent me into a sickle cell crisis. Because I was on CBD, I was able to go to the hospital for one day, get fluids for the pain and some lidocaine patches and take some CBD cream, bomb and tincture, and I made it through. I didn’t ruin the tour. This is the third tour I’ve been on that I haven’t gotten sick or had to cancel.
How did you figure out that CBD could ease your symptoms?
The medicines that the doctors give you keep you in a weakened state. If you’re weak, it’s easier to get sick because the sickle cell attacks the weakest part of your body. If you stay weak, you’re going to stay sick, so I was sick every three months and going into hospitals. Someone suggested CBD and I tried it. At first, I didn’t feel any different. Then I started noticing that I was feeling stronger. I wasn’t getting as sick as often, and I don’t even have a good working spleen. Your spleen is what helps you fight off colds and diseases. I lost my spleen, but I grew two accessory spleens which is totally crazy. I didn’t know you can grow an organ back. God has been looking out for me! Any time someone had a cold around me, I would always catch the cold to the 10th power, but now I wasn’t even catching cooties.
What is the wisest advice you’ve ever been given, and how has it impacted your life?
My momma told me if I kept my morals, my integrity and my character intact, she would support anything I did. That’s what’s gotten me through. She also said to always be the best in anything you choose to do. She said, “I don’t care if you choose to be a garbage truck driver. Make sure you pick up that garbage good, girl.” At the end of the day, it’s about respecting myself. Nobody else will respect me if I don’t respect myself, and it starts with me.
That’s the best advice I could have been given, especially in this industry, at 19 years old, with a whole bunch of nasty men trying to just prowl and take advantage of young girls. That never bothered me, because I always had my self-respect, self-esteem and self-worth.
What do you believe you are here on this earth to learn?
I used to always wonder why I got through things, like, why I lived and why my cousin died, and why we had the same disease. I used to wonder why I’m here and what my purpose was. Then, not so long ago, maybe the last seven to eight years, I figured my purpose here was to help people, whether it’s through music or through sharing my testimony and being a ray of hope for someone. I’ve also learned to push past my fears. I used to hate speaking in front to people. I’ve learned to face my fears, and I’ve learned that I’m an open book. And I like to learn about people, about things – it just makes me more of a people person so that I can better help someone else.
That falls in line with what the late Dr. Maya Angelou said. “When you learn, teach. At our best, we are all teachers.”
Yes! When I talk to the kids that I speak to, I try to help them from the inside out. When it comes to health-related issues, for example, if you have cancer, lupus, sickle cell, AIDS, or even if you are 100% healthy but you’re continually stressed out, you can die. So if you already have an ailment and your boyfriend is cheating on you, or you’re getting beat up at home, or your child’s on drugs, or whatever the stress may be; you have to try to control the stuff that you can control and get as much stress out of your life as possible, because it will kill you. But it’s especially true if you’re already dealing with an illness. I’ve just learned to be a better person; the best version of me. I’m working towards that every day, so I can do what I’m here to do, and live whatever my purpose is meant to be. I truly believe that’s to help people.
When you’re on tour in your 40s, are there tour shenanigans with the other artists, or are you in bed under the covers by 10pm at this stage of the game?
I’m not in bed, but I am boring. I like to watch movies, but I’m up all night. I’m a night owl, and I go to bed at like three, four or five in the morning. But they always say my bus is the crunk bus, and Chilli’s bus is the grandma bus. They call her grandma, and they call me auntie. So, my bus is the loud one. It’s music and fun, but we used to get wild when Lisa was alive.
How are you feeling about your 50th birthday in April?
I want to do something special, because usually I just go to a Mexican restaurant to eat for my birthday. I don’t really do much, because I’m kind of a homebody. But for my 50th, I think I should celebrate all year long, because I never go on vacation. I’ve always wanted to stay in one of those huts in the ocean, or the big bungalows with the pool. Celebrating 50, for me, is a super blessing being that I was told I wouldn’t live past 30.
What are you hoping the year 2020 brings you, in all areas of your life?
Health and joy, because joy to me is better than happiness. Happiness is momentary. You can get a car, and then a new car comes out and you want that one. So, joy, to me, is the kind of peace that you can’t buy. If you have joy in your heart, that has to be the most peaceful kind of love and light. I just want to reach that, whatever that is. I want peace, love, joy and health, and that’s it. I want all my loved ones around me to be healthy, too. If we have that, I’m Gucci.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment columnist, author of the memoir, Journaling Fame: A Memoir Of A Life Unhinged And On The Record, and owner of communications firm, Full Scale Media. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel and at AllisonKugel.com.
Photo Credits: Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Marc Sacro, Penguin Random House