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Unpretty

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Ladies and gentlemen, we are floating in cyberspace. As TLC kick off their first tour in nearly five years to a less-than-capacity crowd in Toronto’s Air Canada Centre on Oct. 22, a crescendo of computerized bleeps and blats envelops the arena. A mammoth robotic vixen — Virtual Vice (pronounced ”Vicky”) by name — appears on the huge screen at the rear of the stage. It’s disorienting and dramatic, a Matrix moment. You half-expect to hear Laurence Fishburne welcoming you to the real world, but soon Vice is introducing the flesh-and-blood stars of the evening: Lisa ”Left Eye” Lopes, 28 (”Personality: crazy,” Vice intones), Rozonda ”Chilli” Thomas, 29 (”Personality: sexy”), and Tionne ”T-Boz” Watkins, 29 (”Personality: cool”), the Atlanta-based trio whose multiplatinum third album, FanMail, has spawned two of 1999’s most inescapable anthems, ”No Scrubs” and ”Unpretty.”

As the group launch into set opener ”Silly Ho,” they dance with jerky, machinelike precision, their shimmering silver outfits making them look like androids. You find yourself fearing they’ll take this Devo-like shtick too far. Not to worry…

”What’s up with the lights?” demands Lopes testily between songs, calling the attention of 5,500 fans to some unseen glitch. ”This ain’t how we programmed the lights for the show.”

Ah, Left Eye. The most controversial member of the group — it was she who, in 1994, was arrested for burning down the house of her then beau, former Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Andre Rison — can be counted on to inject some chaos into the mix. Where the baby-faced Chilli projects a palpable sweetness and T-Boz is a combination earth mother and homegirl, Left Eye radiates danger and unpredictability. Prior to her solo spot in the show, during which she performs a magic act, she rattles off definitions of the word crazy: ”Unsound of mind, mentally unbalanced, deranged…” She savors each phrase like a choice morsel.

As it turns out, her magic tricks won’t cost David Copperfield any sleep. But one of them provides an analogy with what’s really going on with TLC these days.

”Here we have a string that’s been treated with nitroglycerin,” says Left Eye, grinning loopily. ”And here we have a lighter….”

One week earlier, Chilli and T-Boz are sitting high above the crisp autumnal splendor of Central Park in a plush suite in New York’s Trump International Hotel & Tower. Conspicuous in her absence is Left Eye, who’s flown home to Atlanta after a fitful few days of press and radio appearances. It’s noted that 48 hours before, Lopes had arrived late to and left early from an EW photo shoot, seeming to hold herself apart from the group. She was also a no-show for TLC’s appearance on MTV’s Total Request Live earlier in the week. Such apparent lack of unity feels particularly significant now, with the group embarking on their first-ever headlining tour, and just months after a Vibe cover story in which Left Eye proclaimed she’d ”graduated from this era” and could not ”stand 100 percent behind this TLC project.” With Left Eye working on her first solo album, inquiring minds want to know: Is the biggest-selling female trio in history in danger of being reduced to a duo?

The question elicits a textbook pregnant pause, during which Chilli and T-Boz exchange pointed glances. With a sigh that roughly translates as screw it, Chilli decides to let it all hang out.

“Honestly, we’re tired of saying things, covering up, making it seem like it’s one thing and it’s really not. We’re stressed.”

T-Boz: “And Lisa doesn’t respect…”

“…respect the whole group. TLC has to stick together…”

“She doesn’t stick with us.”

“She doesn’t stick with us. And we have to argue to bring her back and focus…. She wants to go solo and do other things, so that’s what she’s focused on, which is not fair to us.”

Once the emotional floodgates open, the pair vent — often heatedly — for 45 minutes, railing about Lopes’ alleged derelictions and disloyalty, and at one point break into an a cappella version of the old O’Jays hit “Backstabbers.” They tell how, prior to the recording of FanMail, Lopes sent their label, LaFace, a letter saying she was quitting, an action that temporarily froze the group’s finances before she changed her mind (“The most evil, selfish, heartless thing anybody could ever do,” says Chilli); how she seems to undercut them by dissing them in interviews and ditching rehearsals; how she’s bitter that every one of the eight songs she’d written for FanMail was rejected; how she’s become distressingly capricious about decisions that affect them all.

T-Boz says they’re “tired, tired, tired” of it. “We want her in the group, and she knows that,” Chilli continues. “So it’s almost like she feels she has the power to dangle meat in front of some hungry dogs, like, ‘I can do what I want, because I know they want me here.’ So she takes advantage. We’re covering up for her because we don’t want the fans to be mad at us. But we’re mad at her.”

“We lied live on MTV, saying she was sick,” adds T-Boz, referring to the TRL taping. “She was not sick.”

“She was at the hotel, upset [with us],” says Chilli. “Left Eye is only concerned about Left Eye.”

The tirade is fearsome. A TLC handler drifts into the suite and turns a whiter shade of pale at the tenor of the conversation. “You guys gonna talk about the tour at all?” she prompts, hopefully.

“We talked about the tour the other day,” snaps Chilli. “This is very important. What was I saying?”

Er, essentially that Lopes is jeopardizing what TLC have worked for since the release of their first album, Ooooooohhh…On the TLC Tip, in 1992. Surely, though, with the tour about to start and millions of dollars at stake, she wouldn’t jump ship now. Would she?

“She has commitments that she has to [honor],” asserts Chilli. “We just want to let everybody know what we go through. This is what T-Boz and Chilli have to deal with.”

Producer Dallas Austin, often referred to as the fourth member of TLC, chuckles when asked about the Left Eye situation. “They’re like sisters,” says Austin, the father of Chilli’s 2-year-old son, Tron. “I’ve seen this for years. Lisa started playing into a lot of bad stuff in the press because she feels it’s her job. She’ll admit it, too, like, ‘It’s my job to keep the press going.’ She does this wacky stuff, and the next day she’ll change her mind and the girls will get p—ed. They did that Vibe story and Lisa said, ‘I’m not into TLC.’ Then she does another article and says, ‘I love the girls to death and I’ll never leave.’… Lisa does it as a part of her character, kind of like the guys in Oasis.”

Just what makes this apparent human time bomb tick? Born in Philly, Lopes was raised in a household dominated by an alcoholic father, and she gravitated to music as an escape. In 1991, she and T-Boz were in an embryonic version of TLC. They caught the attention of Perri “Pebbles” Reid, then wife of LaFace co-owner L.A. Reid, who became their manager. When Chilli signed on as the third member, TLC was born.While Lopes’ first few years with the trio were scandal-free, her reputation as a loose cannon took hold after she was convicted of torching Rison’s house in 1994 (a crime for which she was fined and sentenced to five years’ probation). Soon after, she entered rehab for her own drinking problem.

Austin confirms that Lopes was angered to the point of destruction by the fact that none of her songs were chosen for inclusion on FanMail. “She turned in eight songs, and they weren’t up to par,” he says. “It’s crazy, because she’d quit the group, then a couple of days later be like, ‘I’m back.’… She cries wolf a lot.”

And what of the wolf-child herself? “Wow,” she says some days later, when confronted with Chilli’s and T-Boz’s charges. She takes a few moments to collect her thoughts, then, with seeming indifference to her groupmates frustrations, coolly acknowledges a history of intragroup disagreements. She readily admits to being willful, to missing rehearsals, to being preoccupied with a solo project, and, perhaps most significantly, to quitting TLC. “I guess it was about a year and a half ago, right before we started working on FanMail. The process was taking such a long time, the record company wasn’t really adamant about pushing TLC, so that was my attempt to raise eyebrows and get some attention. I wanted to make [LaFace] think, How important is TLC? Is it important enough that if one of us were to leave, you guys would get on the ball? That was my way of doing it. As soon as that happened, chaos broke out. As soon as I sent the letter, T-Boz and Chilli called me and said, ‘Please don’t leave the group, let’s just do it one more time.’ I said, ‘That’s not a problem.’ From my perspective, me sending that letter did not take away or add to the relationship me and Chilli and T-Boz had. The problem was that we had different views and we wanted to go in separate directions.”

Just how different are those views? Lopes claims she never wanted to tour in the first place. Her TRL sick-out was a form of protest, an unwillingness to play the promotion game. “I don’t think [touring] is the best move for us. We have an agreement where we can’t make big money decisions unless it’s unanimous. But sometimes they like to think that two thirds rule. That’s the part that p—ed me off.”

Obviously, there is plenty of ill will all around. Given the unpretty picture painted by Chilli and T-Boz (who joke about replacing Left Eye with Virtual Vice if things don’t improve), and Left Eye’s righteous, if unruly, stance, it’ll take a load of tender loving care to hold these women together. The pressure-cooker conditions of their tour — which includes 17 U.S. shows in 1999 and will continue globally through October of next year — won’t help. But Austin, for one, is keeping the faith: “At the end of the day, all of them know TLC is their home. Left Eye wants attention. But she knows that if she drops out of this thing, that attention’s not gonna be there.”

Let’s see, how did that song go? Don’t go chasing waterfalls….

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