The Spicier Girls

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Tionne ("T-Boz") Watkins--the T of the R.-and-B. singing group TLC--is dancing alone in an empty studio in Atlanta. Rozonda ("Chilli") Thomas--the C of the trio--left early when her one-year-old son developed a stomachache. As for Lisa ("Left Eye") Lopes--the L--nobody seems to know where she is right now. So Watkins keeps going through her dance steps solo. After all, there's work to be done. The group has a new CD out (its first in five years), a new video to film (they're way behind in preproduction), a tour to mount--and three careers to resuscitate. "I'm glad to be back," says Watkins, wiping the sweat from her brow and taking a swig of designer water. "I feel blessed to be back. I don't know what's going to happen, but I'm prepared for whatever it is."

TLC has always been hard to predict. The group has, since its start, been drawn to the outrageous, but since all three members have a sort of charming, impish glow about them, they get away with things that groups with less charm and impishness would be castigated for. For example, while promoting their first album, Ooooooohhh...on the TLC Tip, the members sported condoms affixed to their clothes. The group's second album, CrazySexyCool, did something even more unexpected: it sold 10 million copies. This week the trio is poised to release its third CD, Fan Mail. With the CD's arrival, TLC has pulled off another trick: after a long layoff, it has delivered another strong, feisty album.

The strength of Fan Mail is somewhat surprising, given the distracting and difficult nature of the group's travails since its last album came out. Lopes, who handles all the raps on the group's albums, has developed a reputation as the wild card of the trio. In 1994 she was fined and put on probation after burning down the million-dollar home of her boyfriend, former Atlanta Falcon Andre Rison. The two later became engaged and then broke up.

Thomas is the romantic one; on the group's records, she often sings the dreamier passages. Since the release of CrazySexyCool, Thomas had been on a quest to find her biological father--and she was finally reunited with him in 1996 on, of all places, The Sally Jessy Raphael Show. "I grew up an only child," she says. "When I met my dad, I also met all these new relatives--uncles and aunts and cousins. It was overwhelming. I'm still adjusting to it."

Watkins is the cool one; she sings low and buries her emotions. She received a diagnosis of sickle-cell anemia when she was seven years old, and she continues to suffer from it. (She became a spokesperson for the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America in 1996.) The ailment, on her bad days, makes her feel as if she has "a big old butcher knife" stabbing into her joints. Sometimes, she says, the pain is so excruciating that she can't walk or use her arms, and family members and friends have to feed her. "The only two items on my body that haven't hurt are my fingers and my toes," says Watkins. "I try my best not to cry because I don't want to make everyone else sad or upset."

Then there's the shared group trauma: in 1995, after two smash records, TLC filed for bankruptcy. Some observers in the music industry viewed the move as a sly legal strategy for the group to negotiate a better contract with its record label, LaFace. But Watkins says the trio was genuinely broke. "We were broke like our lights were off," she says. "Broke like our phone was disconnected. Broke. It came as a shock to y'all. Not to us. We was the ones living it. So I knew the money I wasn't getting."

TLC eventually negotiated a more lucrative deal with LaFace. The issue now is, Can TLC win back its fans? With the success of such packaged pop acts as the Spice Girls, LaFace has high hopes for Fan Mail. Thomas, for her part, thinks the Spice Girls have copied some of TLC's style. "I've never been a Spice Girl fan," says Thomas. "I'm not like down on them; there's enough room for everybody. But I have to say that one of the girls, I think it's Scary Spice, bit off of us. It's cool though. We're trendsetters."

Fan Mail may set some trends of its own. Executive-produced by the all-star team of Antonio ("L.A.") Reid, Kenneth ("Babyface") Edmonds, Dallas Austin and TLC, the album is a savvy blend of bouncy pop-rap, sharp R. and B., and smooth balladry. The lyrics are playful but blunt: on Silly Ho, the group puts down gold diggers; on No Scrubs, it upbraids unambitious men. The album shows signs of artistic growth: on Unpretty, Watkins sings movingly about the way in which society's beauty myths can destroy one's self-esteem. It's a more introspective song than the trio has attempted in the past.

In fact, the group members are trying to branch out beyond music. Watkins is working on a book of poetry--though fans shouldn't expect it to be anything like Jewel's recent best-selling collection. "I don't even understand her poems," says Watkins. "I love Jewel, but I don't understand what she's talking about. You'll be able to understand my poems, you know what I'm saying?"

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