At 15, Brandy was a top recording artist, a sitcom star and a cover girl. Then she dropped out of sight. As is often the case with such a meteoric rise, Brandy took a dramatic fall.
Brandy says she's battled to overcome an abusive relationship, an eating disorder, and what she describes as an "old-fashioned nervous breakdown," to get back on top. And she appears to have done it. Now, she's flaunting the sexy, grown-up version of the wholesome, girl-next-door charm that launched her career.
A Real-Life Cinderella Story
Brandy set her sights on singing and acting since she was just 7 years old. An early age for most of us to choose a career path, but not so early for a girl who made her stage debut in a Mississippi church at the age of 2.
Before long, Brandy took on the world of acting, playing the main character — a sweet, feisty teenager — in Moesha. The family-oriented television sitcom was No. 1 in black households for five years. Singlehandedly, Brandy had given the WB network its first big hit.
"Brandy was the money. That means that she was in practically every scene, uh, she also took on a producing role on the show," said William Allen Young, who played Brandy's on-screen father.
Moesha was a perfectionist to a fault — and so was the young girl who played her.
"She walks onto a set, and nails it. And you realize that old adage, 'You can't teach this,' it's true," Young said.
As if a hit sitcom and a singing career weren't enough to keep a teenager busy, Brandy was also one of America's favorite teen cover girls. She had a string of national commercials — even her own doll.
Her young life truly seemed a fairy tale — especially when Whitney Houston asked Brandy to play Cinderella in a 1997 made-for-TV movie Houston produced.
Brandy then went from princess to diva, holding her own alongside seven others in the "Divas: Live Concert."
Pressures Skyrocket Along With Career
Looking back, Brandy said, "I wanted everything that I accomplished. This was my dream. This is what I worked for."
She was definitely working hard. Her grueling schedule had her starring opposite Diana Ross in Double Platinum and alongside teen heart throbs in I Know What You Did Last Summer. In 1999, she won a grammy for "The Boy Is Mine."
But as Brandy's career skyrocketed, so did the pressures.
Her mom, Sonja Norwood, had managed Brandy since she was 13. While she insists she was anything but a pushy stage mom, Norwood says she was taking a lot of heat from people who said she was going to ruin Brandy's career.
Brandy and Sonja have a complicated relationship, which sometimes appears more like that of sibling rivals than of a mother and daughter. "My mom so wants to be a star. It's ridiculous. She so wants to be a star," Brandy said, goading her mom.
Both mother and daughter admit the combustible mix of their personal and professional lives has spurred tensions between them. Brandy says she sometimes needed a nurturing mom, instead of a taskmaster boss.
"Sometimes I just wanted her to listen to my problems, and not add the career in there to deal with the problems through the career," Brandy said.
‘It Was Destroying Me’
Brandy seemed to have it all, but secretly she was struggling to live up to the perfect image she portrayed. Her TV dad knew Brandy was dangerously close to the edge.
"I would see that she was tired. … I think she felt responsible for carrying the show Moesha. To the point that, if it wasn't right, she would exhaust herself to make sure that it was," Young said.
The desire to be flawless was what drove Brandy to success. It also drove her to starve herself.
Ever the perfectionist, Brandy thought she could look better. Her weight plunged to about 105 pounds — about 20 pounds below average for her height — and Brandy said she saw food as the enemy.
"It was destroying me. … But I looked great and that's what mattered. And that was crazy," Brandy said.
Believing she still didn't measure up, she says she became vulnerable enough to fall for an abusive lover. Brandy says he called her "b--ch" 13 times in a single day, and said the mistreatment escalated to physical abuse as well. "It was very bad, very very bad," she said.
It's hard to believe that someone as successful and vivacious as Brandy would put up with someone who she said brow-beat her and brutally shook her. But like so many who suffer from abuse, Brandy said she was emotionally trapped in the relationship.
"I just felt like that's where I belonged and I deserved it to be like that. And I blamed myself for everything. ... I thought that no one else would want me," she said.
The abuse, the grinding schedule and the excessive dieting all came to a head on the set of Moesha.
"She just said 'I need another break.' And for Brandy to say 'I gotta have a break. I need to go outside' — I think that was the clearest handwriting on the wall that this is going to be the day and we are going to have to say that's it," Young said.
She walked off the set and drove home. Brandy says she felt giddy and nauseous. Then she began hallucinating. "I think I just kind of snapped," Brandy said.
Brandy was hospitalized for three days. Doctors said Brandy was suffering from exhaustion and dehydration. Brandy said she wasn't suicidal, and she wasn't doing drugs. She said she just had an old-fashioned nervous breakdown.
Norwood knew that the stress of Brandy's career was aggravated by her painful love life. As her manager and her mother, she blames herself for letting Brandy take on too much. "As the adult, regardless of whether she wanted to do it or not, you have to take responsibility," she said.
Turning It Around
Brandy stopped starving herself and started eating healthy, as a vegetarian, and she finally found the courage to get rid of her abusive boyfriend.
But she didn't just fix her love life. She worked on all of her important relationships. She told her mom that she didn't want to have a business relationship with her anymore, if it affected their personal relationship.
Prince Charming may not exist for this real-life Cinderella, but in terms of nurturing, Brandy says she's found the next best thing. She fell in love and married Robert Smith, a shy, soft-spoken record producer.
Her latest CD Full Moon has topped the charts since spring, and this past summer MTV documented Brandy's pregnancy and the birth of her daughter Sy'rai in its latest reality show Special Delivery.
Brandy says she no longer tortures herself for other people's approval. She says she's borrowed lessons from her modest childhood in Mississippi.
"I'm just a down home person … I like to be around my family … I'm just really a homebody, and I like being like that."