R. Kelly's ex-wife on why she has not changed her name: 'I paid for my name in blood, sweat and tears'
Drea Kelly is now an advocate for victims of domestic abuse.
Widely regarded as the "King of R&B," R. Kelly is known for penning songs like "Ignition," "Step in the Name of Love" and "Trapped in the Closet," but according to ex-wife Drea Kelly, lurking behind that Playboy image lies a more sinister persona.
"People have no idea that there's two different men here," she said. "There's a person: Robert. There's the persona: R. Kelly."
Drea Kelly claims she was a victim of emotional, physical and sexual abuse at the hands of R. Kelly to whom she was married for 13 years.
"Here I am, his principal dancer, choreographer, on stage right next to him," she said, "and people have no idea that this man just beat me on the bus. People have no idea of the bruises I'm hiding."
She said she feared for her life and while she never believed he would harm their three children, she thought that he might kill her.
Their tumultuous relationship initially began with a love for his music. The two first met more than 20 years ago in their mutual hometown of Chicago. R. Kelly was 27 years old at the time and had just skyrocketed to No. 1 with his breakout "Bump N' Grind."
He was about to embark on his first tour as a solo performer and was auditioning backup dancers.
"I remember I danced the paint off the walls," Drea Kelly said. "They started clappin' and he was like, 'You got the job.'"
For Drea Kelly, just 19 years old at the time, it was her dream gig.
Drea Kelly appeared in the music video for the song "Thoia Thoing" and was front and center in several of his other videos and performances.
She said she quickly rose from backup to principal dancer and eventually choreographer. Shortly thereafter, Drea Kelly said her then-boss sought a more intimate relationship.
"I can't say that I remember, like, when it changed for me or when it was just like, 'Oh, I think I love him.' I do remember when he said he fell in love," Drea Kelly said. "He said, 'I was sitting on the back of the tour bus reading the Bible.' And he said it was something about that moment that he fell in love. He said, 'And you remind me of my mama.'"
When asked by ABC News whether she'd seen any kind of indication that there may be any kind of violence or rudeness or inappropriate behavior from R. Kelly, Drea Kelly said, "No, but what I did see is a man who was very controlling."
R. Kelly continued to climb the Billboard charts. He soon became a household name with the release of the crossover megahit titled "I Believe I Can Fly."
"After ['I Believe I Can Fly,'] we were married, but at that point I had seen him go from just an all-black audience knowing who he was to now you're doing [the movie] 'Space Jam.' You're getting Grammy nods. Winning Grammys," she said.
Drea Kelly said the first time that R. Kelly got "indirectly physical" with her was during her pregnancy with first child Joann.
"He locked me in a bathroom and I slept in a bathtub," she said.
Outwardly, R. Kelly was the portrait of a doting father, cradling baby girl Joann in Celine Dion's video "I'm Your Angel."
And, even though the couple had two more children together, Drea Kelly said the marriage was crumbling.
Then, in 2002, a tape emerged, purportedly showing R. Kelly engaged in sexual acts with a minor.
Drea Kelly told "Nightline" that in the beginning, she did not believe the accusations.
"I'm thinkin' to myself, 'That's impossible 'cause he plays ball. Go to the studio. If he's not at the studio, he's performing.' But then again, he kept me very sheltered," she said. "I'm too busy dealin' with my own abuse."
"Man, this is simple, man. You know, I'm a good person, man. I love people. People need to understand that R. Kelly is not who they think but it's who I know. You know, I'm not perfect. I'm not some Jesus that people should worship. But I am not no demon. I'm no devil. I'm no criminal," he said.
R. Kelly did face trial on multiple charges of child pornography but he was acquitted on all counts. At home, Drea Kelly said, her husband grew more controlling and easily angered.
"It could be anything from the milk being too cold to the milk's not cold enough. ... There's no, 'Let's talk about it,' like a regular couple. You know?" she said. "No. It's his way or the highway. Period."
But it was a seemingly ordinary scenario that Drea Kelly claims led her to being attacked, restrained and ultimately hogtied by R. Kelly.
"The night that he hogtied me, we got into a conversation that I don't even really remember what it started fro," she said. "I remember layin' on my stomach, and he had his arms and his knees. He's pressin' in my back, and he just grabbed both of my arms. And he took the rope tie, and he tied my arms behind my back. // And then he took my legs, and he tied my legs and my hands and arms together. And I just remember layin' on the side of the bed cryin', like, 'Let me go. Just untie me. Let me go.' And he fell asleep with me on the side of the bed like an animal," she said.
She said that she'd confided in no one about what she claims was happening to her. She said she did not ever call the police.
"I kept it all to myself," she said.
In 2005, however, she did file an order of protection but a few weeks later, she withdrew it.
"He's a powerful man. At this time, he's at the top of his game. So now I get this order of protection and it dawns on you, 'This is not bulletproof,'" she said.
Eventually, she said a series of altercations while they were on vacation in Miami led her to a breaking point in which she almost tried to end her life.
"The only thing that kept me: first God, but my kids. 'Cause I remember I climbed out on the balcony and I looked down and it was, like, God had helped me to see my body was layin' in blood," she said. "Then in the background I hear my kids go, 'Mama. Mama. Why did Mama jump? Why did she leave us?' And I remember jumpin' down and my heart was beatin' so fast and I prayed to God, 'OK, I need an answer and I need it now.' ... And he told me to get my laptop, of all things, and type in domestic violence. Put in domestic violence awareness. I go to their web page and there's a survey. I take the survey, and of the 17 things on the list, Robert had already done 15. And it just dawned, I was like, 'Wait.'"
She said before that moment, she had not considered herself a victim of domestic violence.
"I always had the ability. You're a performer. You're tough. You're a girl from the South Side. But the reality of it was, reading that, I'm like, 'Yes. Yes. Yes.' And the more I said yes, the more I would replay things in my mind. The things he's done. The things he's said. The sexual abuse. The physical abuse. The emotional abuse. The financial abuse. And I was like, 'No. This is you. You're that girl,'" Drea Kelly said.
She said she was determined not to be that girl. After hiding any money she could find, Drea Kelly said, she packed one bag, grabbed her three children and went to her father's home. In 2006, she filed for divorce. She told "Nightline" she had not thought about changing her last name.
When asked whether she minded the association with still being a Kelly, Drea Kelly said: "Well, when people say association, that's, like, a club or fraternity or whatever. I paid for my name in blood, sweat and tears. Literally. Nobody knows what it was like to be Drea Kelly. Drea Kelly is strong. Drea Kelly is a survivor. Drea Kelly made it away from Robert Kelly. That is my badge. I will not and I know people wanna think, 'Oh, well, if the abuse is so bad, why keep the name?' The name didn't abuse me. Robert did."
In response to the allegations made by Drea Kelly, R. Kelly's manager told ABC News they had "no comment."
She said the last time she'd had contact with R. Kelly was so long ago, that she couldn't remember.
"It has gotten so bad, and I believe because I no longer [live] my life as a victim that we don't communicate. It's lawyer to lawyer," she said.
Drea Kelly said she'd decided to come out with her story after the summer of 2017.
"All these allegations start comin' out again and I'm like, 'God, OK. I don't think I can take this one,'" she said.
In 2017, a Buzzfeed article detailed allegations from two parents, saying that their daughter was being "held against her will" by R. Kelly.
The article also alleged that "six women live in properties rented by [R.] Kelly in Chicago and the Atlanta suburbs and that he controls every aspect of their lives."
R. Kelly and several of the women -- including the daughter of the complaining parents -- have denied the claims.
The allegations sparked a movement with celebrities like Viola Davis and John Legend joining the call to with #MuteRKelly, demanding that people stop playing and promoting his music.
The platform Apple Music removed him from its featured playlists.
Last summer, after months of silence, R. Kelly released "I Admit," a 19-minute song that dove into many allegations and controversial headlines.
"I admit I’m a freak who used to go to the strip club weekly and messed with all the ladies, that’s both older and younger ladies. But tell me how they call it pedophile, because that is crazy. ... I am so falsely accused. ... I'm so falsely accused. Tell me how can you judge when you've never walked in my shoes," he sings.
Drea Kelly called the song “the dumbest things he’s ever done.”
"You didn't admit anything. That was the classic, narcissistic response," she said.
She is now a full-time mother to her three children, Joann, Jay and Robert. The children, who range in age from 16 to 21, live close by, just outside of Los Angeles. They are well aware of the headlines about their father. They said his past led them to be bullied in school.
"I know that it doesn't have anything to do with me. I know that those people have a lot of healing to do. So I just kinda let it be with them. And like I said, I just go back to my family and let that be what it is, 'cause it has nothing to do with me," Joann Kelly said.
All three said that they did not have contact with R. Kelly and that it had been a long time since they'd communicated with him.
With dance and music in their blood, however, the Kelly children have musical aspirations of their own. They are currently working on an album together.
"We make our own music. I've produced music and they write, and they use the beats that I make," Jai Kelly said.
As for Drea Kelly, she said she'd tell her 19-year-old self "don't change a thing" if she could because her life brought her three children.
"They're my world," she said.
She now has become an advocate for victims of domestic abuse, speaking out at colleges and universities. On the day that "Nightline" met withDrea Kelly, she was in her hometown of Chicago, visiting a women's shelter called Margaret's Village to share her story with other women.She said the shelter had at one time been a school that she'd attended. The moment filled her with emotion.
"I feel like God finally answered me today. Because I was wondering like should I be doing this and should I come forward and should I keep going," she said.
After her talk with the group, she shared with ABC News what she had learned about herself.
"I'm little but I'm lethal," Drea Kelly said. "That's what I've learned about Drea Kelly. ... You know, it's not that I found out that I'm strong, 'cause I don't think I'm strong. In my humanness, I don't think I'm strong. What I have learned is that I'm a vessel. And when you're a vessel, you have amazing strength and courage that you would go into the lion's den when you're a vessel, because I know now that I'm being used for something greater than me."