When the hip-hop and R&B supergroup TLC went on stage last summer at the MTV Video Music Awards, they got a standing ovation.
But only two members of the trio were there — Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins and Rozanda "Chilli" Thomas. They were there to pay a tearful tribute to their bandmate Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, who was killed in a car crash in Honduras in April 2002, at the age of 30.
"It's the first time ever that I got a standing ovation and applause not for something I accomplished good in my life, but because it's my group member who passed away," remembers Watkins.
In their first interview since Lopes' death, Watkins and Thomas told Primetime's John Quinones that they will never replace Lopes. "Oh God, no," said Thomas. "We have diehard fans out there and I'm sure they would be very upset if we tried to replace Lisa."
Bringing Girl Power to Hip-Hop
The three were teenagers when they formed TLC in Atlanta in 1992. Lopes came from an impoverished and troubled home in Philadelphia, with little more than a talent for dancing and rapping. In Atlanta, she met Watkins and Thomas, who were also poor, and fatherless.
They were determined to make it big. "I always said that in the beginning. I was like — buck that, man — we're going to be the biggest girl group.... Ain't nobody like TLC," said Thomas.
In less than 10 years on the music scene, the trio would go on to sell more than 27 million records, making TLC the biggest-selling girl group of all time. They won five Grammys, five Soul Train awards and five MTV awards.
TLC's brand of self-confident, independent girl power made them pioneers of hip-hop for young women — and their music crossed over from the inner city streets they had come from to the suburbs.
Their music had a special resonance for girls, according to Emil Wilberkin, editor in chief at Vibe magazine. "They're fun, and they're sassy," he said. "They're kind of like the most popular girls, like you'd want to hang out with them or you'd want to date them."
Letting Men Have It
Their lyrics also had a raunchy streak that raised some eyebrows. On one song, "Girl Talk," they warned men that they had better perform well in the bedroom because otherwise their girlfriends would start "spreadin' the word" about "about the way a brother is hangin'."
On "No Scrubs," from 1999's FanMail, they took aim at men with bad pick-up lines and no money who live at home with their mothers. The trio used to make fun of men because they're "always bragging, just lying," according to Thomas.
"The reason why we got so much flak is because people thought we were underage, and we were adults," she continued, noting that male hip hop stars used similar language "all the time" without being criticized.
Left Eye Was the ‘Crazy’ One
The group's third album was called CrazySexyCool. Thomas was the sexy one and Watkins was cool, but the crazy one was definitely Lopes. The rapper of the group, she stood out from the beginning, with the trademark that gave her her nickname: a condom worn over her left eye to promote safe sex.
She also had the most tumultuous personal life, drinking heavily and sometimes disappearing for weeks at a time. In a drunken jealous rage in 1994, she burned down the $1.3 million mansion she shared with her boyfriend, Atlanta Falcons receiver Andre Rison.
Lopes also started fighting with her fellow band members, once sending a letter to an industry magazine boasting that she was the real talent of the trio. She called them "haters" and "manipulators" and refused to go to Thomas' wedding. "That was the maddest Lisa had ever been at us before," Watkins said.
Fans and critics did not think the group would survive the fighting, but they came together again when they realized they had signed a terrible deal. They were making millions for their record label, yet the three women say they only saw a small fraction of that. "The money that TLC has generated for our record company ... Please. Please," said Thomas. "Sorry. You know, we should have a lot more to show for it."
When they threatened to take their label and manager to court, their lawyers were hesitant, but the three women insisted. "We were like, ah, ah, ah... we're going to do this. Because we knew. We knew. We weren't gonna back down," said Thomas. "We had nothing to lose," Watkins added. "What were we going to lose? We were already broke."
They ended up getting a new contract and a lot more money.
Bringing Attention to Sickle Cell
But then a few months later, in 1996, there was another drama. After the group had spent 40 weeks at the top of the charts, Watkins collapsed on stage. To quash rumors that she had AIDS, Watkins announced that she was in fact battling sickle cell anemia, a debilitating and often fatal genetic blood disease — and something she had not even admitted to her bandmates.
She says the disease still causes her pain, but that she does not want people to feel sorry for her. "I want them to learn about the disease, be educated.... I want to be the person living to talk about it."
A Fatal Accident in Honduras
By the beginning of 2002, TLC were putting their problems behind them, growing up and learning from their mistakes. Lopes was getting her life together, trying to stay clean and spending time at a spiritual retreat in Honduras.
But then, on April 25, Lopes was at the wheel of her rented SUV when it rolled off a highway and struck two trees. Her seven passengers escaped without serious injury, but Lopes, who was not wearing a seat belt, was killed instantly.
More than 18,000 fans showed up for her funeral in Atlanta. She was buried in a white coffin with a gold inscription from her most famous rap poem, "Waterfalls."
Tribute to a Bandmember
Just before she died, Lopes recorded several songs for an upcoming album, TLC's fourth, titled 3-D. Thomas and Watkins are going ahead with the release, as a tribute to Lopes.
They are trying to get on with their lives, though. Thomas is dating teen heartthrob Usher, and blushes when his name comes up. "It's serious," she said. "I prayed for a certain type of man. When I tell you he fits the description, he does..... I've been waiting on this — all my life."
One song on the album, "Turntable," is dedicated to Lopes. The lyrics run: "I used to walk around like nothing could happen to me. Life is a gamble so I should live life more carefully."
They say she would have loved the song. "This would have been one of her favorite songs," said Chilli.
"Her time was so short," Watkins added. "I wish we could have just been three little old TLC ladies together, you know, just be three old little ladies, still kicking it."
This report originally aired on Primetime on Nov. 7, 2002.