Despite Its Success, TLC Remains a Group Divided


Why must life always remain unpretty for TLC?

These should be days of celebration for the Atlanta R&B; trio. Their concert tonight at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim comes three days after snaring eight Grammy nominations for the music from their album “FanMail,” a triumphant comeback effort that included the No. 1 singles “No Scrubs” and “Unpretty.”

But instead of basking in the moment, the best-selling female group in music history has its fans wondering whether it will still be around to collect fan mail a year from now.

One member and the group’s longtime producer this week both appraised the group’s survival chances at “about 50-50”--hardly a ringing endorsement for the future of an outfit that has sold more than $150 million in albums in the U.S. since 1994.


“If it were left to me, well, I’m here for the duration,” TLC’s Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins said this week. “I’m a loyal little member. But I’m not going to stand in somebody’s way if they want to leave.”

Welcome to the ongoing saga of TLC, an acronym for the members’ nicknames that could just as easily stand for “Tension, Love and Cash”--the three things that, in varying amounts, have pushed the group to the heights of pop music and sent them tumbling down through the music industry’s trapdoors.

The story of TLC has taken some dramatic twists--there were the group’s bankruptcy in 1995; the five-year hiatus between its two most recent albums; the seemingly endless feuds with its label, LaFace Records; and member Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes’ pleading guilty to felony arson charges in 1994. The latest drama has involved some very public squabbling among the three.

It started in November in the pages of Entertainment Weekly when Watkins and the third member, Rozanda “Chilli” Thomas, questioned Lopes’ commitment to the group and the “FanMail” project. They also described the irrepressible rapper as self-centered. An angry Lopes responded with a public proposal in an open letter: a three-album set called “The Challenge” that would feature a solo disc by each member to prove who had the most artistic and commercial heft.

Watkins and Thomas have shrugged off the challenge, but Lopes will have a chance to present herself on her own terms this year anyway with the release of “,” her first solo album. Lopes has declined interviews in recent weeks, but a source within her circle of advisors says the squabbles are sisterly in nature and familiar in tone.

“They’re the same as they always were, which means they’re polite and professional when they show up but they don’t hang out together when they’re not performing,” the Lopes confidant said. “It’s a family thing. . . . You don’t always get along with family, but you’re bound to them.”

While TLC may be a dysfunctional family, they are also very successful siblings, and not just in the pop music arena. Watkins has recently published her autobiography, “Thoughts,” and has an animated television series in the works with the Jim Henson Company. Thomas will appear in the Chevy Chase film “Snow Day” later this year and is featured in an advertising campaign by Coach, the leather goods maker. Lopes, meanwhile, will be a Calvin Klein model in magazine ads that begin running this month.

Those opportunities and the longtime undercurrents of controversy would seem to keep the future of TLC in question. But perhaps just the opposite is true. To Dallas Austin, who produced all three TLC albums, the volatility of the group has been a career glue of sorts.

“For most groups, when the music goes off, the spotlight goes off, too,” says Austin, who is also romantically involved with Thomas. “But with TLC there’s always something going on, and that keeps them on people’s minds even during the five years between these last albums. Some of this unfortunate stuff has contributed to their success, I think. . . . The fans who have followed it all feel they know TLC and care about them.”

Austin, like Watkins, appraises TLC’s survival chances at “about 50/50” although he thinks the trio will remain intact for at least one more album to follow up on the success of the last two blockbusters, “FanMail” (4.2 million in U.S. sales) and 1994’s “CrazySexyCool” (6.9 million domestically). The producer has been dragged into the latest controversy--Lopes has publicly referred to him as “the manipulator”--but he says he tries to focus on the group’s magic, not its mania.

“When TLC first came out, I don’t think anybody thought they would last past one album anyway,” says Austin, whose work on “FanMail” earned him three Grammy nominations this week. “But there’s magic that sprinkles the studio when they work together. . . . I don’t think there’s been a band in history that didn’t have problems between the members. Most just keep it on the inside. Not TLC.”

Indeed, the TLC travails have become one of the cautionary tales that have become a staple of the popular VH1 documentary series “Behind the Music.” The series specializes in pop music tales of rags-to-riches-to-rags and debauchery, and one of its biggest fans is Watkins, who found an unusual comfort in seeing the TLC story play out on the small screen.

“I watch that show all the time, I’m hooked on that channel,” Watkins said. “They show Rick James and all the wild stuff he was into, and then a heavy-metal guy who says he woke up with a needle stuck in his arm. . . . I’ll tell you, it starts to make me feel better about us. I started thinking our problems were a lot smaller than I thought.”