TLC's story of fame comes to life in VH1 biopic
ATLANTA — For Rozanda “Chilli” Thomas and Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, there were several uncomfortable moments watching actresses portray them in a new TLC biopic.
But it was especially strange to watch Lil Mama, who played the role of the late Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes — the third member of the Grammy-winning R&B group who died in a car crash in Honduras in 2002.
“She totally came into character,” Chilli said of Lil Mama, who wore contacts to mimic Left Eye’s distinctively large, dark pupils. “It was kind of scary. The resemblance was just crazy at times. Naturally, she kind of had some of the similar characteristics like Lisa. It was kind of eerie at times for us.”
Alongside Lil Mama, Keke Palmer stars as Chilli and Drew Sidora as T-Boz in the film, “CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story,” which premieres Monday on VH1. The two-hour movie chronicles the trio’s rise to fame, their drama-filled love lives — famously including Left Eye burning down the house of lover and former NFL player Andre Rison — group spats and financial struggles, despite two multiplatinum albums.
“You never know how you look to someone else until you see for yourself,” T-Boz said. “It was weird. It was very weird seeing my haircut on Drew. ... To see them do our dance moves really took us back.”
This is VH1’s first biopic in nearly 10 years since Michael Jackson’s “Man In the Mirror: The Michael Jackson Story” in 2004.
“When we looked at all the artists that would resonate with our audience, TLC was like on top of the list,” said Jill Holmes, the network’s senior vice president of West Coast production and development. A “Behind the Music” on the group and “The Last Days of Left Eye” were both highly rated. “Our audience came of age listening to TLC and our young viewers grew up listening to their songs. So it seemed like a perfect fit.”
TLC debuted more than 20 years ago and became one of the best-selling female groups of all time. They addressed serious topics such as the dangers of AIDS in “Waterfalls” and the unrealistic expectations of beauty in “Unpretty” and had No. 1 smashes with “No Scrubs” and “Creep,” and their 1994 album “CrazySexyCool” is diamond-certified.
“They really put their whole lives out there,” Palmer said. “They did it fearlessly. I think it’ll be amazing to see how genuine their music was and how close it was to what they were going through.”
Chilli and T-Boz, who were executive producers of the film, were hands-on with its development. They had several sleepovers with the leading actresses, and spent extra time coaching Lil Mama due to the absence of Left Eye.
Initially, Lil Mama said it was tough prepping to play Left Eye — the energetic and most outspoken member of the group. But with the support of T-Boz and Chilli, she was able to grasp her character.
“I looked at different interviews of Lisa, watching the way she speaks and her delivery,” said Lil Mama, who joined Chilli and T-Boz onstage, rapping Left Eye’s verse on “No Scrubs” at a concert this year. “With her not being there, I leaned on Tionne and Chilli for help.”
The first time Sidora and T-Boz spoke on the phone, their conversation lasted for nearly five hours, with T-Boz opening up about her past and struggle with chronic sickle cell anemia. Sidora said she already had an understanding — for the past eight years, she has been a spokeswoman for the Sickle Cell Disease Association of Illinois.
Sidora trimmed down a couple of sizes for the role after trying on T-Boz’s original outfit from the “Scrubs” video for the first time. For four weeks, a trainer helped her work out three times a day and made sure she ate healthy meals.
“It was a very physically challenging role,” Sidora said. “Mentally, I understood her struggle. My challenge was to not only portray T-Boz, but to also introduce Tionne Watkins — the individual, the woman, the person.”
Chilli hopes their movie can show how resilient TLC has been despite all the ups and downs. The two surviving members continue to push forward as a group, releasing their greatest hits album, “20,” last week.
“We’re fighters. Even when we wanted to give up, we didn’t,” she said. “We want people to see how resilient TLC really is till this day.”
VH1 is owned by Viacom Inc.
PHOTO: In this undated photo provided by VH1, from left, Drew Sidora, Lil Mama and Keke Palmer play the characters of Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and Rozanda “Chilli” Thomas in the TLC biopic, “CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story,” which premieres on Monday, Oct. 21, 2013, on VH1. (AP Photo/VH1, Blake Tyers)