What Lies Beneath (The Last Major Cover Story on Aaliyah Before Her Passing)
With a new album and the romantic lead in the upcoming Anne Rice-adapted flick Queen of the Damned, Aaliyah is ready for superstardom. But don’t think you can get too close to her. Hyun Kim tried and found out that some things are best left alone.
Aaliyah lives the perfect life. To hear her tell it, she wouldn’t change a thing. “This is what I always wanted,” she says of her career. “I breathe to perform, to entertain, I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. I’m just a really happy girl right now. I honestly love every aspect of this business. I really do. I feel very fulfilled and complete.”
It’s true that a young woman with a burgeoning career in music and film might as well be ecstatic about her life. In fact, there’s nothing more annoying than hearing some spoiled star whine about the pitfalls of success. So, while Aaliyah’s comments are refreshing, you can’t help but wonder if things sound, well, too good to be true. She speaks like a veteran politician — well prepared and press savvy, like she’s reading from an unseen teleprompter.
Of course, 22-year-old Aaliyah has been preparing for stardom since childhood. And now that she’s made it this far, it’s impossible to determine when she’s in performance mode, or just honestly being herself. A trained actress who is quickly becoming a hot property in Hollywood, Aaliyah has mastered the art of hiding herself from the public. It started back in the day, when she always rocked dark sunglasses. Because her eyes were rarely seen, a rumor quickly spread that she had a lazy or glass eye. She soon took to covering just her left eye with her long, straight, black hair. She hid again when, at 15, reports of her marriage to 25-year-old mentor and producer R. Kelly — the story broke in the December ‘94/January ’95 VIBE — scandalized the R&B world. If you bring up the marriage with her, she sort of changes the subject. And we’re left searching dying for a glimpse inside this intriguing, mysterious woman.
It’s a bustling Thursday evening in May, and Aaliyah is lacing up her clunky bowling shoes at the AMF Chelsea Piers Lanes in New York City. She goes unnoticed by the rowdy, drunken group of Wall Street types in the next lane. Her tight, red sleeveless top and slightly faded blue jeans give more of a girl-riding-the-subway look than girl-on-MTV. She playfully tiptoes to the line and stomps her feet when her ball ends up in the gutter. But somehow you get the feeling that she isn’t particularly interested in rolling strikes either. She barely pays attention to her score, listed under the name Baby Girl. Aaliyah’s entourage — her stylist, makeup artist, and hairstylist — are more engaged than she is. The entire scene feels very staged, starring Aaliyah as the around-the-way superstar who’s kicking it with her peoples. “I like the simple things in life,” she insists. “When I have time, I stay home a lot, do things like this or play laser tag. I’ve always been a homebody.” It couldn’t have been scripted any better.
Brooklyn-born, Detroit-raised Aaliyah Dana Haughton has been playing her roles well for as long as anyone can remember. All it took was a one-line speaking part as an orphan in her first grade’s production of Annie to convince Aaliyah that performing was her… From ages 8 to 9, she would sing Stevie Wonder and Whitney Houston songs at weddings around Michigan. A faithful watcher of Star Search, Aaliyah was dying to compete on the show. At 11 years old, she got her shot. She sang “My Funny Valentine,” lost, and cried. Ed McMahon, the host of Star Search, who introduced the world to Justin Timberlake, Destiny’s Child, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and countless others, recalls Aaliyah’s performance. “There’s a thing that you see when somebody walks out on the stage,” he says. “I call it the fire. They got that inner fire, which has nothing to do with the schooling, nothing to do with the teacher, nothing to do with the parents. There is a desire in that person to please the audience. You see enough of it to recognize it. And that’s what I saw with Aaliyah.”
It wasn’t long before she recovered from her Star Search loss and hit up the stage again. Her uncle, Barry Hankerson, was married to Gladys Knight when he took his then 11-year-old niece on stage to perform with the R&B legend for five nights at Bally’s Las Vegas casino. Knight would call Aaliyah out to perform “Home” and then duet with her on “Believe In Yourself.” Soon after, Hankerson introduced his niece to R. Kelly, whom he was managing. Kelly ended up writing and producing 15-year-old Aaliyah’s 1994 debut Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number. Her life as a shy schoolgirl from an upper-middle-class neighborhood was officially over.
Not that she cared. Aaliyah is not one of those former child stars who complains of missing out on the innocence of adolescence. So what if she had a full-time bodyguard attending classes with her at Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing Arts? She was living her dream, right? Well, sort of. While she enjoys performing and being a celebrity, she doesn’t want the extra strings — like reporters probing her deepest fears and desires — that come with the package. She makes sure to give only the “Right” answers, because she wants to hold onto whatever is left of her private life. So she only alludes to her relationship with R. Kelly when she says, “Of course, everybody’s had hard times. I’ve had hard times. I don’t really think I will go into detail as to what it was. But when you go through something so painful, it just helps you become a stronger person.” When asked if she’s ever been in love, she says with a bright smile, “Private life! I don’t want to share that.”
She’s like the Teflon diva, nothing ever sticks to her. After Kelly, rumors linked her romantically to Ginuwine, Jay-Z, and, most recently, the co-CEO of Roc-A-Fella Records, Damon Dash. In May, Aaliyah hosted a bash for Dash’s 30th birthday at a New York City club where they were spotted together; one person said they were “inseparable” — he even walked her to the bathroom. “I think rumors are hilarious,” she says. “I don’t pay any attention. It goes in one ear and out the other. When you’re in the business, you hang out with people, and people are like, ‘I wonder, are they seeing each other?’ I never dated Jay. I never dated Ginuwine. Damon and I are very good friends. I’ll keep it at that right now.” It’s hard to believe her when she’s wearing a small platinum and diamond Roc-A-Fella pendant on her neck. She claims that it’s hers and that it’s “just a little symbol of a record” and changes the subject, insisting that she’s briefly dated just two men in her whole life.
Over the course of her career, the only thing Aaliyah has seemed willing to reveal about herself has been her highly touted body. Her slim frame has become a favorite from fashion figures to frat boys. “She made that hip hop look sexy for women wearing men’s clothes,” says Andy Hilfiger, who cast Aaliyah in the 1996 Tommy Jeans ad campaign also featuring Mark Ronson and Kidada Jones (daughter of VIBE founder Quincy Jones). The ads showed Aaliyah sporting men’s boxers under baggy jeans with a tight tube top. “It created a whole new look,” says Hilfiger. “It was sexy but classic.” By the time the sultry One in A Million hit in 1996, Aaliyah’s sound and look became a lot more mature and darker. Searching for a new style, Aaliyah’s mom suggested her daughter cover her left eye with her hair just like her mom’s favorite classic film actress Veronica Lake. It gave the 18-year-old an enigmatic touch. “She’s got an incredible sense of style, maybe the best of anybody I can think of,” says MTV’s Carson Daly. “She’s really cutting edge, always on step ahead of the curve. [The TRL audience] looks to Aaliyah to figure out what’s hot and what’s new.”
She doesn’t have the best figure or best voice, but it’s the way she uses what she has that makes her so alluring. “When we dance together, it’s like synchronized swimming,” says Fatima, Aaliyah’s choreographer. “She is naturally sexy without effort.” Aaliyah’s singing voice, while not all that powerful, sounds like she’s whispering in your ear from the pillow next to yours, slowly seducing you over Timbaland’s simmering beats. “My mother always said that she feels like I always had sex appeal,” Aaliyah says. “Even when I was very young, when I would take pictures, there was something sexual about me. I do feel sexy for sure. I embrace it, and I’m comfortable with it. I enjoy it.”
This confidence, her mastery of her assets, is what landed Aaliyah, who had no previous film experience, a costarring role with Jet Li in last year’s Romeo Must Die. Combining hip hop (the movie also featured DMX) and kung fu, Romeo had the perfect formula for box office success. But the critics tore up the highly remixes Shakespearean plot for both its simplicity and lack of any romantic chemistry between Li and Aaliyah. “This movie needs a screenplay,” critic Roger Ebert wrote.
Still, many were impressed by Aaliyah’s depth. The New York Post heralded her performance, which ranges from crying to killing, as a “revelation.” And as for the absence of sex scenes, Warner Bros. decided to edit them out. “We did a [scene with] Jet and I kissing, and we ended up going with a hug,” Aaliyah says. “I guess they thought it was a little sweeter and left more to the imagination.” Maybe audiences weren’t ready to see one of hip hop’s prized young kittens getting it on with an Asian kung-fu master 16 years her senior.
If moviegoers weren’t ready for interracial heat then, they’d better brace themselves now. In the upcoming Queen of the Damned, Aaliyah plays Akasha, an ancient-Egyptian vampire. Based on a combination of Anne Rice’s The Vampire Lestat and The Queen of the Damned, the movie is slated to show Aaliyah in intimate scenes with her Irish costar, Stuart Townsend. Perhaps what’s more striking than the eroticism of her role is that Aaliyah is the biggest star in the movie. The blockbuster Anne Rice movie Interview With the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles boasted Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Antonio Banderas and a big Hollywood budget. Queen costs $35 million and has no marquee actors. This doesn’t concern Michael Rymer. “There were two factors for casting Aaliyah. I was very keen that Akasha, an Egyptian queen, not look like Elizabeth Taylor,” he says, referring to 1963’s Cleopatra. “And not only did [Aaliyah] do a good job on Romero Must Die, but people went to see her. This is a really difficult role, and she took on a huge challenge. She worked her ass off for this film.
Aaliyah trained hard for her role, working closely with her acting coach for a month and then another month with a speech coach in New York. While filming in Australia, she worked with a personal trainer because she wore revealing outfits and a stunt coordinator for her flying scenes. “I have to exude power and be regal,” she says of her role as the mother of all vampires. “I love Egypt. I love vampires. It was the dream role, so I worked very hard.”
During her four-month shoot, Aaliyah somehow found the time to finish her new self-titled album. She began recording it in 1998 before Romeo. She stopped, wrapped the film, and released the super-catchy number-one single “Try Again” off the soundtrack. She traveled to Australia, shot Queen during the day, and hit the studio at night. The new album focuses more on her voice, bringing it to the forefront as opposed to hiding it behind the layered production. It was never her plan to take five years to follow up the double-platinum success of One In A Million. In between, her infectious 1998 hit “Are You That Somebody?” off the Dr. Dolittle soundtrack not only reminded her old fans that she still had it, but introduced her to new fans as well. At the time, “Somebody” was the biggest hit in Aaliyah’s career. She gave us just enough of the tasty appetizer to keep our palates whetted. “When it comes to overexposure, that’s something that I will always be aware of,” she says. “Because I never want that. This is my life, I love it, but it’s important for me to take breaks. Don’t want to overload anybody.”
Aaliyah’s career, like her personal life, is observed in lashes. She comes and goes when she wants. Unlike Mary J. Blige, Lauryn Hill, and Madonna, who pull the public across the fine line between their private and public lives, Aaliyah puts a velvet rope between hers. While most artists scream for creative control of their songwriting and production, Aaliyah — who modestly refers to herself as an “interpreter” — is primarily interested in performing.
“I’m not one to give everything and pour my heart out in one of my songs,” she says. With Hankerson, her uncle, as the CEO of the label she signed to, her mother, Diane Haughton, as her manager, and her cousin Jomo Hankerson as executive producer of her albums, it’s obvious that the marketing, promotion, and sale of Aaliyah is the family’s business. And her father, Michael Haughton, used to comanage her until he fell ill (her family won’t reveal with what). Aaliyah runs every decision by her older brother, Rashad. Her entire world is a tight, closed network, open only to those close to her.
When the people who know her best describe Aaliyah, you would think they were speaking of an angel. Fatima says, “Aaliyah is the sweetest artist I know.” Her best friend of five years, Kidada Jones, uses the words “grounded,” “emotionally balanced,” and “unaffected.” And according to Jones and Aaliyah’s mom, she has a great sense of humor. She’s good at imitations, especially of her mother’s deep voice. Aaliyah likes to make prank phone calls with Jones to what she calls “public establishments.” When asked to go into more detail, Aaliyah chooses not to — for personal reasons, of course.
Even when Aaliyah was young, she was private. “She was a very quiet child,” remembers Dr. Denise Davis-Cotton, whom Aaliyah says guided her education in high school. “Very polite, personable, conscientious. She knew her goals in life at a very young age.” Her mother attributes it to her daughter’s creativity. “She’s quite a complex young lady,” Haughton says. “She’s always been like that. It’s just a part of the genius of herself.”
As a child, it was apparent that Aaliyah was ahead of her peers. During her audition for acceptance to her high school, Aaliyah sang the aria “Ave Maria” in Italian. She was only 14. With the help of private tutors and independent-study programs, Aaliyah graduated high school with a 4.0 GPA. Her home life was pet-packed, with ducks, dogs, and iguanas running around her suburban Detroit home. Her exposure to varied cultures has influenced her approach to music. Aaliyah encourages Timbaland to get as creative as he wants when making up her beats. “She always likes to go to the left,” he says. “She’s the only one who’s willing to use those tracks. It wouldn’t be right if she didn’t.”
After bowling a low 73, Aaliyah decides that she wants to play video games before heading to her Upper West Side apartment to read Harry Potter books. She wants to get as much rest as she can. In a month, she’ll head back to Australia to play Zee in Matrix 2 and 3. After that, she’ll play the lead in the Whitney Houston-produced remake of the 70’s film Sparkle, which is still in its embryonic stage. But for tonight, Aaliyah just wants to be a regular girl. She blasts away would-be killers with her pink gun in the hyper-violent Time Crisis II.
When Aaliyah eventually gets shot to death in the game, she decides she’s had enough. “I’ve always been mysterious,” says Aaliyah. “My mother and father always used to ask me, ‘What are you thinking, what’s going on?’ There are times when I don’t understand myself, you know what I mean?” You do understand, and you can’t help but believe every word she says as she continues, “I have black-out shades in my apartment, I push a button, it’s totally dark. I think I’m a bit of a vampire in real life, and there are times when I just want to be myself. I wanna be alone.”
So instead of hiding from the world, maybe all the secrecy is Aaliyah’s way of discovering herself; her way of holding on to what’s true in a hazy world of glitz and imagery. “People feel like they own you in this business, and, to a certain degree, they do,” she says. “But there’s a part of me that will always be just for me.”
This originally appeared in the August 2001 issue of Vibe Magazine. This was my first cover story for Vibe, where I worked as a Lifestyle/Tech Editor.