For many, Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes simply was TLC, the New Jill swingers who jacked the pop charts with a blend of soul and rap that preached safe sex and self-reliance. On April 25th, just weeks before her 31st birthday, the outspoken Lopes died in a car wreck while on a spiritual retreat at a "healing village" in Honduras.
The most successful girl group in history, TLC sold more than 21 million copies of their three albums: 1992's Ooooooohhh... On the TLC Tip, 1994's CrazySexyCool and 1999's Fanmail. Lopes was widely acknowledged as a major creative force in the group. More than just a rapper, she co-wrote songs such as "Waterfalls" and "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg" and frequently drew the storyboards for their award-winning videos, which included "No Scrubs" and "Waterfalls." Lopes also came up with titles for the group's recordings. "CrazySexyCool is a word we created to describe what's in every woman," she once said. "Every woman has a crazy side, a sexy side, a cool side."
TLC's career has been filled with both hits and headlines. The group was one of the few R&B acts to build a strong identity out of its initial success, and they exerted more control over each successive record. Their music – particularly the 11-million-selling CrazySexyCool and the 6-million-selling Fanmail, both of which won two Grammys each – set the standard for contemporary R&B. TLC helped to pioneer a deft blend of acoustic and computer sounds that paved the way for groups like Destiny's Child, as did their image as independent women. Whether addressing AIDS in "Waterfalls" or the struggle for female self-esteem in "Unpretty," they showed themselves able to take serious issues to the top of the pop charts.
Lopes was like a Japanimation heroine: tiny and buff with Powerpuff eyes, a big mouth that spouted loud, dope lines and a feisty attitude that masked the pain of a tough childhood and a troubled fame. She dressed for excess, whether she was replacing the left lens in a pair of glasses with a condom or braiding her hair into giant hoops. She also gamely embraced the "crazy" designation – grabbing headlines for burning down the house of her boyfriend, then-Atlanta Falcon Andre Rison, in 1994, and publicly throwing down a challenge to TLC's Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins and Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas to produce a box set of three solo LPs by October 2000. (Lopes completed hers, Supernova, last summer; it fared poorly in Europe and has yet to be scheduled for a U.S. release.)
Sadly, the "cool" side of Lisa Lopes had just begun to emerge when her life was tragically cut short. This was the Lisa Lopes I met last August, shortly after she recorded Supernova. She was a woman who had made peace with her wild-child past; had forgiven her late father, an abusive alcoholic, in a poignant song titled "A New Star Is Born"; and had adopted a nine-year-old girl named Snow. This Lisa Lopes already looked like an angel, petite and pure in simple white sweats, glowing with good health from a recent trip to the Usha healing center on the northern coast of Honduras, where she had been fifteen times in the past four years to fast, meditate and do yoga.
"Everyone feels like they know me because they follow the news," Lopes said that day, "and they don't have a clue as to who I am." She spoke honestly, with perspective and humor, about her life.
It began in the Logan section of North Philadelphia, where Lisa Nicole Lopes was born on May 27th, 1971, the first daughter of Ron, an Army staff sergeant, and Wanda, a seamstress. A precocious child, Lisa was talking at age one and was held to a high standard of achievement by her father, an amateur musician who drank heavily and administered "whuppings" to Lisa and her mom. The Lopes family moved frequently; the parents married and divorced each other twice, with Lisa playing baby sitter to her two younger siblings. "The amount of change that I went through would probably drive a normal person nuts," she recalled.
In 1990, she moved to Atlanta with a boyfriend; within a year, she had joined TLC, who were then managed by 1980s diva Pebbles. On the night they celebrated getting a record deal, Lopes returned home to learn from her mom that her dad had been shot dead in a drunken argument.
While out clubbing one night in Atlanta, Lopes, a newly minted pop star thanks to the single "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg," met Rison, who sent her flowers and bombarded her with "every line possible." Lopes blew him off for months, then relented. It was a tempestuous relationship. She was a heavy drinker, and he was so jealous that he made her wear socks at home – "He didn't want anybody looking at his girl's feet!" said Lopes.
In June 1994, Lopes and Rison had a knock-down, drag-out fight that ended with his home in flames. She was tried for arson and got off with a $10,000 fine, five years' probation and time in a halfway house. "The way the picture was painted, Andre was the victim and I was insane," she said. "That bothered me." After being sued by Lloyd's of London, which insured Rison's mansion, Lopes and TLC filed for bankruptcy in 1995. It took four years for the band to regroup, and by then, Lopes had started visiting Honduras and had cut down on her partying.
In April, she had gone there to work on a fashion line with her uncle, start a memoir and write songs for an upcoming project for Suge Knight's Tha Row label. The trip turned tragic on April 6th, when, according to reports, the van Lopes' assistant was driving – with Lopes in a passenger seat – struck and killed a ten-year-old Honduran boy. Then, on April 25th, as Lopes tried to pass a truck on the two-lane country road, a car headed toward her rented SUV. She swerved, the vehicle rolled, and Lopes died instantly. The seven passengers in the car, including Lopes' brother and sister, survived with injuries.
TLC will carry on without her, believing that Lopes would have wanted them to. "You can't replace a TLC girl," Thomas says. "The chemistry we have is something God gave us. You can't put that together."
This story is from the June 6th, 2002 issue of Rolling Stone.