When Michelle Kramer moved to Country Club Hills, Illinois, she didn’t know much about R. Kelly — but soon, her young daughter, Dominique Gardner, became a superfan. In 2010, shortly after she graduated from high school, Gardner met the singer, who lived in the nearby Chicago suburb of Olympia Fields, through a MySpace friend. She soon began spending time with him, living at home while becoming part of the superstar’s inner circle. In 2013, after graduating from a program to become a dental hygienist in Chicago, Gardner moved to Atlanta with Kelly. At first, things seemed fine; she would return to Chicago on a regular basis, bringing her family gifts when she visited. But in 2015, things changed — Gardner no longer had her own phone, and Kramer had to text the singer himself if she wanted to speak with her daughter. In May 2018, working with the producers of Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly, she was able to track down her daughter at a Los Angeles Marriott and take her back to Chicago in a dramatic on-camera rescue. (Kelly has denied all allegations of sexual or emotional abuse.) Gardner returned to Kelly three days later but soon left the singer again, and has now been home for seven months.
Rolling Stone spoke with Kramer to discuss what it’s like to have her daughter home — and what we didn’t see in the documentary.
Could you tell me a little bit about your daughter Dominique? Where did she grow up? Did she always have an interest in music?
She grew up in Hammond, Indiana, but she was born in San Diego, California. And then we moved to another house in Country Club Hills, [Illinois], which is about 15 minutes from his home.
So him — I don’t like to say his name, so I just call him, him — I didn’t know nothing about him. When my daughter was 11 to 12, her dad took her to his concert and she just fell in love with him. Like any other young girl falls in love with Usher, New Edition, Bobby Brown — like that. She always had all his pictures in her room. She would be like, “Say hi to your son-in-law!” I’m just like, “Girl, forget him.” She idolized this man.
As she got older, she still was following him and then she met Jerhonda [Pace, another alleged survivor of R. Kelly] on Myspace. I got the call from a friend, told me do you have any idea where [your] daughter is at? And I said, “Yeah, she’s gone out to the movies or bowling or something like that.” “No, she’s with him.” I called my oldest son – her brother – and we went to his house. I called Olympia Field police. She turned 18 30 days [after she met him].
What happened next?
She told me she was done messing with him, but she wasn’t. I found that out later — I asked her some questions and she confessed to me. As a mother, what can I do? I can tell her, don’t talk to him, that he a grown-ass man, he just got off of trial — I said all of it. And she was like, “Mama I just love him. I want him to be my first.”
And how did you feel about her continuing to see him?
I just accepted it. I knew how she loved this man. So if I had got mad and got upset, fighting her, all that was going to do was prove [what] he’s been saying. He’s telling girls, “Your parents don’t want you. Your parents don’t like you.”
He’s a musical genius, he’s not a mind genius — let’s get that straight. You have to outthink him. So just as much as I didn’t like it, how many women can say they like their son-in-law or daughter-in-law? You just deal, because what you see, she will eventually see it. It might take a little longer than you expected, but I promise you, she’s going to see it. And she did, and that’s why she home now.
You said in the documentary that they were on and off for about nine years.
Did you talk to her during that time?
She actually visited me. I remember we had just moved to the North Side of Chicago, and I moved here in 2013. So it was from maybe the fall to the summer [that she lived here].
She said that he moved to Atlanta and, “He want me to go,” and I’m like, “Meeka, no. Why you got to be in Atlanta?” She said that [R. Kelly’s ex-wife Drea] Kelly had moved the kids to Atlanta so she could pursue her career, so he moved down there to be closer to his children. And so I gave her my blessing, as long as I could contact her. Which I always did. She came home for my birthday, Mother’s Day, she came home if I went out of town so she could watch the dogs. She came home for Christmas, Thanksgiving — maybe a good 10 times a year.
So you had a lot of contact.
Yes. I had a lot of contact but I remember she came to town [around 2015] and went to the studio. She said, “Mom, I’m going to have you pick me up.” I’m sitting there waiting. Calling her. I kept saying, “You need to come outside. Why you not coming? What’s the problem?”
She never came. I’m calling her phone [and] she’s not answering anymore. I’m like, “Meeka, what’s going on?” She’s not answering any more calls. A month later, she sends a text and says she’s off of my phone [plan] and she getting on his line. And then that was the end of my contact.
So this is 2015 — she’s living in Atlanta and she tells you that she’s going on his phone plan. What was your contact like after that?
I had every number of his. Any time that I sent him a message and it wasn’t pretty, she would call me and [tell me to] stop sending him the messages. She always could only say so much, because he is right there. He makes sure he puts them on speaker. So I was like, “I know you can hear me.” “Mama, what are you talking about? He’s nowhere near me.” I said, “Girl, I know that motherfucker’s right there, but this ain’t over today.” Anytime I saw something in the news, I would send him a message and then he would make her call me. And she would always say what I just told you.
How often did you talk to her?
Probably about once or twice a month. She would always say she was fine, but I knew she wasn’t. Meeka told me every time I sent him a nasty message, and she couldn’t calm him down, she got a beating for it. Or she got punished for it.
She told you this after?
Yes. Because he tries to convince the girls to tell they parents to chill out or don’t be talking. I didn’t know this — I heard about from other families — but once she got home she told me that anytime I would send a message, she got a beating.
Tell me a little about how you were able to rescue her. You were already working with the Surviving R. Kelly producers?
Exactly. So one of the girls [contacted] me in April or May 2018 and said, “We’re going to bring you out between L.A. and Atlanta.” I had heard that they were in Los Angeles. TMZ saw Joycelyn Savage and my daughter coming out of a restaurant in Beverly Hills before Mother’s Day.
And I knew I was going to L.A. for the documentary. So I called TMZ and [asked about] the video of Joy Savage. And they was like, “Oh my God. The other girl is one of the girls from the house?” And I said “Yes, Dominique.” “Are you her mother? Can you please do a FaceTime interview?” And I was like, “No.” I just needed that, so I hung up.
And then I’m waiting five, four, three, two, one — ring. “Hello?” “Mom, why you call TMZ?” I’m like, “I ain’t call no TMZ. Girl, what you talking about? Girl where you at?” “I’m in L.A.” I was like “OK. What hotel?” “Mom I can’t tell you that information.” And I said, “Well give me the initial.” She said “M” — there you go, Marriott.
Went to L.A., called Marriotts in Beverly Hills. Because he ain’t the brightest, he put the hotel in the girls’ names. So I woke up that morning and I called the [producer] and said, “I called the hotel. Is there any way you can get us a car so I can go see if I can have lunch with my daughter?” She said, “Well, can we film it?” I was like, “Sure, I don’t care. You guys give me a ride to go find my daughter. L.A. big.” And then that’s when you see everything else on.
So we see you get to the hotel and tell the manager that you are there to surprise your daughter on Mother’s Day. When she declines to come down to accept a package, he walks you up to her room. What was it like to see her when you opened up that door?
I was very — overjoyed. I was happy. I can’t even describe it. I can’t even get the words together. I hadn’t seen her in three years, and she was so scared because she was scared that if he found out… She was like, “What you doing here?” “I came to see you. I just want to have lunch with you.” My intention was not to take her. I can’t take a grown woman; she grown, she 26. So I don’t want her to hate me; I just wanted to see her. She said, “I asked God if it’s time for me to leave here, please give me a sign.” And I showed up at the hotel, so she knew it was time to go then.
Then you left the hotel?
We agreed to have lunch at 6 o’clock, but something wasn’t right. I don’t know if it was God talking to me, but I went back about 5:30. My daughter called me on the phone and she said, “Where you at?” But the [hotel] put my phone number on block, so anytime I called the hotel it would say she has do not disturb on it. Only on my number.
So I got in thinking mode. I ended up going to the bathroom and I had her godmother call. And she said, “Meeka, your mama in the hotel; she’s in the bathroom. Go in the restroom and get her.” I’m waiting about 15 minutes and she came running in and said, “Let’s go!” And I’m like, “Where we going?” She like, “I told you I love you. You’re my number one.” And that’s where you see us running out the hotel.
So where did you guys go after that? We see you running toward the van in the documentary.
We went to the hotel we were staying, which was like an hour and 15 minutes away from L.A.
And what did you guys talk about that night?
She had to choose him or me and that’s how he always took it to her. ‘I’m your daddy. I’m you mama.” And that’s one of the harder things that she had to learn to do. She loves this man and she loves me too. And so we went to the motel and she called her brother — my son — in Japan, because he hasn’t seen her in three years. I didn’t get no sleep. I was watching her like a pitbull. It’s very sad because, when she undressed and stuff to take a shower, she had on boxers. He was slowly turning my daughter into a boy.
Tell me a little bit about that. She had a very different appearance than when you saw her last, right?
[When she met R. Kelly], she had long hair, to her shoulders. And to see her hair cut off… She looked like a boy. She was in men’s shorts, cologne, boxers, wife beaters, baseball caps — she wasn’t girly at all. My daughter was not a tomboy. My daughter went to the nail salon with me, got a pedicure got her nails done, acrylic nails. She got her hair done, she wore makeup, she wore lipstick. And that’s what she did. He wanted to degrade her by turning her to look like a boy. He’s some sick motherfucker.
What’s it been like for her to readjust?
Going to the grocery store first time, there’s a man said, “Can I help you?” at the meat counter. She said, “Mom, I can’t talk to him.” She wasn’t allowed to talk to men. And going to the [clothing] store. I’m like, “Why are you picking up them little [men’s] shorts?” I said, “You need to go get them lace panties over there. You’re not going to get that. You’re going to get this bra.”
Dressing like a boy was a decision that was entirely forced by him?
In the documentary, it says that three days after you took her home, she went back to him. What happened?
I had my mother go to the store [the family owns] and she was at the store with a friend. And my mother went home. So before I left, I saw a black Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. That’s what he has. It was like driving around outside and it turned into a parking lot in a grocery store down the street. And I was like “No, uh-uh.” So I let it go. She came back and I saw her go into the house. She left a note saying, “Be back in 15 minutes.” I just broke down. I was so fucked up she went back to him.
Lifetime sent some people, counseling, but I couldn’t talk to them. Her little brother graduated from eighth grade [one month after she went back to Kelly]. The last time she talked to [my son], she said, “I promise you I will be at your graduation,” anybody that knows my daughter [knows] she don’t make promises. So it was like, God told me she coming back, so I just got myself together, try not to think about it too much. It was a Monday. I look out the window, I see a cab. My son shouted out, “Mama, Meeka’s back!” and she comes to my bedroom and she said, “I told you.” She was breathing hard. She was like, “I told you, you were my number one. I love you so much mama.” And then she’s like, “You got money so I can pay the cab?”
And how long was that after you guys had been in L.A. Days? Weeks?
She was gone maybe about eight days. I said, “Did something happen?” And she said, “Mama, he was too nice.” That’s when she started telling me about the abuse and the beatings. [Now] he was too nice, so he just been acting like R. Kelly, not Robert. She’s been home for seven months.
And what’s this process been like for her to come back to being part of the non-R. Kelly world?
She doesn’t sleep. She’s a poetry writer, and she’s been writing to go to sleep at night. She says it calms her to sleep because she thinks about him.
Has it been a positive experience to be part of this documentary?
I wouldn’t say it was a positive or a negative. I’m just happy to be a part of it. And that’s one of the hardest things, to go on TV and tell my story. And let the people know, because I kept it a secret. I had to tell, because I was tired and I wanted my child home. It was very difficult speaking about it.
Was it difficult for you over those years to watch his career continue?
She told me she was a personal assistant, so to me I didn’t see nothing negative. She led me on that everything was fine and that she was his manager’s personal assistant. She moved to Atlanta to be his personal assistant. We got Christmas gifts, we got Mother’s Day gifts; she sent her brother some shoes. You know, I had a young son at the time. So, I look at it she was alright. Anything in the dark will come to light. And it did.