Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times on Dec. 21, 2000.

Chicago singer and songwriter R. Kelly used his position of fame and influence as a pop superstar to meet girls as young as 15 and have sex with them, according to court records and interviews.

The author of “I Believe I Can Fly” met two of the girls on a return visit to Hyde Park’s Kenwood Academy where he got his start, one of the girls said. The girls were singing in the choir.

One of the girls sued the three-time Grammy award winner for $10 million in 1996, saying he started having sex with her when he was 24 and she was 15.

Kelly “engaged in inappropriate sexual contact with (her), including but not limited to engaging in group sexual intercourse with (her) and other minors,” the suit alleged.

In a more publicized case, Kelly married his 15-year-old protege, Aaliyah, in 1994 shortly after producing her debut album, “Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number.” She quickly ended the marriage once her family and the public found out.

Born and raised on the South Side, Robert S. Kelly, who will turn 34 on Jan. 8, is the most successful soul or R&B performer from Chicago since the great Curtis Mayfield. He headlines tomorrow night before 22,000 fans at the United Center as part of WGCI’s annual Christmas concert, which is sold out.

Kelly has sold more than 20 million albums, his current release “TP2.com” sits at No. 15 on the Billboard chart, and he has scored seven Top 5 singles, including “I Believe I Can Fly,” which was included on the soundtrack of the 1996 film “Space Jam” at the request of the movie’s star and Kelly’s friend, Michael Jordan.

Kelly has been honored for his philanthropic work on behalf of Chicago charities and children’s organizations.

“Sex is not the most important thing in my life — I get as much satisfaction from preaching to kids as anything else,” Kelly told the African-American publication the Voice.

But there is a split in Kelly’s music between the anthemic “I Believe I Can Fly” and the down and dirty “Bump N’ Grind,” and between the spiritual “I Wish” and the self-explanatory “I Like the Crotch on You.”

That split apparently has been mirrored by the contrast between his public stance as a hero for young children and his private behavior with young girls.

Sources said Kelly continues to seek meetings with underage girls by having an assistant press tiny balled-up notes with his phone number into the palms of their hands backstage at concerts or at video shoots.

Illinois state statute prohibits adult men from having sex with girls under 17, but prosecutions must be brought within three years of the act. Kelly never has been charged in connection with any of his relationships with minors, and the statute of limitations is now past for several of these relationships.

Chicago police twice have investigated allegations that Kelly was having sex with an underage female but dropped the investigations because the girl would not cooperate.

A spokeswoman for Kelly said she had no comment on the lawsuit or any of the charges of sex with minors.

Kelly is hardly the first celebrity to be accused of taking advantage of underage girls. Gary Glitter, Rob Lowe, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roman Polanski, Rolling Stone Bill Wyman and even the legendary Errol Flynn all have been written about in this paper and others for allegedly having trysts with minors.

In 1994, Michael Jackson settled a lawsuit with the family of an underage boy with whom he allegedly had sexual contact. In ongoing attempts to regain his career’s pre-scandal peak, Jackson has collaborated with Kelly several times, including the 1995 single “You Are Not Alone.”

The Tiffany Hawkins lawsuit

On Christmas Eve, 1996, a Chicago woman named Tiffany Hawkins filed suit against Kelly and his record, publishing and management companies in Cook County Circuit Court charging that she suffered personal injuries and severe emotional harm because she had sex with the singer and he encouraged her to participate in group sex with him and other underage girls.

According to the lawsuit, Hawkins began having sex with Kelly in 1991, when she was 15, and the relationship ended in 1994, when she turned 18. Hawkins was seeking $ 10 million in damages, but sources said she accepted a fraction of that amount — $ 250,000 — when the suit was settled a little more than a year later in January 1998.

Hawkins did not respond to requests to comment for this article, but her mother said that the terms of the settlement forbid her from talking to the press. A spokeswoman for her attorney, Susan Loggans, also declined to comment, citing a confidentiality agreement.

“I’m telling you as his spokesman that I have no comment about that, I have no knowledge of that and I’m just saddened that that’s the only thing you could call me about,” said Kelly’s publicist Regina Daniels. “That’s my statement.”

A second Chicago woman who was named in the lawsuit recently expanded on the charges. She said that she was prepared to testify about what she called Kelly’s “sickness” — his desire for underage females.

The woman said that she had sex with Kelly on several occasions in 1991 when she was 16 and the singer was 24, and that she once had sex with him while he simultaneously fondled the 15-year-old Hawkins.

The woman, who is now 25, said that she first met Kelly when she was a 14-year-old freshman at Kenwood Academy in Hyde Park, singing in the choir under the direction of music teacher Lena McLin. Kelly has credited McLin as his first musical mentor and a “second mother.” The singer attended Kenwood but never graduated from high school.

McLin has since retired.

“He comes back all the time — he considers me his mother and mentor,” McLin agreed. In addition to visiting Kenwood Academy, Kelly also visits the United Church of Hyde Park, where McLin directs the choir.

Told of the allegation that the adult Kelly recruited freshman and sophomore girlfriends from her choir, McLin said, “I don’t know what he did outside of school. But in the school, there was no hanky panky. If they were involved in that, the sad thing is, it takes two to tango.”

McLin admits she dislikes many of Kelly’s more sexual songs.

“He has a very decent moral spirit inside that’s dying to come out,” she said. “It comes out in ‘I Believe I Can Fly.’ It comes out in the angel song he did with Celine Dion. It will eventually grow. It may be a little baby now, but it will eventually get real big.”

The woman from McLin’s choir said she and Hawkins began hanging out with Kelly through all-night recording sessions at the Chicago Recording Company, and they occasionally contributed backing vocals to his productions, including songs that he crafted for Aaliyah. The woman said she believed that Kelly would help her singing career if she granted him sexual favors, and the superstar encouraged her to drop out of school in order to pursue a career in music.

She said she has decided to speak out about the affair now because she believes Kelly continues to have similar relationships, to the possible detriment of the other girls involved.

“I just feel like it’s going to come out in the light anyway,” she said. “I’m not trying to (bring him down), because really, honestly, I think it has to be a sickness. Looking at the pictures of how me and Tiffany (Hawkins) were when we were freshmen, we were ugly little girls compared to what he could have had, and so I just didn’t understand why he did what he did.”

According to Hawkins’ lawsuit, Kelly had sex with underage girls in his apartments at 9 S. Wabash, 185 N. Harbor Dr. and other locations in Chicago. In response to questions from Hawkins’ attorneys, Kelly admitted that he employed Hawkins as a background vocalist and “periodically gave (her) small cash gifts and . . . approximately $ 1,400 in checks,” but he denied having any sexual contact with the girl.

Kelly’s labels, Jive Records Inc. and Zomba Recording Corp., sought to get out of the suit, saying that Kelly’s “alleged tortious conduct against his live-in paramour in the privacy of their home has nothing to do with (Jive and Zomba).”

Hawkins’ lawsuit also initially included charges of sexual harassment against Kelly, since he was in effect her employer. But Hawkins dropped those charges after Kelly’s attorneys argued that such allegations first must be aired before the Illinois Human Rights Department. The charges never were heard in that forum.

Hawkins’ friend said that Kelly did not force himself on her sexually. “He treated us very well,” she said. “(We got) anything we asked for, but we weren’t going to ask for much — a pair of Air Jordans or $ 100 was a lot of money to us.

“I still love R. Kelly’s music; I don’t hate him,” she added. “He reminds me of a boyfriend who hurt you that you still love. He hurt me by not helping me out and telling me to drop out of school. He told me and Tiffany both, ‘If you want to be serious about the music, you have to be at the studio and not at school, because school isn’t going to make you a millionaire.’ At 16, that’s like a dream to us to work with R. Kelly, so we listened to him. . . . I think it’s a sickness.”

The story of the Hawkins lawsuit is a complicated one. According to legal papers on file with the Circuit Court, Hawkins’ attorneys first presented Kelly with notice that they were about to file suit on Dec. 5, 1996.

On Christmas Eve, the same day that Hawkins filed suit seeking $ 10 million in damages, Kelly sued Hawkins for $ 30,000 in punitive damages, charging that she had demanded “substantial sums of cash” and a recording contract or she would “widely publicize the false allegations” that Kelly had fathered her child.

In fact, Hawkins’ lawsuit made no mention of a paternity claim. The documentation in Kelly’s lawsuit amounted to a total of five pages, and the blackmail charges never were mentioned again in any of his legal filings.

Kelly’s count against Hawkins eventually was voluntarily dismissed. However, his charges against the girl were the only charges that ever were publicized. Kelly’s New York publicity firm, Dan Klores & Associates, helped Kelly air his side of the story by placing items in the press about his lawsuit against Hawkins.

On Dec. 26, 1996, the New York Daily News and the Chicago Sun-Times both ran gossip column items mentioning Kelly’s lawsuit. “Many celebrities are constantly being harassed and sued, and more often than not, they decide to settle,” a Kelly spokesman working with Klores told the Daily News. “Kelly has decided, ‘No way.’ ”

Sources said that Kelly reconsidered that hard-line position and settled with Hawkins on Jan. 23, 1998, just four days after she gave a seven-hour deposition. The sources said that Kelly quickly ended the case at that point by paying Hawkins a quarter of a million dollars.

“There was a complaint by Kelly, there was a complaint by her, it was settled, the settlement is confidential, I have nothing else to say about that case now or ever,” said Kelly’s lawyer, Gerald Margolis of the Los Angeles firm of Manatt Phelps & Phillips.

The Aaliyah marriage

Hawkins’ relationship with Kelly apparently ended around the time the singer became intensely involved with his young female protege Aaliyah, shortly before the release of her Kelly-produced debut, “Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number.”

In 1994, Kelly grabbed headlines with reports that he had married the 15-year-old Aaliyah. But the artists never confirmed the stories, and spokesmen for Kelly disputed the age difference.

The Chicago Sun-Times has found court documents that spell out for the first time exactly what happened.

Kelly was introduced to the Brooklyn-born, Detroit-raised Aaliyah D. Haughton when she was 12 years old by her uncle, Barry Hankerson, a music-industry veteran who has managed stars such as Toni Braxton and Gladys Knight. Hankerson oversaw Kelly’s rise to the top of the charts but split with the singer earlier this year.

On Aug. 31, 1994, at the Sheraton Gateway Suites in Rosemont, Kelly, then 27, and Aaliyah, then 15, were married by the Rev. Nathan J. Edmond of Chicago, according to the marriage certificate they filed with the Cook County Clerk.

Aaliyah lied about her age, signing the marriage certificate as an 18-year-old, she later admitted in court documents.

Sources said members of Aaliyah’s family became enraged when they learned of the marriage. Documents show that shortly after the wedding, Aaliyah and her family persuaded a Michigan judge to annul the marriage.

In May 1997, in the midst of the Hawkins court battle, Aaliyah filed suit in Cook County seeking to have all records of the marriage expunged because she was not old enough under state law to get married without her parents’ consent. Hawkins’ attorneys had been seeking to bring evidence of the Kelly-Aaliyah marriage into their case.

A Cook County judge agreed in 1997 to seal the records of the marriage.

“I don’t really comment on that because I know that’s not true,” Aaliyah told the Sun-Times in one of her few comments on the marriage in December 1994. “When people ask me, I tell them, ‘Hey, don’t believe all that mess. We’re close and people took it the wrong way.’ ”

Sources said that a naive young Aailyah had a crush on Kelly, but was caught by surprise when Kelly suddenly arranged the marriage. They said that Aaliyah quickly ended her personal and professional relationships with Kelly and has had no contact with him for the last five years.

“When R. Kelly comes up, she doesn’t even speak his name, and nobody’s allowed to ask about it at all,” said a spokeswoman for Aaliyah’s current record company, Virgin Records.

Aaliyah’s career has taken off without Kelly. She scored a hit with the 1996 album “One in a Million,” produced by Timbaland, and has appeared in several films, including “Romeo Must Die.”

In most interviews, Kelly has refused to talk about the marriage. His publicist Regina Daniels said, “It ended with, ‘Maybe we’re over our heads, maybe this is too much, maybe we need to go our separate ways. I love you, I always will, I wish you the best, but maybe we just jumped in way too deep into this thing.’ And she went her way and he went his.”

In 1996, Kelly married a 22-year-old dancer from his touring troupe. The couple have two children.

Daniels expressed indignation that questions about the Aaliyah marriage linger. “Robert has done enough else in his career that if people can’t say anything other than whether or not he s – – – – – – Aaliyah, then they can kiss my a – -,” she said.

‘Manipulator’

Despite the scandals of the mid-’90s and the fact that he now has a family of his own, sources said that Kelly continues to seek out underage females, and his behavior has become the subject of widespread rumor in the music industry.

Sources and former girlfriends describe Kelly as a “manipulator” in his dealings with underage girls.

“I have no comment to make,” said Kelly spokeswoman Daniels. “There are a lot of people who are very much a player-hater of Robert. . . . All I can go by is the years that I’ve worked with him and what I’ve seen. I’m not saying anybody is beyond doing what I don’t see, but I’m not looking under the covers with him. All I know is that he has presented himself to me to be a respectable person and that is what I can go by.”

A Los Angeles woman recently described how Kelly began seducing her when she was a 17-year-old high school senior. She met Kelly on the video shoot for “If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time” in 1999.

“His assistant gave me his number, and from there we just started talking over the phone,” the woman said. “I had told him the truth (about my age) — I don’t believe in lying — but he was trying to woo me out there (to Chicago) despite the fact. Once I brought up the whole thing of, ‘Well, I have to ask my mother,’ he was like, ‘You told your mom? Well, just wait then.’ ”

She said that she and Kelly continued to talk via long distance, and they engaged in phone sex. He told her they were soul mates, and she believed he loved her.

When she turned 18, Kelly sent her a plane ticket, and she said she visited and had sex with him in Chicago last August. But Kelly never told her that he was married, and they began fighting as soon as she found out.

“I do believe he does have a problem,” the woman said. “I look back at it now and I think I was stupid; why the hell did I even go out there at all? There are some couples that there is a big age difference (and it’s OK), but in this situation, I think that he really does have some kind of sexual problem. When I was flying out there he was like, ‘You need to act older. There’s 15 year old girls who act like they’re 21 years old.’ And I was like, ‘Oh really? I’m not that old, and even if I was 30 years old, I’m not that type of person who’s sticking their booty out, I’m sorry.’ “