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The Watchdogs

Discovered at a barbecue, he hit it big; but some saw dark cloud over R. Kelly

R. Kelly performs 'I Believe I Can Fly' with a choir behind him Wednesday, Feb. 25, 1998, during the 40th Annual Grammy Awards at New York's Radio City Music Hall. Moments later Kelly won Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for the same song. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Who is the real R. Kelly?

Is the R&B superstar the inspiring gospel preacher behind uplifting anthems such as “I Believe I Can Fly,” “I Wish,” and “The World’s Greatest”?

Or is the South Sider the self-professed “sexual super freak” of raunchy bedroom shakers like “Bump N’ Grind,” “I Like the Crotch on You,” and “Feelin’ On Yo Booty”?

The answer is that 35-year-old Robert Sylvester Kelly is both, as well as a private, tormented individual who has been urged repeatedly over the last decade by friends and associates to seek help for what they call a “compulsion” to pursue underage girls, these sources have told the Sun-Times.

Since launching his career in 1992, Kelly has sold more than 23 million albums. If not a household name, he has nonetheless been hailed as the most important R&B singer, producer and songwriter of his generation — a familiar icon dressed in foreboding black leather and shades or a resplendent white suit with bowler hat and cane.

Last week, fans saw the 6-foot-3 Kelly looking small in a prison-issue orange jumpsuit, holding back tears as he appeared before a judge to pay the $750,000 bail that was set after he was indicted Wednesday on 21 counts of child pornography.

Law enforcement officials said the investigation is ongoing and more charges may follow. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services also has launched a probe into the family of the girl in the alleged child-porn tape. Whatever the coming weeks bring, one thing is certain: The sexual super freak and the gospel preacher have experienced a tragic fall from grace.

‘I knew I had something’

The third of four children, Kelly was born in the South on Jan. 8, 1967. His family moved to Chicago when he was a toddler. His mother, Joann, was a teacher and a devout Baptist. Little is known about his father, who was missing through most of his youth.

The family lived for a time in the projects on 63rd Street, and later in a small house at 107th and Parnell. Kelly would return to this home some 25 years later, using the front porch as the setting in the video for “I Wish.”

A shy, introspective and somewhat effeminate boy, Kelly often turned to his mother for protection when his two brothers teased and picked on him. He told Vibe magazine that he enjoyed eavesdropping on his mother, aunt and sister as they gossiped at the kitchen table as much as he enjoyed playing basketball with his brothers on the playground.

Former associates and family members say that he was abused as a child by an older man in the neighborhood, and this pushed his withdrawal from his male peers.

Kelly has often told the press that he was shot at age 13 when some thugs tried to steal his Huffy bicycle. But his mother told a former associate on her deathbed that her son had in fact invented the story to cover a suicide attempt. He reportedly still carries the bullet in his shoulder.

Music entered Kelly’s life through his mother, who introduced him to the albums of her favorite soul singer, Donny Hathaway. “He had a sexual texture in his voice that I always wanted in mine,” Kelly told the Sun-Times’ Dave Hoekstra in 1994. “He had smooth, soulful tones, but he was spiritual at the same time.”

In 1979, Hathaway committed suicide at age 33 by jumping off the 15th floor of the Essex House Hotel in New York. “I cried like a baby when I found out he passed away,” Kelly said.

Aware of his sensitive nature, Joann worked hard to win Robert admittance to Hyde Park’s prestigious Kenwood Academy. As a freshman there, he met the second woman who would became a major influence in his life, music teacher Lena McLin. The niece of gospel great Thomas A. Dorsey, McLin’s other celebrated pupils include Chaka Khan and Da Brat.

McLin taught her students bel canto, a style of operatic singing that stresses vocal precision and evenness of tone. In the second week, she called on Kelly to sing at the front of the class. He did so reluctantly, but she recognized his talent instantly. “If they were ashamed of themselves, I’d make them stand in front of the mirror,” she told Vibe. “I asked them, ‘Do you think God made a mistake? He could’ve made you a roach!’ ”

McLin talked Kelly into wearing dark glasses and singing Stevie Wonder’s 1982 hit “Ribbon in the Sky” at a high school talent show.

“That night it was like Spider-Man being bit,” Kelly told Hoekstra. “I discovered this power. I knew I had something then.”

‘The eye of the tiger’

Kelly got poor grades at Kenwood, and he never graduated. Friends and former associates say he can barely read or do basic math, and he is extremely insecure about these shortcomings. But his innate musical talents provided the route out of poverty.

Accompanying himself on a portable Casio keyboard, Kelly performed for spare change on L platforms. One day he collected $400. He was singing at a backyard barbecue in Pill Hill when he was discovered by Wayne Williams, who ran the Midwest regional office of Jive Records.

“I was inside the house and Robert was performing outside,” Williams recalled. “I saw this guy who had all the steps down, real choreographed. You could tell he put a lot into it, which is something you usually don’t see, especially at a backyard barbecue. It was the eye of the tiger.”

Kelly already had a manager, Eric Payton, but it was time for more powerful representation. Payton was bought out by Barry Hankerson, a major player in the black music world who has been married to Gladys Knight, produced shows on Broadway and continues to manage Toni Braxton, among others.

After revelations about the videotape prosecutors call child porn, Kelly said that “former managers” were trying to ruin him with damaging revelations. He refused to name his alleged enemies, saying that his lawyers have advised against it. Both Payton and Hankerson declined to be interviewed for this story.

In 1991, Kelly struck a deal with Jive, the label that would become home to ‘N Sync, the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears. At the time, new jack swing and vocal groups such as Boyz II Men still ruled the R&B world, and it was decided that Kelly should be introduced to the public as part of a band.

His first album, “Born into the ’90s,” was credited to R. Kelly and Public Announcement — though he was front and center in the photos, produced the disc and took credit for all the lead vocals. By January 1993, a year after its release, the disc had sold a million copies.

“I thank my mother for her guidance and for being there for me through the good times and the bad,” Kelly wrote in the liner notes. He also thanked “my music teacher and pastor,” McLin, though he misspelled her name.

Kelly split from Public Announcement a short time later, and it was with his first solo album in November 1993 that he broke wide open. Propelled by the down and dirty single “Bump N’ Grind,” “12 Play” sold more than five million copies.

R. Kelly had arrived, but even before he officially became a millionaire, he was allegedly abusing the privileges of fame.

Chicagoan Tiffany Hawkins said in a lawsuit that she began having sex with Kelly in 1991, when she was 15, sometimes as part of group scenes involving other minors. The terms of the settlement forbid Hawkins from talking, but a friend who says she participated in group sex with Kelly and Hawkins when she was 16 (and who was prepared to testify about this at trial) said the star met the two girls for the first time when he returned to Kenwood to speak to McLin’s choir class.

Sources say teachers at Kenwood warned students that Kelly often returned to “cruise” young girls. Asked about the Hawkins lawsuit in December 2000, 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.”

Kelly’s relationship with Hawkins ended in 1994, when she turned 18, according to her suit. She charged that Kelly had promised to help her career as a singer, and he never did. The split left her so devastated that she attempted suicide, she said.

Hawkins filed her suit on Christmas Eve 1996. Her attorney, Susan Loggans, had warned Kelly the suit was coming. In a preemptive strike, Kelly sued Hawkins first, charging that she was trying to blackmail him on paternity charges.

No evidence was ever presented for that claim. Hawkins’ court papers never mentioned a paternity charge, and Kelly’s claim was eventually dismissed. But Kelly’s publicist leaked his side of the story to gossip columnists at the Sun-Times and the New York Daily News.

Hawkins was effectively discredited as a gold digger, and the damning allegations in her lawsuit were never reported anywhere in the press until a December 2000 story in the Sun-Times.

In 1996, a Kelly spokesman told the Daily News that the star would fight Hawkins’ suit. “Many celebrities are constantly being harassed and sued, and more often than not, they decide to settle,” he said. “Kelly has decided, ‘No way.’ ”

But sources say Kelly reconsidered that hard-line position and paid Hawkins a quarter of a million dollars Jan. 23, 1998, just four days after she gave a 71/2-hour deposition about the singer’s sexual proclivities. A party privy to that deposition (which has been sealed by the court) said the charges were “hair-raising.”

“It all started to go wrong for Robert with that Hawkins case,” said a friend of Hawkins’ who worked as one of Kelly’s dancers. “The brother’s got problems, and he should have learned from [the Hawkins case] and got help for them.”

‘Nothing but a number’

Kelly met Aaliyah D. Haughton, a talented Detroit native and Hankerson’s niece, when she was 12. In June 1994, when she was 15, she released her multiplatinum debut, which had been produced by Kelly.

In the title track, which Kelly wrote, Aaliyah sang, “Age ain’t nothing but a number/Throwing down ain’t nothing but a thang/This something I have for you, it’ll never change.”

Sources say that Kelly and Aaliyah had been having an intimate relationship for several months at that point, and that after his mother and McLin, Aaliyah was the only woman he has ever truly loved. “If he never loved anybody, he loved her,” a former associate said. “If nothing else was genuine about him, his love for that young lady was, and I don’t think her age had anything to do with it.”

In a December 1994 interview, Aaliyah told the Sun-Times she never had a romantic relationship with Kelly. Kelly has always avoided discussing Aaliyah, but in December 2000, his spokeswoman, Regina Daniels, said, “Rob did date Aaliyah, yes he did, and he did have a relationship with Aaliyah, yes he did, and past that, unfortunately, it didn’t work out.”

On Aug. 31, 1994, Kelly surprised Aaliyah by taking her to a room at the Sheraton Gateway Suites in Rosemont. Waiting there were a minister, the Rev. Nathan J. Edmond, and a falsified marriage certificate listing Aaliyah’s age as 18. It had been secured with fake I.D. by one of Kelly’s assistants, sources said. Kelly was 27.

Edmond has refused to speak about that day, but a certificate on file with the Cook County clerk says that he pronounced the star and his young protege man and wife. Family members say Aaliyah thought it was all an elaborate “game,” and she just went along with it. Within hours, she realized what had happened, and she went to her family and sought their help.

The family separated the couple, and Aaliyah never saw Kelly again. The marriage was annulled a few weeks later in Detroit, where records have been sealed.

Revelations of the marriage caused a public scandal in 1994, and several publications printed the marriage certificate. But while Illinois law makes it illegal for adult men to have sex with girls under 17, police and prosecutors never investigated.

Aaliyah went on to work with other producers, including Timbaland, and to launch a successful career as an actress. She died in a plane crash Aug. 25, 2001.

“Aaliyah’s gone. and I have a lot of respect for Aaliyah and her parents,” Kelly said in an interview with BET last month. “I really don’t think it’s fair to say anything doing with Aaliyah, because I really don’t think Aaliyah deserves that.”

‘Like a real freak’

The Aaliyah scandal did not hurt Kelly’s career. In September 1995, the single he produced for Michael Jackson, “You Are Not Alone,” became the first No. 1 hit for the King of Pop since his own well-publicized sex scandal. (Jackson paid a reported $15 million to the family of a 13-year-old boy with whom he’d allegedly had sexual relations.)

Kelly also produced hits for Celine Dion (the No. 1 smash “I’m Your Angel”) and Toni Braxton (“I Don’t Want To”). In November 1996, he released his third album, titled simply “R. Kelly.” The next month, he scored his biggest hit.

“I Believe I Can Fly” was included on the soundtrack of “Space Jam,” the children’s film co-starring a live-action Michael Jordan and an animated Bugs Bunny. Kelly has claimed to be a personal friend of Jordan’s, but a former associate says they were never close. “Michael would not ever show up to where he told Robert he would be,” the associate said. “I don’t think they ever got in each other’s presence but once or twice.”

An uplifting anthem driven by a gospel choir, “I Believe I Can Fly” offers the inspiring message that with faith in oneself, any obstacle can be overcome. “See I was on the verge of breaking down/Sometimes silence can seem so loud/There are miracles in life I must achieve/But first I know it starts inside of me,” Kelly sang.

The tune hit No. 2 on the pop charts, won three Grammys, and became a staple at weddings, high school proms and church services.

“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 Voice. But he continued to sing about earthier concerns as well.

“Get in the club ’bout twelvish/Me and my homies hoochie huntin’,” he sang on “Hump Bounce.” Onstage, he would feign intercourse with his dancers during “Like A Real Freak.” Then, moments later, he’d introduce “I Wish,” dropping to his knees to offer a tearful prayer to his mother, who died from cancer in 1993.

Many fans found these abrupt shifts between the transcendent and the venal, the inspirational and the X-rated jarring. And friends and associates say Kelly’s devotion to his family was largely an act.

When Joann Kelly was dying, she had to check into the hospital under an assumed name because she could not pay her medical bills, two Kelly associates said. They added that long after her son had become a millionaire, his mother drove an old beater that she had to hot-wire to start.

Kelly has been estranged from his brothers for years. In a recent interview with Chicago radio personality Doug Banks, one brother, Keri Kelly, said he had never been to the house in Lake View where Robert lived for six years. (Kelly sold the George Street home, the alleged scene of the child-porn tape, for $2.25 million in April, several weeks after the existence of the tape was reported by the Sun-Times.)

While the singer portrayed his sister as lovingly braiding his hair in the video for “I Wish,” associates say she worked as his housekeeper for several years, earning $400 a week.

Onstage, some of Kelly’s handlers tried to remake him “Pygmalion”-style into a smooth and suave soul man like his hero, Hathaway. But the image he liked to project was that of the “R&B Thug” (to borrow the title of another of his songs), bringing the streetwise persona of the gangsta rapper into the more polite world of R&B.

Kelly was never as tough as he pretended to be. In July 1996, he and members of his entourage were involved in a fight with three men on a basketball court in Lafayette, La. The star spent several hours in jail, and associates say the experience left him a mental and physical wreck.

He vowed that he would never again do time behind bars.

The singer’s personal habits are crude. He often goes days without showering, friends and associates say. He told Vibe magazine he often wears the same pair of pants three days in a row. But his magnetism and fame are such that countless women are drawn to him.

“He is a master manipulator,” said one woman who had a relationship with Kelly when she was 17. (She asked that she not be identified.) This woman and three former Kelly associates said the star was adept at making young women think they were the center of his universe, and he often alienated them from friends and family members.

“He will sit at the piano and write a song for you right there on the spot, and women will just melt for him,” said a former personal assistant.

In 1996, Kelly married the former Andrea Lee, a 22-year-old dancer from his touring troupe. The couple now have two daughters and a son, Robert Jr., who was born just a few weeks ago.

People in the singer’s camp reportedly call Lee “Puppydog,” and Kelly associates say she is required to knock before entering a room in their house if he is at home hanging out with friends.

Kelly’s sexual pursuits did not come to a halt after the marriage.

One of Kelly’s former personal assistants, who spoke to the Sun-Times on the condition that he not be named, said that he split with the star in the mid-’90s because of the Aaliyah incident, and because Kelly continued to seek out underage girls, some as young as 14.

Kelly’s approach (which several sources said was typical) was described by a Los Angeles woman he seduced in 1999, when she was 17.

She had visited the set of the video shoot for “If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time,” and one of Kelly’s assistants pressed something into the palm of her hand.

The singer had written his cell phone number on a tiny balled-up piece of paper. She called, and a relationship began.

Despite the scandal involving his niece, Hankerson remained as Kelly’s manager for several years, but they split in 1998. Sources said Hankerson could not abide by his client’s behavior, and that he agreed to waive money owed him if Kelly sought psychiatric help. The star refused.

Two other former associates say they also urged Kelly to get help for what they called “an ongoing compulsion.” But when they approached the star with these concerns, he refused to listen to them. Both eventually split from Kelly.

Kelly’s label, Jive Records, was named as a party in the Hawkins lawsuit in 1996, and Kelly associates reportedly warned label head Clive Calder about Kelly’s behavior in 1998. Calder was traveling in Europe last week and could not be reached. Jive issued this statement: “R. Kelly has been with Jive Records for 11 years and we fully support him and his music.”

Damning video evidence

Kelly’s fifth album, “TP-2.com,” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart in November 2000. That same month, the star was honored by the Chicago Chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, receiving one of its first Legacy Awards for philanthropic efforts on behalf of the community. Kelly has given generously to numerous charities, though the Rev. James Meeks, his spiritual adviser, says the star has never donated to Meeks’ Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.

A few weeks later, in December 2000, the Sun-Times first exposed Kelly’s pattern of pursuing underage girls. At the time, the Special Investigations Unit of the Chicago Police had been probing the singer’s behavior for two years.

Kelly apparently continued to cavort with minors even after the Sun-Times story, court papers allege. In the second of three civil suits filed against the star by Loggans, Tracy Sampson, a 17-year-old intern at Epic Records and a student at Columbia College, said Kelly promised to help her career as a rapper and coerced her into a sexual relationship that began in April 2000 and continued through March 2001.

As he had with Hawkins, Kelly settled this suit, paying Sampson an undisclosed sum of money. The star also settled with a third girl represented by Loggans. In that case, the payment was made even before the lawsuit was filed. The settlement agreement prohibits Loggans from revealing any details about the case, but the plaintiff was an underage girl from Minneapolis, sources said.

In early 2001, several weeks after the first expose, the Sun-Times received an anonymous videotape that appears to depict Kelly and a young light-skinned black girl having sexual relations in a wood-paneled sauna room. Sources said Kelly had two identical rooms in his houses on George Street and in Olympia Fields. The tape was given to police, who have yet to determine the girl’s age and identity.

A second, far more damning tape surfaced a year later, in February 2002.

This second videotape, which was also sent anonymously to the Sun-Times, was 26 minutes and 39 seconds long. It depicts a man, apparently Kelly, engaging in numerous sexual activities including urination with a 14-year-old girl, who was identified for the Sun-Times by her aunt.

Hours after receiving the tape, the Sun-Times turned it over to police, who promptly began investigating.

Last Wednesday, based on this second video, Kelly was indicted on 21 counts of videotaping and producing child pornography and enticing a minor to participate in child pornography.

In an interview with BET on May 8, Kelly said he is not the man in the tape. Last week, his criminal defense attorney, Ed Genson, declined to say whether the man is Kelly. Instead, he said he would prove in court that the girl in the tape was over 18.

Cook County State’s Attorney Dick Devine said the tape was authenticated by the FBI Crime Lab in Quantico, Va., and experts there said it is not a forgery. The quality of the original tape is crystal-clear, and the man who appears to be Kelly pauses several times in the action to adjust the camera angle.

The girl and her parents told the grand jury that she is not the girl in the tape. But the jurors heard from about 50 witnesses, including the girl’s aunt, who identified Kelly, the girl, or both.

Months before the grand jury was impaneled, the girl’s aunt said she thinks Kelly paid a cash settlement to the girl and her parents. Genson said no such settlement has been made. DCFS said Friday that it has reopened a probe of the girl and her family.

Kelly’s world crumbles

Kelly will appear in court June 26 to face child pornography charges. Meanwhile, police and prosecutors say the investigation continues. Charges of sex with a minor are also being considered, and new evidence is being examined. Kelly also faces two ongoing civil suits.

For weeks before the indictment, several variations of a bootleg R. Kelly sex tape were available on street corners across America, as well as on the Internet — $10 for VHS, $15 for DVD.

Most of these tapes compile three scenes: the first tape sent to the Sun-Times with the girl who remains unidentified; a second scene with Martina Woods, an adult dancer who tours with Kelly friend and collaborator Ronald Isley, and the third, 26-minute videotape described in the indictment.

Police Supt. Terry Hillard warned Wednesday that anyone owning or selling one of these tapes has child pornography, and is subject to prosecution.

Two weeks ago, Woods sued Kelly for $50,000, saying she was unaware that she was being videotaped when she had sex with the singer at Chicago Trax Recording Studio.

A fourth woman represented by Loggans, Patrice Jones, also filed suit in late April alleging that she had sex with Kelly between 20 and 30 times before her 17th birthday. Kelly has vowed not to settle this case. “The ATM is closed,” his longtime civil attorney Gerald Margolis said.

Loggans is representing a fifth woman with allegations against Kelly, and yet another lawsuit is pending.

Even before the indictment was announced last week, Kelly’s peers in the music world had begun to distance themselves, with artists such as Dr. Dre, Nas, Sisqo and P. Diddy speaking against him. Kelly’s last album, a joint effort with chart-topping rapper Jay-Z, was a commercial flop because Jay-Z refused to tour, make a video, or do any interviews with Kelly after revelations about the videotape.

After the child pornography charges surfaced, several radio stations across the country pulled Kelly’s music from their play lists.

Kelly said Friday he eagerly awaits his day in court. But none of the associates who broke from his camp in the last few years are optimistic about the outcome.

Said one of Kelly’s former personal assistants: “I really don’t want to see him go to jail; I really don’t. He should have confessed all of this when he had the chance and gotten some help.”

The former dancer said: “I don’t want him to go to jail, but there has got to come a point when you take responsibility for your actions, and that time has come.”

In the song “I Wish” from his last solo album, the gospel preacher seemed to predict the day that has now arrived for the sexual super freak. “And now you hear my songs the radio is playin’,” Kelly sang. “Oh I can’t believe my ears and what everybody’s sayin’/Boy, I tell you folks don’t know the half.”