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“They either had to pivot and drive forward, or their career would be over.”
TLC’s longtime manager Bill Diggins is referring to the catalyst of the group’s comeback. The moment in question: Tionnne “T-Boz” Watkins and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas relaying their story, in their own words, to screenwriter Kate Lanier (Glitter, Beauty Shop).
That moment would grow into a VH1 biopic and a 20th anniversary album, backed by a massive publicity push from the Viacom-owned network and L.A. Reid’s Epic Records.
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“I had to be very frank with them about where they were in the marketplace today.… I just felt the window closing,” Diggins says. “We decided that we would all join forces on it and focus on a big comeback.”
Now, more than a decade after the 2002 death of Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes (“Their rug was pulled out from underneath them,” says Diggins), the surviving members of TLC are hitting the pavement hard to promote CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story — slated to air on Oct. 21 — and the Epic release 20, featuring several of the group’s greatest hits and four new tracks, which is set to street on Oct. 15.
“Just because only two are still a part of the group, he didn’t want anyone to think they were done yet,” Caralene Robinson, VH1’s senior vice president, creative group and consumer marketing, says of Diggins. “They’re talented, they still have a lot of music in them and he wanted to figure out how to bring their story to life.”
In doing so, Diggins recruited Lanier to take on the script and got VH1 onboard with the project. Plans for an anniversary album came later, after Diggins invited Reid to the film set just “as a friend.”
“We actually had no intention of doing a record deal with him,” Diggins says. “We just wanted him to come down and see what we had done and be a part of it, and I think he started falling in love again. Then it all clicked.”
In August, the duo appeared at the MTV Video Music Awards to dole out countless red carpet interviews and on Oct. 14, they will take over VH1’s airwaves as hosts of the network’s primetime programming. Then comes the talk-show circuit: Good Morning America (Oct. 15), The View (Oct. 16) and a full hour of coverage on Wendy Williams (Oct. 17), where they will push both the new album and the CrazySexyCool broadcast.
Also on Oct. 15, VH1 will host a Hollywood-style premiere for their small-screen biopic in New York City.
“This is the biggest support that VH1 will put behind a one-time event this year,” Robinson tells The Hollywood Reporter amid a big publicity push ahead of the premiere. “We’re hugely excited about it. It really leverages everything that’s special about VH1: connection to pop culture, our music heritage, and we’re basically telling the story of one of the greatest R&B groups of all time.”
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CrazySexyCool, directed by Drumline helmer Charles Stone III, stars Keke Palmer, Drew Sidora and Lil Mama (nee Niatia Jessica Kirkland) as the iconic trio. In addition to looking nearly identical to their real-life counterparts, the actresses also benefited from a valuable resource.
“Tionne and Rozonda were on set coaching the girls, [saying], “Nope, you need to do this, you’re not channeling the role right,'” says Robinson. “This is their story; this is their platform.” Still, she adds: “Casting in this is really phenomenal and on-point.”
Of their role as producers, Diggins promises that T-Boz and Chilli “told [their story] accurately and they told it in a way that, at some points, wasn’t so flattering to them. They wanted the truth to be told, so I would say that you’re not going to get a more accurate depiction of these girls’ lives from anybody. This is the good, the bad and the ugly.”
The stars of the biopic are on tap to join T-Boz and Chilli on their publicity tour this month, and the fresh-faced trio has already begun popping up on billboards nationwide, with Atlanta among the markets specifically targeted.
“People are actually stealing the posters [off bus stops] in Atlanta,” Robinson says in awe. “The stuff is so beautiful that people are taking it. It’s an unanticipated side effect, but the vendor tells us that it’s one of the highest compliments in the outdoor space.
“It speaks to the quality of the creative, as well as the fact that it’s so significant to so many people — especially in Atlanta.”
CrazySexyCool may have an eye on the group’s past, but Diggins and the girls are looking to the future. Describing the growing momentum as a “launching pad,” the group’s manager of 15 years also reveals that T-Boz and Chilli have 10 brand-new finished tracks for their next album.
“Magic started to happen in the recording studio, and L.A., the girls and I decided that we wanted to make a real album. That’s what we’re doing right now and we’re very, very excited about the music,” he says. “The music, in my opinion, is as contemporary as anything out there.”
The untitled album is expected to be ready for release in early 2014, and T-Boz and Chilli are expected to pay tribute to their late friend and group member with the new project.
“There are things that we will do, both recording and touring, that will always pay homage to Left Eye,” says Diggins. “Left Eye was an extraordinarily creative part of TLC and as an artist, I think she was unparalleled. From a human nature perspective, she was their sister and they have not forgotten that, but they now have to create different ideas without her. She’ll always be a part of TLC, but moving forward, they have to start to have their own identity without her because obviously she’s not here.”
VH1, meanwhile, continues its push into the realm of scripted programming. With the success of its original series Single Ladies and Hit the Floor, the network hopes that this TLC biopic will bring home big ratings and provide a spark for more TV movie projects. “This represents our continued path down the road of scripted programming,” says Robinson. “We’ll see how this one goes.”
Following the biopic’s debut, CrazySexyCool will be available for encore viewing exclusively on VH1’s new mobile app.
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