K. Michelle: Don't Judge Me

Photo by Sarah McColgan
From the time she appeared on VH1's Love & Hip-Hop: Atlanta, K. Michelle's firecracker attitude was fodder for social media rants and bullying. Of course, she shot back—both online and on camera. But now, with the release of her second album, K. Michelle is ready for the world to see her fully, flaws and all.

There was a moment in the Atlanta recording studio, in spring 2013, when K. Michelle paused, nervously laughed, looked straight ahead and cocked her head to the side before revealing a dark and little-known aspect of herself. At the time, she was preparing to share the first music she'd recorded since gaining this newfound fame. All that was really known of K. Michelle (née Kimberly Michelle Pate) back then was that she'd just come off the inaugural season of VH1's top-rated reality show Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta and she was not to be trifled with.

She was a spitfire. And she rarely edited herself when anyone dared to question her backstory, test her talent or, worse yet, shake a table in anger at a bar (a castmate learned the repercussions of that the hard way). She was a baby mama (though we never saw her son on the Atlanta series, which was by design), a former exotic dancer and the kind of girl who once ran through the hallways of a record label, scaring the bejesus out of anyone who got in her path. She was a hurt woman. Fearing there was nothing anyone else could help with, K. Michelle self-medicated.

"I drank. I would drink out of a bottle, and I would drink Jack Daniel's," she shares nearly two years later. "I would drink and…I would just pass out and I was angry. The hurt would turn into anger and it was just a bad time, And I dealt with it the wrong way."

Up until that bad time, what had delivered K. Michelle from going down an even darker hole was linking up with attorney Matt Middleton, whom she couldn't afford but who took her on anyway, telling the singer that he believed in her and that he was determined to get her out of a bum record deal. Then the world as she knew it changed.

She ended up on Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta and soon had her largest audience yet, a chance to put herself in front of new fans and get a leg up in the music business. That's what led everyone to that moment in the Atlanta studio in 2013. The reality show was her introduction to the world at large. It was time to show and prove. And fess up.

"Don Julio keeps me cool," she said back then to a room of Atlanta taste-makers and journalists, pointing out a massive bottle of tequila for proof and letting out a bit of nervous laughter. But she was quick to chase that statement up. She had kicked her Jack Daniel's habit and was a teetotaler in social occasions. Even after Twitter breakups and not showing the best sides of herself via reality TV, she was ready for a shot to be taken seriously as an entertainer. Her talent was undeniable. When her notes fell softly over a live piano, magic happened. The kind of magic that crowns people queens of this and heirs to that. Her lyrics were raw, painful and filled with tales id of love gone wrong and low self-ie esteem battles that would send the best of us to a therapist's couch. ns You couldn't help but feel that this unadulterated pain that the of Memphis native was sharing with me all of us on wax was cathartic.

Nearly two years later, glimpses of the woman we met on Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta still remain. That take-no-mess demeanor made folks not want to walk anywhere near her wrath, so much so that it sis made her castmates question if she ig was telling the truth about what 't sounds like a horrific domestic dispute with a former boyfriend, Mickey "Memphitz" Wright, who is also in the music business. (Over the past couple of years, K. Michelle and Wright have engaged in a very public war of words over the allegations she's made on the show.)

That was then, this is now. Allow K. Michelle to reintroduce herself.

The 30-year-old singer and songwriter— and, yes, reality TV star—is readying herself to release a follow-up to Rebellious Soul, which placed No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart and No. 1 on the R&B/Hip-Hop chart in August 2013. It quieted the haters and forced us all to want to know more about the woman we almost wrote off. Her real-life story is perhaps more entertaining than anything we've seen on reality TV. She knows that her mouth is louder than most, and has perhaps gotten her into trouble she could have easily avoided. K. Michelle is self-reflective, too. And she's honest with herself in a way that's frightening to the rest of us.

"I should be quiet sometimes," she says softly now. "I am very outspoken, and I'm very sensitive and I love very hard. Peole can say "Oh, my God, she's always beefing" or "She's always bullying." [But] a lot of times the people I might have had a problem with are people I truly, genuinely love, and I might feel slighted in a situation." She continues: "I need to learn that everybody doesn't love like I love, and everybody isn't gonna love you back or everybody isn't gonna like you. It's a process, man. Anybody would be lying if they said they didn't have their flaws and they didn't have things that they were working on improving every day. I haven't made it easy. Because if you allow yourself to be up for criticism, for arguing and always being in the media for bad things, you know, what can you expect?"

But should she alter herself? Being brash has gotten her a level of success even she might not have imagined for herself. Her debut album—the one filled with raw, diary-level openness—scored high marks among critics. That album gave way to the K. Michelle: The Rebellious Soul Musical, a long-form music special directed by Golden Globe-winning actor Idris Elba. She also grabbed a best new artist accolade from the Soul Train Awards. Her new album, Anybody Wanna Buy a Heart?, is on par to rival that achievement.

That she's even here at all is no accident. She plays the piano and the guitar and took voice lessons from celebrated teacher Bob Westbrook, who also trained future superstars Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears. She impressed her music teacher with her vocal range and the diversity in sound she created. In fact, her voice—by way of yodeling—earned her a music scholarship to Florida A&M University, where she earned a degree in psychology and pledged Delta Sigma Theta.

The 30-year-old singer and songwriter— and, yes, reality TV star—is readying herself to release a follow-up to Rebellious Soul, which placed No. 2 on the Billboard200 chart and No. 1 on the R&B/Hip-Hop chart in August 2013. It quieted the haters and forced us all to want to know more about the woman we almost wrote off. Her real-life story is perhaps more entertaining than anything we've seen on reality TV. She knows that her mouth is louder than most, and has perhaps gotten her into trouble she could have easily avoided. K. Michelle is self-reflective, too. And she's honest with herself in a way that's frightening to the rest of us.

"I should be quiet sometimes," she says softly now. "I am very outspoken, and I'm very sensitive and I love very hard. Peole can say "Oh, my God, she's always beefing" or "She's always bullying." [But] a lot of times the people I might have had a problem with are people I truly, genuinely love, and I might feel slighted in a situation." She continues: "I need to learn that everybody doesn't love like I love, and everybody isn't gonna love you back or everybody isn't gonna like you. It's a process, man. Anybody would be lying if they said they didn't have their flaws and they didn't have things that they were working on improving every day. I haven't made it easy. Because if you allow yourself to be up for criticism, for arguing and always being in the media for bad things, you know, what can you expect?"

But should she alter herself? Being brash has gotten her a level of success even she might not have imagined for herself. Her debut album—the one filled with raw, diary-level openness—scored high marks among critics. That album gave way to the K. Michelle: The Rebellious Soul Musical, a long-form music special directed by Golden Globe-winning actor Idris Elba. She also grabbed a best new artist accolade from the Soul Train Awards. Her new album, Anybody Wanna Buy a Heart?, is on par to rival that achievement.

That she's even here at all is no accident. She plays the piano and the guitar and took voice lessons from celebrated teacher Bob Westbrook, who also trained future superstars Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears. She impressed her music teacher with her vocal range and the diversity in sound she created. In fact, her voice—by way of yodeling—earned her a music scholarship to Florida A&M University, where she earned a degree in psychology and pledged Delta Sigma Theta.

Despite that sororal past, a key challenge for her has been earning the respect and trust of women who look like her. Mostly, the judgment comes from how she was introduced to us: on a show that many of us aren't sure we should like, with all the woman-on-woman fighting, cursing and the emotional drain at the hands of men our parents warned us against. There's also the constant chatter about her body and what surgical procedures she's had done. She's publicly said that she's had her breasts augmented, fat transferred to her butt and her stomach "sucked out." And she showed the world the latter procedure via her recent spin-off VH1 reality show, K. Michelle: My Life, because she didn't want younger viewers to think her body was all-natural.

"Black women, we can't overcome judgment when we're the first ones to place it on each other," she says. "And more than anything, when I go through things in the media and people who are calling me a liar about my abuse…it's Black women attacking me. That's really bad to say because I'm a Black woman and I won't allow anybody to talk about Black women. We are so mean and so judgmental about each other. It's ridiculous. And social media has let me see that even more."

And K. Michelle being, well, K. Michelle, owns up to her own messiness. She had a very public throwdown with Tamar Braxton and the two songbirds battled it out through social media.

"I'm not a saint. I have my industry beefs and issues, but if you pay attention…even at the end of the day when me and Tamar [had our issues]…I purchased this woman's album. I'm like that. I don't have to like you, but if you're doing something that is good within my community I'm going to still up you, especially if you can sing or if I admire your craft. So before you go and place your comments on somebody and place negative comments on blogs, and before you go and attack somebody, that's somebody that has been put forth to be a representation for you. Give them good advice if you don't like what they are doing, but don't attack them."

And as for her current station in life? She's working on finding that ultimate happiness. She recently moved to Los Angeles after a harsh winter in New York City. She's still searching for love, but she says she's blissful, more so than she's been in years. And we'll hear it in this new music she's making. What we'll find on this project is a happier woman who finally is being listened to" without having to scream and knock down doors.

"My life isn't drama-filled, and I don't have any malice or any ill intent for people," she says "I just wish [people] knew that. I'm just really trying to leave a legacy."

Kelley L. Carter (@kelleylcarter) is a senior entertainment editor at BuzzFeed.

This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of ESSENCE magazine, on newstands now!

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