Andrea Kelly saunters into the room with her stiletto boots clicking, her shoulder-length curls bouncing; she’s sparkling like the crystal hoops dangling from her ears.
Despite her famous last name, few in the room know who she is. She’s used to that. Andrea has been ignored before, like in those posh stores near Chicago’s Gold Coast or in Los Angeles, where burly bouncers blocked her from crossing the velvet ropes-that is, until the gatekeeper found out who she was. Then it was “Oops.” Disbelief turned to immediate accommodation. And then came the apologies, “Sorry, Mrs. Kelly.” But mostly it’s, “I didn’t know he had a wife.”
“He” is her husband, R. Kelly. Yes, the R. Kelly-the Grammy Award-winning R&B singer currently facing 14 counts of child pornography charges for allegedly videotaping himself having sex with an underage girl.
Andrea, or Baby Girl, as she is called by those in the dance world, has shunned her husband’s larger-than-life spotlight. She says her priorities during her 11-year marriage have been shielding her three young children-two girls, 9 and 7, and a 5-year-old boy-from the fray and finding serenity even amid overwhelming controversy.
Despite the rumors and allegations about her husband’s encounters with young girls, she refuses to play the role of the poor, downtrodden wife: “Some people in my position would probably be very broken right now, and they would probably be saying ‘woe is me.’ But I’m just not that person.”
RISING ABOVE THE PAIN
Andrea is in the midst of rehearsals for a showcase she is choreographing. In one piece she’ll dance to Mahalia Jackson’s solemn song from the movie Imitation of Life; the dancers pick her up, perhaps signifying that she is rising above her problems and transferring the pain. The interpretation is also a metaphor for her life.
When the videotape that shows a man resembling R. Kelly appearing to have sex with a young girl and urinating on her surfaced in 2002, the scandal rocked the music world and briefly cast Kelly as the villain. His former protégée Stephanie “Sparkle” Edwards publicly identified the girl in the tape as her 14-year-old niece. (The girl, however, continues to deny she was in the tape.) It became a gritty bootleg video watched and downloaded in homes across the country. The gossip was viral. In June of that year, Kelly was arrested and indicted on multiple counts of child pornography in connection with the tape. Kelly, who maintains it’s someone else in the video, has pleaded not guilty to all the charges and is awaiting a trial, which has been postponed several times.
Andrea was pregnant with their son when the news broke. Instead of breaking down, she blocked everything out. She said the couple worked hard to protect the family from the outside world, and the accusations forced her to become “a lioness” for her children and to live by adages she knows sound cliché but resonate nonetheless. While she smiles, she’s cautious and each answer seems carefully constructed.
“What doesn’t break you makes you stronger, and I’m living proof,” she reflects. “After I went through that storm, look at me. I can still wake up and smile every day, and I’m still going on with my company and I’m living my life.”
Andrea does, however, shift uncomfortably when talking about the case against her husband; it’s a subject she’d rather leave alone. She does not allow her children to read the tabloids and will only permit them to be in the company of people she trusts. She keeps life for them as normal as possible: playdates with neighbors, parties and trips. But Andrea says she had to cut some people off who said nasty things about her husband, and surround herself with people who she believes care for her.
“I know the allegations against my husband don’t reflect on me as an individual,” she says. “They don’t reflect on me as a mom or as a wife, and they don’t reflect on me in my everyday life.”
She allows that some news articles as well as court records are true. The couple did file for divorce in 2006. Andrea moved out of their home, and both hired top-notch attorneys. According to reports, she also filed an order of protection in September 2005, explaining to a judge that when she had told her husband she wanted a divorce, he became angry and hit her. She rescinded the protection order weeks later.
Attorneys for both announced the couple were trying to work out their problems. Still, it’s clear that Andrea’s pain is far from dormant. She will not comment on this situation, saying, “It’s old news.” She knows many think she filed for divorce because of the child pornography allegations. Wrong, she insists: “When there is a storm, I won’t leave you out in the rain. I’m no fair-weather wife.”
Andrea says she also knows others will swear she filed for divorce because of the comments she made to the judge. Not true, she adds, claiming they just grew up and apart, as couples sometimes do.
Andrea says she also had to look within.
“I have to take responsibility for myself,” she says. “I don’t want to sit here and act as if I have some halo over my head. A person has to ask, ‘How much did I allow?’ But I’ll tell you, whatever happens to us, I will love that man to the day I die.”
And while she admits they are living separately, she says she and Robert are trying to work things out. But she acknowledges that together forever may not be their fate.
“Do I know if we are going to be married in the next six months?” she says. “Who knows? But what I can say is that we filed this nearly three years ago, and we are still married.”
There are happy memories of laughter and beach vacations, of the singer taking the ingenue to Europe for the first time, and the couple building a life together with their children. She knows her husband’s favorite foods and the different sides of a man who isn’t the king of bump and grind at home, just Daddy. “We are doing all the same things the Joneses are doing, but unfortunately, our last name is Kelly,” Andrea says of their efforts to reconcile. When asked if she still loves her husband, she replies, “Very much.”
IN THE BEGINNING
Thirteen years ago, a friend called a then 20-year-old Andrea Lee and urged her to try out as a dancer for R. Kelly’s upcoming tour. She rolled her eyes, remembering the time she was rejected from one of his previous video auditions. But her friend insisted, and Andrea acquiesced. She got the gig to join the 12 Play tour.
Andrea immediately scoped the bland choreography-imagine a milquetoast Vegas theme and outdated dances like the Running Man-and raised her hand. “Uh-uh, I’m not doing that,” she recalls saying. Kelly, who calls her Drea and sometimes Baby Girl, challenged her to choreograph instead. When he returned from playing basketball, he saw that Andrea had arranged three dances. Since then she’s choreographed and danced for the Best of Both Worlds, Key in the Ignition and TP2.com tours; the BMI Urban, BET and Billboard awards shows; and music videos for “Happy People,” “Thoia Thoing” and “You Remind Me of Something.”
Around this time, in the summer of 1994, 27-year-old Kelly secretly married 15-year-old R&B singer Aaliyah, but the marriage was eventually annulled. Meanwhile, Andrea’s own relationship with Kelly blossomed during those long hours on the road. “It’s a love story,” she says. He dazzled her with his humor, telling her yo’ mama jokes and doing impressions. “He’s silly, and I am just a silly person. He’s a jokester,” she says.”We started out just as friends-artist and choreographer. You are traveling on the bus. The more you are together, the more you learn.”
The two were married in 1996 in a small, nontraditional ceremony in Colorado. Two homes, many backyard barbecues and three children followed. In better days they smile into cameras like young lovers. In one photograph they’re laughing and teasing each other as they cook in the backyard. But as the couple settled into domesticity, controversy dogged their heels.
Six months ago, Andrea says, she never would have imagined talking to Essence, or any publication, for that matter. Careful not to say anything to hurt her estranged husband or family, she had always refused requests for interviews. “I have two daughters and a son. They may say, ‘Mom and Dad went through a storm.’ But it’s not the storm I want them to remember, it’s how their mom came out of it.”
There have been so many lies, so many rumors and half-truths, she notes. One article claimed her family members were afraid for her because they couldn’t get in touch with her. Untrue, Andrea says, exasperation peppering her voice. “We live right here in Chicago,” she says. “How could you not know where I am? It’s not as if I am overseas.”
In fact, the only time she really broke down was when a recent magazine article stated she had turned on her husband. A straight- up lie, she claims in response. “How could someone write something like that? I have children,” she says, inconsolable. “They are going to grow up someday and read this. I would never do anything to hurt their father. We have a bond that we will have for the rest of our lives because we have children.”
As she sits down to talk one spring afternoon, there are myths she yearns to dispel, starting with what it’s like to be the spouse of a workaholic celebrity. It’s not a life of nannies and mimosas. “I was there as Robert was evolving,” she says, “but most people don’t realize that as a celebrity’s wife, you make a lot of sacrifices. You have to understand there are birthday parties he’s missing; there are recitals that you have to go to by yourself.”
She knows that her dancing has gone unnoticed and that occasionally others have hijacked her work. After she choreographed a Matrix-like move in a music video four years ago, Andrea couldn’t turn on BET without seeing the step. “I actually taught my dancers to do it in half time. So they’re doing it in slow motion. Later, I turn on BET, Ciara’s doing it in her video. I was like, ‘There’s that bitch,’ ” she recalls joking to her assistant.
But she’s sick of not receiving the proper recognition. “There’s so much more to me,” Andrea notes, “but to deal with people every day who just look at you like, well, isn’t that cute, R. Kelly’s wife. It’s like, boy, oh boy, if you only knew, you’d be a little more quick to hold your tongue, if you knew what it took to be in that position,” she says, now wiping away tears.”I would hope people would take away from this that you can’t just look at a woman in my position and judge her because of things that you perceive in a video or stuff you hear on the street.”
SEX, LIES AND THAT VIDEO
R. Kelly is a darling in the Windy City, an inventive songwriter and one of the most successful R&B performers of all time, composing and arranging for superstars like Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones. Despite the child pornography charges, he continues to masterfully craft remixes and has released two multiplatinum solo albums since the indictments.
A multi-Grammy Award winner with six multiplatinum albums, he rules the radio airwaves as if he were an R&B autocrat. His “Step in the Name of Love” songs endear him to Chicagoans for putting their “steppin’ ” music on the national radar. But Kelly’s travails have been soapier than his “ghetto opera” song series, “Trapped in the Closet.”
With the trial recently postponed again, and despite his mounting legal problems, he remains as successful as ever, with a new album that dropped in late May. Ironically, while Kelly drips sex and scandal, his wife is simultaneously trying to school little Black girls. Follow your dream, she tells them, but remember, beautiful doesn’t mean naked.
Andrea, who volunteers at a Chicago public high school as a dance instructor, warns girls who dream of being in videos to beware of the web of perilous men: “If you’re coming to a video, and you know that you’re there to dance and someone’s like, ‘Yo, when this video shoot is over, why don’t you come holler at my boy? He’s at the hotel.’ But there’s no cameraman at the hotel. So that’s when you compromise-the first time you say ‘Okay.’ You allowed him to disrespect you, so don’t get upset then when you get to the hotel and things go left on you.”
Through the years, she has ruminated over these issues and over music videos, even ones she’s in, seeing the images as contributing to the objectification of Black women. Back in 1994 Andrea thought the R. Kelly video “Summer Bunnies,” in which she performed, was cutting-edge.
Today she says you couldn’t pay her enough to do those same moves again, to wear those booty shorts and swimsuits. But she was in her early twenties back then and wasn’t thinking about her responsibility to those who came after her. Now she does. Last year Andrea founded Dream Tu Dance Productions. Her goal is to open a dance academy on Chicago’s South Side. She wants a place for Black girls to learn the styles of dance luminaries like Alvin Ailey, Bob Fosse and Martha Graham.
“I’ve become more and more conscious,” she says. “In this business, I know you’re going to have to make compromises, but when you start to compromise yourself, you’re getting so far away from your dream that you’re going to look up one day and find you’re not doing what you started out to do. You’ll be like, Who is this person in the mirror?”
A LIFE APART
Andrea will not serve as a choreographer on projects for R.Kelly’s new album, due out this month. The Kellys live in separate residences: She stays in the burbs with the children, while he lives elsewhere. These days she’s focused on her own business, bridging the world of ballerinas and hip-hop dancers. She’s also working on a Soul Kittens Cabaret project with Nicci Gilbert of Brownstone and has auditioned for dance parts in The Color Purple even as she yearns to perform in Chicago. Her dream, she says, is to work with Tyler Perry on a musical and to dance in the performances of neosoul artists such as Erykah Badu, Common and Raheem DeVaughn.
On another spring afternoon, Andrea sips coffee at one of her favorite bars near Chicago’s downtown. She’s held it together through the years, through all the jokes, the talk, the women lusting after her husband. She’s even overheard banter about him while at the hair salon, from women clueless about her Presence. “Oooh, that R. Kelly is fine. I’d have all his babies,” they croon.
“That celebrity life all these people are trying to go after? There’s heartaches, there’s pain, good days and bad days,” Andrea says. “I know what I can carry and what I can’t. And if it gets too heavy I’m going to give it to God.”
She wants people to know that being Mrs. R. Kelly does not define who she is. Her voice sharpens when she explains the importance of a strong identity.
“I was a dancer before I met Robert, and I’ll be a dancer long after,” she insists. “If he were to die tomorrow, what am I? Who am I? Can I take care of myself? Would I be all right? Yes, I would. Just because I was on his stage, that did not make me a dancer; it did not make me a choreographer; it just presented me to the world. I was all those things before him.”
That doesn’t mean she isn’t loyal to her spouse. When asked, “Do you believe the allegations about your husband?” she responds without hesitation that she absolutely does not, suggesting it’s all a lie and that her husband is not the man on the tape. “C’mon. Who would believe all that? That’s why they call them allegations,” she says.
But did she see the tape?
“Why would you ask that question of a woman married with children?” she says. “It’s ludicrous to ask me a question like that. Really, would you want someone to ask you that? And if they did ask you, would you see the tape?” All that to say, no, she hasn’t seen the tape and never looked for it. And for all those people who sought out the tape, she says, check your morals.
Still, despite her vocal support of her husband, Andrea says she won’t be accompanying him to his court appearances. All the media, all the mess. Besides, she’s got to be with the children. “I will take care of the home front,” she says and, with perfect comedic timing, adds, “There is a war going on, and they don’t send every soldier in America to Iraq. I’ve got to be homeland defense.”
While she may not see her husband every day, they talk daily, usually about the children. He’s taken them on tour while she was on a dancing gig. “That we filed for divorce is not that important,” she insists, “but it’s how we are dealing with each other. It’s very positive.”
For those who wonder how she could still love and laugh with the man at the center of such sordid accusations, well, she has an answer.
“You cannot judge me by your standards,” she says. “You go into life with that mind-set of knowing it’s going to be hard, there are going to be bad days, people are going to say things that are going to hurt you. That’s always going to be true. But I just have to stand firm in who I am and let you know that you may throw darts at me, but you’re not going to break me.”
Natalie Y. Moore is a Chicago journalist. She is coauthor of Deconstructing Tyrone: A New Look at Black Masculinity in the Hip-Hop Generation (Cleis Press).Andrea Kelly was photographed exclusively for ESSENCE magazine March 15, 2007, at the Drake hotel in Chicago.