"After losing my sight, hearing, balance and speech, yes, I'm returning," T-Boz says
The TLC singer is a survivor of sickle cell anemia and a brain tumor
"Totally T-Boz" premieres Tuesday night on TLC
2013 is the 20th anniversary of when T-Boz teamed with "Left Eye" and "Chilli"
Reality for TLC’s T-Boz has been a challenge, starting at age 7, when she was diagnosed with sickle cell anemia.
“I was told I wouldn’t live past 30, I would be disabled my whole life and I would never become a mother,” T-Boz, a member of one of the most successful girl groups ever, told CNN. “My daughter is Chase. She’s 12. I’ve traveled the world in one of the best groups ever. I’m 42.”
Reality called again five years ago when doctors found a brain tumor, which left her partially blind and deaf.
“But after losing my sight, hearing, balance and speech, yes, I’m returning,” said T-Boz, whose real name is Tionne Watkins. “I had to take three years to heal and fight for everything that I wanted back.
T-Boz is sharing the lessons learned from hard reality in a reality TV show that premieres Tuesday night, coincidentally on a network with the same name as her group – TLC.
“It’s about 20 years later, me coming back from the brain tumor and doing things I want to do,” she said. “You’ll hear about all that in the show, my real-life struggles, being a single mother. I don’t care how much money you have in the world. It’s not about that. It’s all about time. I’m in charge of raising a young woman one day, to be a mother and hopefully a wife. All of that. As you know, being a parent, that’s probably the hardest job ever”
“Totally T-Boz” is real – especially compared with most shows, she said: “They’re fake as all get-out, right? I’m real.”
Her experience with reality TV includes being fired by Donald Trump on “Celebrity Apprentice” in 2009.
“If I’m not the chick you want, because you don’t want that, then they’ll probably censure me,” she said. “That’s fine, but I’m staying me, because I’m happy and I’ve always been happy in my skin.”
Like other entertainers who disappear from the spotlight for a while, T-Boz never stopped working while she focused on raising her daughter and fighting for her health.
“I get a lot of ‘Oh, you’ve been gone,’” she said. “I wasn’t gone. Just because you didn’t see me doesn’t mean I wasn’t working and collecting checks. I just wasn’t singing and doing videos. I do a lot of other things, like I said, like writing scripts and stuff like that. I write for other artists.”
When a doctor told her that her headaches were caused by a tumor, “I said ‘Say huh? Say huh?” she said. The diagnosis triggered a string of emotions, but never anger, she said.
“I had that fight,” she said. “I want to live. I didn’t have time to die.”
The hardest time was not knowing if the tumor was cancerous and if it would kill her, she said.
She began a desperate search for doctors she trusted who did not look at her “just like I was a dollar sign,” she said.
“They’re like, ‘You know, sickle cell can cause complications because it will turn on your body, your heart and lungs. You could just die, have a stroke,” she said. “I was like, Jesus, Lord, what’s going on?”
Some doctors told her removing her tumor through surgery would be too complicated. “It’s just like they wanted to still keep the tumor in my head, and maybe burn some of your cells and you may not remember something.”
“In my gut, I know if I had stayed in Atlanta, and let them touch me, I wouldn’t be here,” she said. “I wasn’t going to make it through those surgeries. I was going to die. And I felt that.”
She chose a Los Angeles doctor to oversee her treatment and brain surgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
“I said, ‘I know this is him in my heart,” she said. “I packed up my stuff and my family and I came here.”
But she had to make a decision.
“I had to give the order of what I wanted to be saved,” she said. “So I said my face first, because you couldn’t look at me and tell I’m deaf or blind. My hearing second, because I still want to hear and sing and have my speech. And then my balance. So they took my balance completely from the right.”
But after three years of physical therapy to teach her brain how to compensate for the loss of balance, “mostly everything else is back. I can hear and see and I can speak,” she said. “So I am blessed.”
When you meet her now, it’s hard now to tell anything was ever wrong with T-Boz.
“I still have a crooked smile and just certain things I deal with, but I’ll take all of that to be back here and be Chase’s mother,” she said.
Predictions of her lifespan are still pessimistic, but her optimism rejects them.
“Now they’re saying 45, and I plan to be talking to y’all at 56,” she said. “I’d rather take over the disease than let it take over me. Let’s put it that way.”
T-Boz has a lot left to do. This year is the 20th anniversary of when she teamed with Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas as TLC.
VH1 is producing a bio-pic about them, which means T-Boz is back in the studio working on the soundtrack.
“It’s going to be hard to see who can dance like us,” she said. “I don’t even think I could do me again. Could I do T-Boz again the way I did it?”
The reunited group – with a replacement for Lopes, who died in a 2002 auto accident in Honduras – will also tour to support the release of a new album, which includes two new singles.
And T-Boz has her own song out called “Champion,” with the profits going to a charity for children with blood disorders.
“There’s a lot of people who have been going through what I went through and I want to help whoever I can,” she said. “I want to share my story because I think God spared me for a reason. I think that I’m supposed do something with it.”