A vale of mystery surrounded Philly native Lisa Lopes' short life. Her family speaks out publicly for the first time about the strange circumstances of her death.
"Part of the reason was that so much of him was in her," says her brother Ronald. "Some of his wild side was in her. His spirituality was in her, his curiosity for finding out things was in her and his musical talent was in her. She always felt like my dad could kick anybody's ass. She felt protected when he was around."
Some relatives privately speculate that Lisa was looking for that kind of security in her often disastrous relationships with men. Even as TLC's CDs, OOoooooHHH ... On the TLC Tip (1992), CrazySexyCool (1994) and the triple platinum Fanmail (1999) took off, Lisa was both looking for a father figure and emulating what she'd seen in her parents' relationship.
Though she told relatives that she had been romantically involved with numerous celebrities, including Keith Sweat and later Marion "Suge" Knight, it was her link with former Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Andre Rison that most resembled her parents' failed marriage.
"Both men had controlling mothers, both relationships had experiences of domestic violence and both relationships were negatively affected by outside influences," says her aunt, LaVeta Jones. "And the outside influence, I would say, was family. I don't think Andre's mother liked Lisa. She spoke negatively of her. And his mother also controlled his money. Both relationships were marked by infidelity.
"I believe that Lisa's parents' relationship greatly influenced her choices, in that she did not know what a healthy relationship was and may have even thought that violence and strife were par for the course."
In 1993 Rison allegedly pulled a gun when someone tried to break up a fight he and Lisa were having. Nine months later, after another fight, Lisa put some of Rison's possessions into the bathroom sink, doused them with nail polish remover and burned them.
She then found some of his sneakers and put them in the bathtub and burned them. In the chaos that followed, some of Rison's friends searched for a fire extinguisher while others vandalized Lisa's car, says Lisa's uncle, fashion designer Kyle Young, who witnessed the fracas. Meanwhile, the flames spread, and Rison's house was engulfed.
Her family insists that Lisa did not purposely burn Rison's house to the ground and that the media made the story into something it wasn't. In a plea bargain, Lisa pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a halfway house, five years probation and a $10,000 fine.
Though their on-again-off-again relationship was allegedly marred by abuse, Lisa still helped pay Rison's debt when he fell thousands of dollars behind in child support payments. And in 2001 the two planned to be married--a move that family members opposed.
"A person who's abusive doesn't stop," says a relative who asked not to be identified. "They buy you something nice and they apologize. Some people, they see that growing up and they say, 'That's how it is.' And some people see it and say, 'I don't want to be the same way.' It just depends on what kind of person you are. Some people confuse love with abuse. If he hits me, he really loves me because he was jealous because I did this with so and so. I'm not saying that's how Lisa was, but some people are like that."
Lisa, the relative says, liked thugs--men who could exert power and control over others. And because she was so short, at 5 feet 2 inches, she wanted a big man whom she felt could protect her.
That was her attraction to the man who embodied power and control, Tha Row Records CEO Suge Knight. Knight once oversaw the careers of Snoop Dogg and the late Tupac Shakur, and he took over the label and changed its name from Death Row to Tha Row after a messy breakup with former partner Dr. Dre.
"Lisa had a dream about [Suge Knight]," says Jasmine Brodie, the 20-year-old cousin who accompanied her to Honduras. "She had a dream he was looking for her. As soon as he got out of jail [where he served five years on charges stemming from a 1996 assault], one of his people contacted her people, and she flew down there. Then she changed her name to N.I.N.A., under his label, Tha Row. N.I.N.A. stands for 'New Identity Not Applicable.' And she recorded some stuff for him."
Relatives were privately worried about her relationship with Knight, whom she was romantically involved with for several months. After Lisa broke up with Knight, she told at least two relatives that the record executive had choked her after she asked him about a large advance for signing with his label.
Despite the allegation, Knight is planning to release some of the music Lisa worked on with Tha Row just months before her death. Her family is not pleased.
In recent years, according to relatives, the music came to matter less to Lisa. She provided money and lodging for people who couldn't--and sometimes wouldn't--care for themselves. She began the process of adopting a girl named Snow whose mother she'd met after the fire at Rison's house.
Snow, like many of the people whom Lisa tried to help, was troubled. She had suffered a rough home life with a mother whose on-and-off addiction had scarred her. And it showed.
Once, say relatives, Lisa took the girl to church. During the service, the girl ran to the front and screamed out that she hated God and everyone in the sanctuary.
PW's 2015 Gift Guide
Dinner with Luke Palladino