In the 1990s, TLC's Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins and Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas created hits like "Waterfalls," "No Scrubs" and "Unpretty," won four Grammy Awards and sold more than 20 million albums. Their level of success places them alongside groups like the Supremes, the Dixie Chicks and Destiny's Child, but TLC also had to deal with scandal and infighting. And in 2002, the tragic death of the creative and energetic Lopes altered TLC's future and forced the remaining members to forgive old grievances.
The group clashed while making their third album
Lopes was TLC's rapper, while Watkins and Thomas were vocalists. Her "Left Eye" designation predated the group — she'd been told her left eye was more prominent — but with TLC she reinforced the nickname by wearing glasses with a condom in the left-eye frame. In addition to delivering rhymes in a squeaky voice, Lopes provided creative inspiration and energy that extended to songwriting and storyboarding videos.
TLC's debut album Ooooooohhh ... On the TLC Tip (1992) did well, and their follow-up CrazySexyCool (1994) did even better. But the three members clashed while making 1999's Fanmail. The group also had to deal with Lopes facing charges for burning down her boyfriend's house and their need to file for bankruptcy. In addition, Lopes often threatened to leave TLC, seeming more interested in solo projects.
In 1999, Lopes challenged Watkins and Thomas to use individual album sales to see which TLC member was most popular. She signed a solo deal with Suge Knight's Death Row in January 2002, though she also worked on a fourth TLC album.
While on a spiritual retreat, Lopes was in a deadly accident
On April 25, 2002, a car crash in Honduras ended Lopes' life. Lopes had traveled to that country seeking a spiritual retreat and place of personal respite. The trip was also intended to let her work on a fashion line and a book.
Lopes was driving a rented SUV in the vacation destination of Roma — authorities said she may have been speeding — when a vehicle stopped in her lane. She pulled out to pass but lost control of her car, which flipped over multiple times. The crash claimed her life at the scene; fortunately, the other people in the SUV survived.
Lopes' death devastated her bandmates. They issued a statement saying, "We had all grown up together and were as close as a family. Today we have truly lost our sister." A few months after the accident, Thomas admitted, "There are days when it's hard to keep it together. And there are days when you're like, I'm not even fighting it today, I just have to let it out, and you just cry."
After Lopes' death, the group couldn't bear to be in the studio when they heard her voice
The low points of the trio's relationship lost their importance in the face of Lopes' crash. "She was our sister, you know?" Thomas told CNN. "And no matter what we went through, we're sisters." In 2017, Watkins noted, "Did I get mad at her? Yes. But did I love her less? No."
Fortunately, some of the tensions in TLC had healed before Lopes went to Honduras. Watkins, who has sickle-cell anemia, said Lopes came to see her when she was in the hospital and told her to take the time needed to recover. In 2012, Thomas talked with Essence about how things had been with Lopes while they worked on their latest album. "The relationship was good; she was acting silly again, playing pranks on people. Her death was very devastating for us, but I can look back and say I was happy about what our relationship was like, at that time."
Soon after Lopes' death, Watkins and Thomas learned their label wanted to release a greatest hits album for TLC. However, this was contrary to the group's wishes, as they'd all been focused on a new album. As Thomas explained years later to USA Today, "We wanted to finish what the three of us had started as best as we could under that type of pressure and pain."
Despite their recent loss, the two found themselves quickly returning to an in-progress album. There were painful moments; Watkins and Thomas couldn't bear to be in the studio when Lopes' voice was heard. But they also felt the project was a way to honor Lopes, who can be heard on four tracks out of thirteen. After the album, called 3D, came out, Watkins told the LA Times that she thought Lopes "would be proud of us and this new album." 3D was released seven months after Lopes' accident.
Watkins and Thomas said that no one could ever replace Lopes
From the beginning, the remaining members of TLC declared no one could ever take Lopes' spot in the group. "You can't replace a TLC girl," Thomas said in 2002. "The chemistry we have is something God gave us. You can't put that together." And in 2013, Watkins told Rolling Stone, "I'm never going to put another girl in my group. Never!"
Watkins and Thomas did take part in a 2005 reality show, R U the Girl with T-Boz and Chilli, that looked for performers. But they explained this was a limited opportunity for someone to take part in one concert and one song. According to Thomas, "Basically, we are trying to give back to our fans and find one girl and give her a chance of a lifetime, to do one last performance with TLC."
TLC used old footage of Lopes to include her in their later performances
TLC's remaining duo initially wondered how they would tour without Lopes. But they found a way to move forward by including her in their tours. TLC performances have featured footage of Lopes from past concerts (though, despite speculation, never a hologram like Tupac Shakur). Sharing her image could be emotional for the band as well as fans; Thomas once told People, "[W]e never ever looked at the screen because we would not have been able to finish the show."
In addition to tours, Lopes was a part of the TLC biopic CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story that aired on VH1 in 2013. And, following a successful Kickstarter campaign, in 2017 TLC released a new, self-titled album that managed to incorporate Lopes' voice. "It's her talking. It's from an interview," Watkins told E! News. "It's the essence of Lisa that you remember her for — the live, the funky, the spunky energy that she had."
In 2002, Thomas told CNN, "Through us, people will always remember Lisa. We'll always be a group. It doesn't stop."
And over the years, grief over losing Lopes has transformed into something more positive. In 2017, Watkins declared, "I want to celebrate her life. I want to feel good about what we did together. I don’t want to be in a dark place anymore. I want to feel like we built something great together and keep that going for her."