Lil’ Kim: Why Hip-Hop's Nasty Girl Wants to Be a Gay Icon

Lil Kim

Gay people have always had divas, from Judy Garland to Barbra Streisand to Diana Ross. Maybe they're just blank slates for our mass projection, but they speak to us. And who says the legacy stops there? Hip-hop superstar Lil’ Kim is ready to pick up the mantle. Are we ready for this five-foot tall, sex-obsessed hurricane in heels?

Lil’ Kim wants to be an icon. The pint-size queen of raunch doesn't just want to sell records—she wants to be a household name. “I like it when people say that about a person,” she gushes. “I love to be in someone's house: as a CD, a picture, fan mail, whatever.” She paused for a brief moment to run her long fingernails through the Pamela Anderson Lee wig on her head. “That's really for me.”

She’s been called “the black Madonna,” and Lil’ Kim will be the first to admit that she models her own career in that of Ms. Ciccone. She wants to establish herself as an actress, a fashion force, and a label head. She's not quite there yet; icons, after all, don't materialize in just four years. They need histories marked by triumph, failure, public humiliation, and tragedy. They need bodies of work that have endured in spite of bad career moves and repeated turnovers in the pop-culture fun house. That way, their lives give us endless catchphrases and overused in-jokes. And the more they wink at us as a community—or, better yet, the franker they are when it comes to sex—the brightest they glow in our big, gay eyes.

Although it never winked at us directly, Lil’ Kim’s debut album, 1996’s notorious Hard Core, is right in line with classic Millie Jackson and X-rated house goddess Sweet Pussy Pauline—two trash-talkin’ divas whose legacies thrive in the vinyl collections of aging club queens. Two of the only hip-hop tracks you're likely to hear at your neighborhood gay lounge, “Not Tonight” and “Big Momma Thang,” shamelessly preach the immediate physical and material rewards of sucking cock and taking it “in the bum.” And you don't need the help of Dr. Joyce Brothers to understand how a gay man could relate to a lyric like “I used to be scared of the dick/ Now I throw lips to the shit/Handle it/Like a real bitch.”

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But even those who never bought or heard Hard Core know a thing or two about Lil’ Kim. Her no-holds-barred fashion sense has propelled beyond the realm of the hip-hop elite and into glossy magazines both here and abroad. In the absence of a new album—the long-delayed The Notorious K.I.M will finally hit stores in early December—she's become a Cher of the rap world, known as much for her public appearances as for her music. Who can forget her introduction of Diana Ross at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards, dressed (just barely) in a purple, breast-exposing pantsuit? And the sight of the legendary Ms. Ross—clearly in danger of being upstaged—giving Kim a loving pat on the boob before stepping up to the podium was enough to convince even her detractors that Lil’ Kim had arrived.

The Lil’ Kim story is a biopic waiting to be made. Born in 1975, she came of age in Brooklyn’s less-than-picturesque Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Her mother, whom Kim remains close to, left when she was nine. Her father, a former Army sergeant, raised her with an iron fist. Kim ran away, supported herself as a drug courier, and was submerged in the kind of inner-city horror that most of us only see in bad gang movies.

At 16, she met Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G. In the drug business himself, the six-foot-five, 300 pound rapper was utilizing his own shady profits as a way of breaking into the music business. The two became friends and, eventually, lovers. It wasn't long before Biggie enlisted Kim as a member of the hip-hop supergroup Junior M.A.F.I.A., and she promptly made like a spotlight-bandit and stole the show on hits like “Get Money.” Shortly after, Biggie convinced Kim to go solo, and with a little help from superstar producer “Puffy” Combs, Hard Core was born.

From then on, Kim’s world was both a fairy tale and a nightmare. While Hard Core earned instant notoriety—it has since sold 1.2 million copies—Biggie was gunned down in a drive-by shooting barely a year later, an event that shook the hip-hop world to its foundation. And in the wake of Kim's success, a handful of sex-fixated rappers who shall remain nameless (OK, Foxy Brown) started hogging the spotlight that Kim essentially created. Although she and Foxy were once friends (Brown even gets a thank-you in Hard Core’s liner notes), the two have drifted apart after a whirlwind of multi-platinum sales and verbal mud-flinging. And as Brown continues to develop her bad-girl streak—gossip items about her diva-like behavior and gangsta-bitch temper have become commonplace—one gets the sense that Kim is keeping as cool and genteel as she can, a hip-hop hootchie mama with a heart of gold.

But before she becomes an icon, Lil’ Kim needs to prove she can survive the ‘90s with her star power intact. The hip-hop game has changed drastically for women since Hard Core. We've seen the ascent of Lauryn Hill, the maturing of new-jill-swing vixen Mary J. Blige, and the creative and entrepreneurial dominance of Missy Elliot. This woman’s future is riding on the success of The Notorious K.I.M., which, at press time, is still being fine-tuned. In the end, Lil’ Kim knows she won't become and icon by rapping about cunnilingus for the rest of her life. As Hilton Als, author of The Women, says: “It’s not about her breasts—it's about her experience.”

OUT: What’s it like to get smacked on the boob by Diana Ross?

Lil’ Kim: She didn't really smack it. I loved it. I took it as a, “Girl, look at you with your titty hanging out.” It was really sweet. I felt honored that she even thought to do that—like she acknowledged me. She could have come out and been like [makes face], “Mmm-hmm.” After all, she is Diana Ross. I don't know why people made such a big deal out of it.

Well, it's not every day that you see a legendary superstar touch another superstar’s exposed breast on national television.

People always make a big deal out of nothing. Behind stage, she and I kicked it. She was like the most down-to-earth icon I’ve ever met. And she still looks good.

Judging from the outfit you had on at the MTV Video Music Awards, though, you obviously like to make a big deal sometimes.

When it comes to fashion, yes. I love to make a statement. When it comes to fashion, I will go over—go over.

Where do you think that comes from?

I would say my mom. She and her friends always had this unique style about them—I was always around women who dressed over the top. And back then, color was way over the top, you know what I mean? My mom would change her hair color all the time. She would wear these little outfits. And she would dress me up in these things. I didn't know what I had on. People would be like, “Where'd you get that?” And I was like, “What?”

Did any celebrities help mold your fashion sense?

I always loved the way Cher looked. And Donny and Marie.

Donny and Marie?

Yeah. I used to love their style. I take bits and pieces from everybody. I know what looks good on me, and I know what I want. I've always studied the fashion of women who were beautiful and glamorous—Marilyn Monroe, Dorothy Dandridge, Josephine Baker, even Brooke Shields. A whole bunch of people contribute to fashion, from the way you cut your eyebrows to the way you cut your hair.

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People are saying you're going in a different, less raunchy direction with the new album.

I don't want people to get it twisted. It's not a different direction. I just feel like I've matured, you know what I mean? There's no way in the world I could just say, “OK, I'm not doing this anymore. I'm going to go this way.” That’s ridiculous. There are a lot of people out there who are doing what I'm doing, and I could never leave something that I started. When Janet did her albums, she gave you Control on one album, then Rhythm Nation 1814 on the other one, and the sexual thing on Janet. She never stayed in one particular formula, and I think that's what we love about our stars. That's what being an icon is all about—being able to do anything that you do, the way that you do it, and succeed at it.

So fans of Hard Core won't be disappointed?

Everyone can think what they want. I feel if my music is coming from my heart, everyone can feel it. To me, it gets very boring when everyone’s doing the same thing, when they're rapping the same way, doing the same format. I wanted to come back with a new type of sound. I have this song called “I’m Human,” and it's kind of like techno music. It's a new sound, but it's sexual too. At the end, I’m talking about “If you can't make it fit/Then use your lip.” Hopefully they'll get it.

Don't you have a song on there with Biggie, too?

We were going to do a song with Biggie, but I kind of wanted to let him rest. Let me tell you, Puffy’s told me he's putting out a whole album of Biggie’s—things you haven't heard, some of his demo tapes and stuff—and I was totally against it. And everything Puffy’s got is still sounding so good, but I just feel that Biggie would be at such an advanced level of rapping by now. These things don't complement his style. But there was nothing I could do about it. I said I'll do three or four songs for you, Puffy. Just so I could be a part of it. And then I'm going to go out!

You seem like a woman who's learned to make a compromise work in her favor. I'm thinking of the lyric from “Not Tonight:” "Fuck for car keys and double-digit figures.”

Well, I don't have to do that anymore.

You don't have to rhyme like that?

I don't have to fuck for car keys [laughs]. I used to do it, you know. Back in the day, I used to do it. If I was dating a guy, and I was like, “Can I have your car keys and some money?” And he'd be like, “All right” [laughs].

Have the tables turned with your success?

Ohmigod, yes. But I'm not going to spend all my money on a guy, you know? Whatever. I don't feel like a woman should have to. I'm very old-fashioned. I feel like the guy should complement a woman. Like he should make her comfortable at all times. She should always be treated like a queen.

It must be hard to find a man who can complement Lil’ Kim. Do you date?

I do it because I have to get my shit off [laughs]. But I don't have boyfriends. Most of the people that I date, their careers are really important. Since Biggie, I've just been really, really focused on my career. The dating thing—it can always wait until I'm ready.

Did you know “Big Momma Thang” is a big jukebox hit in gay bars? Why do you think you appeal to gay men so much?

Gay people love it when a person goes over the top, when a person shows that they don't care. And they like people with confidence because they have to have a lot of confidence to be the way that they are. I mean, I'm like whatever—if you don't like it, I don't care. Fuck you. I'm going to wear this anyway. But I also try to have a good spirit about it. I can't go on stage with my titty hanging out and not act like I love what I do because then it would come off raunchy, not classy. Gay people see me as Grace Jones, Tina Turner, Prince, or Madonna—all those people that have gone over the top and just don't give a damn about what anybody says. And they love people who are stars because, you know, gay people always feel like they're stars.

You also have a large lesbian fan base.

I have everything, you know? I was one of those children that God blessed with a big life over because I have nothing against green people, yellow people—you know what I mean? I don't see anything wrong with it. I don't even see why we have to talk about it.

Well, because some people still have major problems with it. For instance, just about every male rapper in hip-hop today.

Yeah, but you got to understand, though, rappers are hard-core—especially the men. The men are from the streets. I can't harangue them for what they believe. All I can say is, if you have problems with someone or something, just stay away from it.

But it's weird—no matter how much these guys are bothered by it, they still get off on the lesbian thing.

Isn't that crazy? It's true. What makes that right? I don't know. I guess with men, it's like—it's not them doing it.

Have you heard about the “Gay Rapper?"

Yeah. And I still don't know who he is, but I'm going to find out. Whenever I'm at a parties, every time somebody sits in front of me, I keep wondering if it's him. I'll be looking, like, Ooohh. I'll just watch everything he does.

What do you think would happen if a platinum rapper actually came out?

Ooohh. It would be chaos. Because the guys would down and dog that person so bad. And if that person happened to be a real rowdy person, it would be something—a big thing. Nobody's going to sit there and let you bad-mouth them and make you feel bad all day. And these guys would do it. It wouldn't be like, “Oh, he is? Oh, OK.” It would be a big thing.

Which is probably why it will never happen.

Exactly. A lot of the guys have a problem with it because of religion or whatever. They say that, you know, God says it's not supposed to be this and it's not supposed to be that. But whatever's going on, God’s watching over everything. Gay people aren't the only ones getting AIDS, you know? And two gay people walking down the street? How does that hurt anyone?

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Let's talk some about your life. You had a tough relationship with your father.

When I was 14, I ran away for a year, and when I came back, my father kicked me out because he wanted to get married. We had a fight where he had to call the police. And me, myself, I didn't want to deal with that. I had developed such a hatred for my father that I thought, even though it hurt me, that is was the best thing that could have happened to me at the time. There were certain things that I shouldn't have done to him, but my father just had a way. My mother left him because of the same things. He was really evil.

How long were you a drug runner?

For about three years. Everybody who's lived the kind of life I did will tell you that you get tired. I mean, you get really tired—like you-just-ran-a-marathon tired. It's so hard to maintain that life because you're always going through a whole lot of problems. At first, I wanted to do it because of the money, but one of the last times I said I was going to quit, I almost got busted by the police. And I would have done my time and everything, but who wants to be in jail?

Did you ever get high on your own supply, as the saying goes?

I didn't do them to the extent where I became a drug addict. I was young at the time. I believed that you don't know if you don't like something unless you try it. And I tried it. I tried some strong ones, too. But I didn't like them. I don't even like cigarettes. My thing is champagne. Cristal, baby! [Laughs].

Hip-hop is so much a part of mainstream society now. It's not just about the street anymore. It's about plush VIP rooms, Puffy and Jay-Z partying in the Hamptons. Do you like it out there?

It's cool when Puffy’s out there, and we're all chilling, but I don't like the Hamptons. It's way out there, and the air is so dry. I love New Jersey—it's so Beverly Hills. There are parts of Jersey, like where we live, that make you feel so glamorous.

What about the female rappers who've obviously bitten your style? Any thoughts?

Well those people are nowhere are near to me as my website, or my 900 number

I'm sorry… You have a 900 number?

Ye-e-ah! The message is kind of dry and everything because a lot of kids were calling and we don't want them to tell their mothers. But we're going to change the message and make it more… you know [covers mouth and laughs].

Do you get on the line yourself?

Well, sometimes I'm on there and other times it's a recording. But that's the thing: You gotta keep calling to catch me myself, you know?

I mean, you don't get them off, though. Do you?

No, no [laughs]. I don't do that! When we were first putting it together, we were thinking, Should we get nasty on there or something? And we were like, No. We don't want any parents calling up and protesting. I've already gotten enough flak for my music.

Which brings us back to the female rappers who've bitten your style. I take it you and Foxy Brown are competitive. You used to hang out, right?

Yeah. She's from Brooklyn, but she hasn't been through half the things that I've been through over there, so we never hung together or anything like that. She wants to live the heavy hard-core life that she learned about.

She keeps popping up in gossip items frequently.

She's an evil girl—I mean, sometimes, when she wants to be. Like I said, she hasn't been through half of what I been through, so she didn't know how to act, you know? Some people don't know how to act when they get money, fame, whatever.

What's been your secret to success?

I've always stayed being myself. I never tried to be like anybody else. I never tried to do something that I knew I couldn't be. That's my formula: being myself. It works all the time.

It sort of reminds me of Mary J. Blige. Before she came along, R&B singers either looked like Whitney Houston or Anita Baker. And she proved a home girl from Yonkers could wear combat boots.

And baseball caps. It's the same sort of thing when I came along. I had to prove that you don't have to look like a tomboy to rap, you know what I mean? I came along with this pretty-girl look, like the mink coats and the high-heeled boots.

And wigs. How many wigs do you own?

I can't even count them I have so many! People are always giving them to me. I used to wear my own hair. It's black, and I used to wear it really short and curly. A lot of people tell me, “I wish you'd wear your hair like that again. It's so sweet.” And one day I may do something. I just have to wait till I find something to hold onto again. I'm always concerned about, How am I gonna top my last album cover? How am I gonna top my look at the MTV awards, you know what I'm saying?

So where do you see yourself in, say, 10 years?

I really want to work on becoming an icon in the year 2000. Some people might say I'm one now. Me, myself, I know what it takes to be an even bigger icon, and that's what I really want to do. You can't just become Diana Ross over four years, you know? You have to work at it, and then when you get it, you have to fill that need and stay that icon.

Will you still be rapping at 50?

If I'm still in shape and look good? I'll do it—if they allow me. But if they're like, “Sit down, Granny”? Then I'll sit down.

Photography: François Dischinger

Styling: Gregory Wein & Misa Hylton-Brim

Makeup: Nzingha (for Deborah Martin Agency)

Hair: Chuck Amos

Fashion Assistants: Cary Wong &  Lonnie Barnes

December, 1999

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