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Classic cover story: When Aaliyah reigned supreme

On what would have been Aaliyah's 40th birthday, we reflect on the gifted artist's 2001 cover

  • Words: Siân Pattenden | Photography: Adam Weiss
  • 16 January 2019

Aaliyah Dana Haughton was born 40 years ago today on January 16, 1979. Her untimely death in August 2001 remains one of the gravest tragedies to strike the world of r'n'b and music on a wider scale. Her loss is still felt acutely among fans old and new.

Aaliyah fronted the cover of Mixmag in August 2001. The accompanying cover story profiled an exceptionally gifted artist with a kindness and humanity untainted by her talent. On what would have been Aaliyah's 40th birthday, writer Siân Pattenden reflects on the person she profiled. The cover feature is also available to read in full below.

Aaliyah, who was wildly precocious and seemed the have the world in the palm of her hand at the time, was without attitude. She was lovely. She first introduced me to her transitional object, Wilson – the battered pillow she carried everywhere with her. A literal comfort blanket, she held onto it tightly. Not only did she have an album out which was really good – she was due to start filming The Matrix sequel sequel the next week. She talked about music, Hollywood, waffles and one day wanting to start a family.

Aaliyah was on time. She was charming and gracious. She didn't complain (she was wearing extremely tight stilettos for the photographs). At this point you'd be forgiven for mistaking this sort of behaviour for the highly polished, media-trained robot pop star. How fucking bland. But the day was really good fun, in no small part to the team she had around her - which is mentioned in the piece. Eric, Derek and Eric were make up artist, stylist and hairdresser – they accompanied her on almost all shoots. They were camp, extremely silly and kept the energy levels up. They danced round the studio, Eric wearing a wig, singing at the top of his voice. An artist is usually only as good as the people around them, and these were ace people. My god, I wanted them to do my hair and make up. All the time.

Some shoots are horrible – everyone's stressed, the photographer's an arsehole, the person in front of the camera is worse and you get ten minutes talking to them about "the new album" while the PR shakes their head at you. But in this case, it was an absolutely enjoyable day. Aaliyah came across as a fine human being. And the photographs, it has to be noted, are amazing. It's a beautiful magazine cover.

And then I heard she'd died in a plane crash, only weeks later, August 25 2001. Eric (the make up artist) had been on the plane too. September 11th was only a couple of weeks away, which marked an extremely odd time. It's also the last time I went to the USA.

What's quaint, reading back the feature, is that is was a time when you'd have to refer to Beyoncé as "Beyoncé from Destiny's Child". Aaliyah was working with Timbaland and Missy Elliott long before La Knowles had found the Address Book of Cool. I wonder sometimes what Aaliyah would have been doing now, how that silky voice would sound, how many films she would have made – and I picture Eric wearing a fluorescent wig and dancing like a loon.

Read Aaliyah's August 2001 Mixmag cover story below

Record deal at 12, Hollywood star at 21: r’n’b protégé Aaliyah talks money, Missy and The Matrix II

“This is Wilson. He goes everywhere with me, like here, or on the plane… I can’t sleep at night without him.”

Aaliyah, sultry soul princess, platinum selling artist and burgeoning Hollywood star, is devoted. To a pillow. ‘Wilson’ is a large cushion, covered in black silk, that looks like it’s been hoiked around the world several times over. In a photo studio in Culver City, Hollywood, it’s providing much comfort to the r’n’b star, who has spent a couple of hours in crippling stilettos in front of the lens.

Still, you wouldn’t know it to look at her. Aaliyah poses; gleaming, confident, statuesque in every sense. She looks like a superstar and stands like she’s just had the world for breakfast and is still ravenous. She has a dynamism, a superhero quality that belies her 22 years.

Her name is Arabic for ‘highest, most exalted one’, but when she puts on her civvies she has all the arrogance of a primary school teacher. She’s softly-spoken and polite, looking at the world with doe-like eyes.

Aaliyah has an album to talk about, she’s rehearsing for the MTV Movie Awards tomorrow until 10pm and begins filming The Matrix II in a couple of weeks. It’s only her third film, but she is remarkably calm about the prospect of working with Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne. The film has the same producer, Joel Silver, as Aaliyah’s first movie, 2000’s Romeo Must Die (which starred Kung Fu granddaddy Jet Li).

Romeo Must Die was an action-packed martial arts beast, based loosely on the Shakespeare play, but mostly on Jet Li’s arms and legs, Aaliyah received brilliant reviews for her ‘confident’ role as Trish – a Juliet who high-kicks and is at one point used as a weapon by Li. The film set Aaliyah up in the oh-so-picky world of Hollywood.

Her second movie, this year’s Queen of the Damned, is a follow-up to Interview With The Vampire and stars Paul McGann. Aaliyah plays a hard-nosed vampire called Queen Akasha who she describes as “extremely sexy and sensual, but a bit of a brat, spoiled.” She liked it a lot. She has a blossoming acting career that established stars like Madonna or Whitney would chop off their ankles for.

Aaliyah’s on her third album, producer partly by Timbaland. She made her first, ‘Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number’, at 15. So did she have a plan – ‘millionaire at 19, film star at 20’?

“I can’t say I had a specific plan,” she says calmly, stroking Wilson and batting her 20-foot eyelashes. “From childhood I knew I wanted to be an actress and dancer; a total entertainer, I would sit in a movie theatre, thinking, ‘one day I’ll be on that silver screen.’

“Sometimes I look at where I am in life and what I’ve achieved at this age and think ‘wow’.”

Aaliyah Haughton was born on January 16th 1979, in Brooklyn, New York. Four years later she, older brother Rashad and Mr and Mrs Haughton moved to Detroit. Aaliyah started singing, dancing and acting at six, got an agent in New York and started performing professionally. She listened to her parents’ records – Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Luther Vandross and her favourite, Barbara Streisand.

She got a record deal at 12, on her uncle’s Blackground Records. Even now, her mother joins her at interviews and photo shoots – all the family have overseen her career from the start. She’s clearly been protected.

“My family have been there all the way. But they’ve also given me creative freedom,” she says. “And when I was 16 or 17 and wanted to go out on my own, my mom said, ‘Sure, but take security – you can’t go out by yourself.’”

What? You were going out with bouncers by your side?

“No!” says Aaliyah, squeezing Wilson (named after Tom Hanks’ pretend friend made out of a volleyball in Cast Away). “My security people are just people from the record label. They don’t wear sunglasses indoors or that sort of thing.”

The difference between Aaliyah and her peers is marked. For one, she doesn’t try to toss the caber with vocal athleticism. There’s no shouting, screeching, wailing or jazz-style noodling. Everything is underplayed: Ms Haughton’s range is displayed by the slightest high-octave backing and tiniest harmonies.

While Destiny’s Child and Christina Aguilera are yodelling over beats which sound more like a succession of trucks rolling over cliffs in time than a bass or a snare, Aaliyah is working with Timbaland, J Dub and Static to produce a dark, eerie patter. Her new single, ‘We Need A Resolution’, instantly stands out over bouncing, jiggy Janet Jackson with its low-key spookery: dark and sombre yet sassy.

Timbaland and Missy Elliott sent Aaliyah a demo tape after the release of her first album. Aaliyah loved their sound and they collaborated on most of the next album, 1996’s ‘One In A Million’. Last year’s single, ‘Try Again’, (from the film Romeo Must Die), got to number one in the US Billboard charts through radio play alone before it was released. It also asserted Aaliyah’s global profile – she looked sultry, perhaps a little sulky, on her Top Of The Pops performance. Even the dancing was low-key.

There is a definite maturity on this album. It’s very cool. Layers of vocals, put together with near mathematical precision, are simply hypnotising. It’s sleek, from songs about being the Other Woman, to doing all for your man, to dissing the naysayers… each song sounds like it’s just slipped out of the bathtub.

Part of her success is due to her musical nous in choosing Timbaland and Missy Elliott to work with, before they had become big names. They work very closely together.

“Tim has to feel comfortable with you to let his guard down,” says Aaliyah, throttling Wilson. “I’ve known him for five years now and he’ll tell a couple of jokes, be a little silly – when we work together we have fun. He doesn’t do that with everyone, he’s reserved and laid-back. He knows me better than anyone else.”

Does he have any annoying habits? Does he cough a lot? “Ha! I can’t really say. No, he doesn’t cough at all.”

Does Missy tell dirty jokes? “She jokes around all the time,” says Aaliyah, grinning. “She doesn’t tell joke jokes, ‘a lady walks into a bar’ – she just takes a situation and makes it funny. We just clicked when we met. I was never awkward with her.”

But there must be a lot of meetings to go to – it’s not all giggling with Missy. Do you have to adopt a new persona when you’re meeting the film bigwigs? “Nah, the Aaliyah that people know, unless I’m in a film, playing a character, is just me: I am myself. I was fortunate to have creative control with my albums and my image, so when I was 15 I could say how I wanted things to be.” No one has dress you up as a fox against your will then. “Ha! Not at all.”

The album is full of soaring ballads, and slinky, seductive tunes. It’s champagne baths, it’s posh chocolates. It purrs. It sounds like Aaliyah was feeling smooth and soulful, slinky and loving at the time… “Yes that’s true. You’ve hit it on the nose.”

It’s an album that couples might want to kiss each other to… “…Yeah, hug a little, snuggle a bit. You can party to it, you can snuggle, you can do a lot.”

You’re a bit slinky yourself, then? “I guess you could say that, I’m a very smooth character, the whole language, feel – that’s me,” she says, abandoning Wilson for a moment. “I’m a laid-back person, I like to chill.”

Were you always the cool type at school? “Oh yeeeeah. I always wanted to stay at home and chill, just play games at home.” You’re not just lazy? “Not lazy at all! Hahah!

Aaliyah lives alone in New York. She has a fridge full of waffles, mineral water and fruit and her sense of décor is simple.

“I’m totally into the Egypt thing. I’ve got Egyptian pictures, furniture, a cat shaped like a pyramid… I have a night sky hanging on the ceiling in my bedroom. I love to be comfy.” Comfy is a word Aaliyah likes. “I have a lot of pillows on my bed, I love to be surrounded by comfy, squishy things.”

Who gets to see the stars on your bedroom ceiling? “My family, couple of my friends.” Any gentleman friends? “Well no, really, I don’t like to discuss my personal life…”

Well, you must have some romantic friends, you’ve just written an album about it… Aaliyah almost falls over. “Hahahahahaha! Hahahahahah!” You’ve said you like funny, intelligent… “I like a guy who’s smart. I like to laugh. There are moments I can be crazy. I like someone who’s secure, knows what they want. People with a good work ethic like myself.” So that they’ve got some money then. “Hahahahahahahah!

While Aaliyah is hardly forthcoming about personal details, she’s not frosty either. She always insists on using her own hairdresser, make-up artist and stylist, but when you meet them it’s easy to see why Eric, Derek and Eric (true) are three of the liveliest, silliest people you could meet.

Eric runs around the photo studio in Gucci shades and an old lady’s wig, pretending to be a pimp and trying to get in the pictures. Derek dances with Aaliyah and tells her jokes – when he’s not moaning about his hangover. They all keep Aaliyah laughing and prevent her from drooping in her stilettos.

Meeting a stylist is an experience that is usually on par with being stuck in a lift with a crispbread. But Derek and co are charmers. It’s like a personality barometer – If Aaliyah was a moron, she wouldn’t have these people around her.

Aaliyah doesn’t have hobbies. When she’s not working she watches Ally McBeal or Sex In The City and eats waffles. Sometimes she goes clubbing with Missy and some friends – say, Janet Jackson (when the three went out in New York they danced together).

She likes shopping (“I’m a girl!”) and her favourite designer is Roberto Cavalli, who lends her posh frocks for posh events. She’s got money, she has creative control, she looks extremely happy. Bloody hell.

“It means a lot to work hard and have everyone like what you do, but it’s not everything,” says Aaliyah. “It’s wonderful, but if I feel I’ve worked hard and I’m happy with the product, that’s the most important thing.

“Of course I want to make money, it’s my job. I want to enjoy the fruits of my labour.”

When you had your first royalty check at 15, did you spend it on booze or ice cream? “No, I’m not extravagant. I like to shop… I don’t think my mom told me what to buy. She probably said, ‘Don’t buy any more waffles’.” No booze? Don’t you like getting drunk? “No. Uhuh. Not at all… champagne, but just a little sip, I can’t finish a glass.”

What’s the most extravagant thing you’ve ever bought? “Um… my mom buys me jewellery. It’s been gifts, really, I don’t think I’m extravagant at all. [Points to very swanky ring] This one is a diamond eternity ring from Cartier. It was a birthday gift from a… friend.” Your friend’s got a good job then. [Eyebrows raised knowingly] “Sure.”

Haven’t you bought anything yourself? “Hahahah. Little things. I spend money on clothes, I guess. There’s no point having a car in New York.”

Beyoncé from Destiny’s Child can cross one eye, can you do anything like that? “Ooh!” She tosses Wilson aside with glee. “I can do this thing with my tongue, this, [makes front of tongue fold over] like a little cloak.”

That looks like something rude, actually. Who’s your ideal co-star? “I love Joaquin Phoenix, he’s amazing.” How much do you love him? Aaliyah opens her arms a medium way apart, to denote a healthy but not over-obsessive devotion. Oh, she’s so sensible.

Yet this charming person relishes bad-girl roles and is always talking about the “edgy, dark side” of her music. Is she dark and deadly underneath? She is, after all, ambitious and planning a long career in film – an industry which you probably have to be a bit of a bastard to get anywhere. Does Aaliyah have to be super-steely to get what she wants?

“Oooh, I don’t think so,” she ponders. “But I do like to go an extra mile, to do the best. I still take vocal, acting and dance lessons. I have to work hard, it was how I was brought up. There were a lot of people lining up for the Matrix role; it’s not easy, they don’t play around. They won’t put anyone up on that silver screen, you have to be ambitious.”

Do you ever worry that you might become an arsehole? “I don’t know… I always try to watch myself. I don’t let anything or anyone make me turn into a bitchy person. I don’t think it’s necessary. Even if I’m going out to get what I want, I’m not going to scrape and crawl. I will work hard and do what you need me to do.”

Did your parents worry about you getting into drugs through being in the music industry? “That’s something my mother always talked about,” she says. “Me and my brother were aware of those things from a young age, so we would know how to handle it. And my parents were always with me when I was young, so it wasn’t really a problem.”

Ever been offered any? “Nah, in a party atmosphere you hear a lot of things, but no one’s ever offered me any.” So you’re disappointed? “Hahahah! NOO!”

Aaliyah remains ambitious, turns up on time at the film studio and practices her singing every day. So far, it’s worked. She wants to be a singer first a foremost, but she cherishes acting too. She’s done quite a lot in her 22 years. Is there a lot more to do?

“Yes, I’m totally hungry,” says Aaliyah. I’ve had a wonderful amount of success and done a lot at 22, but there’s a lot more I want to do.

“I’m blessed to get into films at this point, but there are other sides of myself that I’d like to be seen. Some people say I’m funny, and I’d like to see if I am – comedy, drama, I’d like to try all of it.”

But she’s no control freak, she has no ambitions to direct or produce films. “I’m an interpreter,” she explains. “I bring music and film to life.”

What’s the stupidest thing anyone has written about you? “I don’t read articles or interviews about myself. One rumour I heard was that I had a glass eye and that that is why I wore my hair over my eye. Ha! There’s sometimes silly stuff like that.”

Would you like to settle down? “I’d like to marry and have kids one day. I wouldn’t push my kids into performing. I would be a relaxed, supportive, nurturing mother. Mine was.”

Do you have a motto?

“I always remember what my grandmother said, ‘If you don’t have obstacles, there is no growth.’ Whenever I come across an obstacle, I think of that and it comes all right.”

Siân Pattenden is an author, artist and illustrator, follow her on Twitter

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