Deborah Cox, casually dressed in slacks and a turtleneck sweater, gesticulates wildly as she recounts the chichi gathering she attended recently at the Versace mansion in Miami. One of Donatella Versace's assistants heard the Canadian-born rhythm and blues singer being interviewed on a local radio station and promptly called to invite her to the party, the first at the mansion since the murder of Versace's brother, Gianni, in 1997. Cox rushes through a list of other revelers - first names only: "Whitney was there, Bobby was there, and Madonna. We were all hanging out, going out of our minds to our dance mixes." Then, collapsing into giggles, Cox recalls how Sandra Bernhard strode across the room, wagging her finger in mock exaggeration, saying: "Deborah, you're not supposed to be here." The comedian's remark was no put-down, but rather a play on Cox's multimillion-selling hit single Nobody's Supposed to Be Here.
Not too long ago, Cox was hearing a similar message from Canadian record executives. After being turned down by every record label in Canada, Cox and her road manager, Lascelles Stephens, now also her husband, moved to Los Angeles in 1994. Five years later, Cox was performing centre stage on Parliament Hill as part of Ottawa's Canada Day celebrations. She has a gold album in the United States, Australia and Canada, and at 26, is breaking industry records. Nobody's Supposed to Be Here is the longest-running R and B single in U.S. history, spending 33 weeks on the Billboard charts, a record 14 of them at No. 1. That has made Cox the best-known Canadian performer of urban music, the industry's fastest growing genre. She is on the cusp of worldwide stardom with a major U.S. label, New York City-based Arista Records.
Clive Davis, an Arista executive and one of the most powerful players in the industry, handpicked her for an audition after listening to her demo tape. Davis, a star-maker behind the likes of Whitney Houston, Puff Daddy and Bruce Springsteen, is routinely deluged with countless tapes. When asked what made Cox's stand out, he replies simply: "That voice." During their meeting at his office, Cox sang a cappella. Davis was so impressed that he immediately signed her to Arista and became her executive producer the following year. "That combination of a spectacular voice, beauty and an ability to write songs is very rare," he adds.
Her self-titled debut album in 1995 sold more than 50,000 copies, and garnered her a Juno, the first of three consecutive awards for best R and B recording. She received a best new artist nomination at the American Music Awards (D'Angelo won), and in March she became the first Canadian to win a Soul Train Award, over fellow nominees Janet Jackson and Lauryn Hill. "She really brings a soulful attitude and verve to every recording," says Billboard's dance music editor Michael Paoletta. He adds that her dance singles - re-recordings and not just remixes of her R and B tracks - are "considered classics on dance floors around the world." Canadian retailer Roots signed her to a near-half-million-dollar advertising deal, the largest single personality-driven campaign in its 26-year history. "Deborah is hip, talented and athletic," says Roots co-founder Michael Budman, "and right now, black urban music is the biggest movement in youth culture."
Cox is an anomaly. The first black R and B star to come out of Canada, she is also one of the rare performers, like Madonna or Cher, who can straddle both the pop and dance markets. In contrast to her formulaic, slick-finished ballads, Cox is a down-to-earth straight talker. This is particularly evident when she talks about the music business. "This is an industry that constantly tries to make artists feel less than they are," she says. "If you're not aware of business, you can get pimped and used up." If you're not negotiating tooth and nail, then glad-handing reps are "yessing you to death," she says, and it is easy to lose perspective and a sense of self. "You need to have more than the music," she adds. For Cox, that is her strong sense of family and God, a legacy of her strict Roman Catholic upbringing by Guyanese immigrants, Jeannette and Ernie, Cox's stepfather, who moved to Toronto in 1970. (She became a born-again Christian last year, prays daily and gives effusive thanks to God on her CD dust jackets.)
Cox credits her candour, among other characteristics, to her mother, a city worker and onetime union activist. Jeannette brought her native Guyana's love of varied music, from calypso to jazz and blues, into the home (Cox says her earliest childhood memory is listening to the American jazz singer Billie Holiday). She raised her three daughters - Deborah is the middle child - on curries, bakes (dumplings) and roti, and treated sundry ailments with garlic, cod-liver oil and other traditional remedies. Cox sticks to a largely organic diet, and avoids all preservatives and chemicals, including such over-the-counter drugs as aspirin. She has never smoked or drunk alcohol or coffee, although she does have such a nagging sweet tooth that she totes stacks of Canadian-made Glosette chocolates to Los Angeles.
Jeanette and Ernie - then a superintendent of the subsidized housing complex the family lived in in north Toronto - ran a strict home, with regular sitdown family meals, daily prayers and weekly church. "We were the only black family in our neighbourhood with both parents," recalls Cox. The area is, as it was then, an alcove for new immigrants, a down-market United Nations where 60 different ethnicities live on top of one another in densely packed subsidized and low-rent highrises. Cox, then a shy skinny girl with braces who often wore two pairs of pants to school to fill out her frame, says music was her one exceptional gift. "Karen was the beauty, and Angela was the baby," she says of her sisters. "But I had my music. I felt it was the thing that made me special." Adds Jeanette: "She thought she was ugly. She used to hide in the closet and sing there, too."
Jeanette recalls that Debbie, as her intimates call her, could always carry a tune, even at age 3, when she would sing along to TV commercials. By age 12, she was singing those jingles professionally, after winning a Tiny Tot Talent contest sponsored by a local television station. In her teens, in addition to attending the prestigious Claude Watson School for the Arts, she played gigs around Toronto, supplementing her income with a part-time job as a customer services representative at Rogers Cablesystems. By the time she graduated from high school, Cox was a veteran on the club circuit. "Toronto is old stomping grounds," she says, "there is a lot of history there."
It is also the place where Cox's most important professional and personal relationship began. In 1989, she met Lascelles Stephens, then 20, while she was still a 15-year-old student. By day, he was driving a forklift at a carpet warehouse in nearby Mississauga, Ont. But Stephens was also producing recordings for hip-hop artist Maestro, among others, and developing acts, like Simone Denny, now a vocalist for Love, Inc. Soon, Cox and Stephens began collaborating on songs. He kept a notepad by the gearshift of his forklift to jot down lyrics that popped into his head. They met after work and scraped together demo packages of tapes and biographical material, which they sent to all the major record labels. The packages invariably came back, sometimes crumpled, months later. "We spent whatever time and what little money we had putting those packages together," sighs Stephens, who kept all the rejection letters. This includes one particularly stinging letter from a top industry executive who said his label already had one female R and B vocalist, implying they had reached their quota. "It was disheartening," says Stephens.
The two say that although the situation is changing, the music industry still needs to better reflect Canada's multicultural makeup. "The racism is not as obvious as in the U.S., but it's there," says Cox. She first tasted discrimination in high school, when she auditioned for a production of the musical Oliver. "Everyone knew I was the singer in the school, but I never played the lead." Instead, she was cast in a minor part, a maid. Cox hastens to add that Canada is a great place to grow up and one that the couple still consider home. "Canada added to who I am much more than it ever took away," she says.
These days, Cox and Stephens, who married in April, 1998, in Negril, Jamaica, are busier than ever - and seem closer than ever. Only Stephens can interject during a recording session - as he did recently in New York's Fibre Studios - that she's holding back. When they broke for Chinese takeout (Cox only sings on a full stomach, a quirk she purportedly shares with Aretha Franklin), the singer asked everyone else what they'd like before she ordered and cleared plates afterward.
For now, the couple spend more days on tour than they do at their rented L.A. bungalow in tony Sherman Oaks (the earthquake scare makes them too skittish to buy property). With a new single, We Can't Be Friends, hitting the airwaves and a 33-city North American tour with Sarah McLachlan's Lillith Fair, there are few things Cox and Stephens want. One is another Bichon Frise dog, to replace five-year-old Sluggo who died two years ago. But mainly they want recognition from the music industry in their home country. Cox, upbeat and confident, is sure Canada will come around. And when it does, she will be waiting, sure of her place in the spotlight. "By all means, you can come late to the party," says a beaming Cox, "as long as you get there."
Maclean's July 19, 1999