T-Boz: Before Sickle Cell Diagnosis Was Revealed, People Said I Had AIDS
Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins of TLC recently released her first book, A Sick Life: Stories from On and Off the Stage. In it, she goes into detail about her health ups and downs over the years. That includes her public battle with sickle cell anemia, being diagnosed with a brain tumor and the pregnancy she thought would never happen.
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While sharing excerpts of the book with Women’s Health, Watkins opened up about one particularly harrowing situation she had to deal with both behind the scenes and in the spotlight. Back when she was trying to balance performing with constant trips in and out of the hospital, ugly rumors started to spread that she had AIDS. This was in the mid-90s when the AIDS epidemic was so prevalent that for a time, according to HIV.org, it was the leading cause of death for all Americans ages 25 to 44. Before people knew of her sickle cell anemia status, the rumor got pretty far in a time preceding social media.
“I was in and out of hospitals a lot—although most people didn’t know why—and every time I went in, aching from the pain of my sickle cell disease, I’d hear people muttering to each other,” she wrote. “They’d ask, ‘Does she have any symptoms?’ They meant, ‘Does she have AIDS?'”
The rumors got worse when Watkins fell out after finishing a performance with TLC on the side of the stage. When she was rushed off in an ambulance, a ridiculous plot twist involving Eazy-E (who passed in 1995) started going around.
“At one of our shows, I collapsed on the side of the stage after we finished performing, and I left the venue in an ambulance,” she said. “The press and our fans got wind that something was going on, and everyone made it into this big dramatic thing. Rumors started to spread. I’d met Eazy-E, but we’d never really hung out. We’d just acknowledged each other in passing. Still, there was speculation that I’d gotten AIDS from him before he died. It was the craziest thing, but everybody believed it. They wanted to believe it.”
“I could feel people whispering about me, assuming they knew what was going on with my body,” Watkins added. “This was before social media and rumors felt more substantial. It was harder for them to spread, so any that did had real force behind them.”
The singer cleared up all of those rumors though in 1996 when she finally went public with her sickle cell anemia. She would eventually become a spokesperson for the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America. She still manages her disease and has said she’s thankful she managed to avoid some of the more serious effects of having sickle cell and been able to live out her dreams — making music and performing with the sometimes deadly disease.
“I was put here for a reason. And God covered me,” she told USA Today in 2008. “I was told that I’d be on disability my whole life. But everything I ever wanted to do, I did.”