Deborah Cox: Authentic ally

Deborah Cox: Authentic ally

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I’m not a big drinker and never have been, but I vaguely remember a few tipsy nights with friends in the late ’90s with all of us drunkenly singing at the top of our lungs, “How did you get in? Nobody’s supposed to be here! I’ve tried that love thing for the last tiiiiime!”

If you don’t recognize those lyrics, they’re from the chart-topping song “Nobody’s Supposed to be Here” from R&B diva Deborah Cox. It previously held the record for longest-running number-one single on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks chart for 14 weeks.

Thirteen number-one Billboard’s Hot Dance Club hits later, Ms. Cox is still going strong. In addition to her amazing vocal talents, she has carved out a career as an actor, making her Broadway debut in the Elton John-Tim Rice musical “Aida.” She has recorded songs for the soundtracks of “Dr. Dolittle,” “Hotel Rwanda,” “Akeelah and the Bee” and many more. She has recorded an acclaimed jazz album based on the songs of Dinah Washington. Most recently, she has been touring with the stage version of “The Bodyguard,” playing the role made famous by her friend Whitney Houston. (Side note: Cox provided vocals for the 2015 Whitney Houston biopic “Whitney,” directed by Angela Bassett.)

In addition to recording the hit song “Same Script, Different Cast” with Houston, Cox has collaborated with such artists as Andrea Bocelli, David Foster, Josh Groban, The Isley Brothers, Cyndi Lauper and Sarah McLachlan.

Cox has been honored with too many awards to count, including an American Music Award nomination, three Juno Awards (the Canadian version of the Grammys) and her own star on Toronto’s Walk of Fame.

Most of us in the LGBTQ community will recognize Cox for her unfailing support of our community, and for the powerful club anthem, “Absolutely Not.”

You know how it goes:  “Told myself I won’t complain, but some things have got to change. Not gon’ be a victim of, all your social push and shove. Right or wrong, you judge the same, my picture never fit your frame. What you thought, you’ll never know, you can’t see me with your mind closed.”

With a spirit as beautiful as her voice, Cox is also the recipient of numerous awards for her humanitarian work. She was honored by the Harvey Milk Foundation’s 2015 Diversity Honors gala for her efforts in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Cox also received the Out Music Pillar Award in 2015 for her longstanding commitment to various social issues in the LGBTQ community. In Philadelphia, she was honored by Mayor James Kenney two years ago to kick off Pride Day.

We had a chance to speak to Cox ahead of her performance Aug. 4 at the Distrkt C party in Rehoboth Beach.

PGN: I’m thrilled to speak with you and really excited that you’re going to be performing in our area again.

DC: Yeah, it’s one of those parties that I’ve heard about for years but the timing was never right for me to do it, so I’m excited to finally be able to make it.

PGN: You live in Florida now, but you’re originally from Canada, correct?

DC: Yes, I was born and raised in Toronto. I’ve been singing since I was 3. When I was about 11, I started singing jingles on TV ads and entering talent shows. I went to the performing-arts high school and played in local bands and performed in nightclubs when I was still a teenager — the club owners would have to get a signed release from my parents so I could perform. But my first major gig was singing background for Celine Dion. That got my feet wet in the music industry. It was while I was on tour with her that I landed my first recording deal.

PGN: Tell me a little about the family.

DC: I grew up in a very multicultural neighborhood in Scarborough. My parents are both from Guyana, South America. They split up when I was about 9 months old and my father had to return to Guyana for health reasons. I was raised by my mother and stepfather. My stepfather was great; very family-oriented, so he’d do all sorts of trips to the beach and amusement parks with me and my two sisters.

PGN: What is a Guyanese tradition or food that your mother introduced you to?

DC: There’s a dish called roti — I don’t know how to describe it, like a naan bread? And it’s stuffed with a curried chicken or shrimp or vegetable. That was my favorite thing growing up. It still is.

PGN: Though you grew up in a multicultural neighborhood, I understand that you went to a predominantly white school and faced some difficulty there.

DC: Yes, I was one of two black girls at my Catholic school and I was picked on a lot. I started developing a complex about the way I looked. In addition to being black, I was teased for being skinny. I started wearing two pairs of pants just to try to look “shapely.”

PGN: Do you think that experience helped you be more sympathetic to the gay community?

DC: Yes, but also, I was always the one in my social circles everyone told their secrets to. Part of that was because of me being “other,” but also, outside of school, Toronto was a real melting pot, so you had to grow up respecting different cultures.

PGN: And how did you get started on your solo career?

DC: [Music mogul] Clive Davis heard me and I guess he saw something he liked. He was willing to get behind me and invest in me. Because of his belief in me, it really gave me the opportunity to start recording and touring on my own.

PGN: What was a first big moment?

DC: Just being in a multi-million-dollar recording studio, recording with Babyface and songwriters like Diane Warren and David Foster. I mean, my first album was pretty lit with all these major producers. There have been many highlights since then, but to be in a room of hitmakers that first time was pretty incredible.

PGN: One of the things I was surprised to read was the long struggle you had with self-esteem.

DC: Yes, always wanting people to like me, always wanting to please people, to be wanted and accepted — and it’s something that carried over into my adulthood. This business is one where you’re always being judged and reviewed or criticized. It took me a long time to get a handle on it. People often try to take advantage of you if you have a good heart. I was constantly pulled in different directions. I’m in a much better place now, but the fact that it took me this long is crazy. [Laughing] You know? I had to realize that I had my own voice and my own opinions and it was OK if others don’t agree. I had to learn to be the CEO of my own life.

PGN: I read that it was Whitney Houston who encouraged you to start a family.

DC: I was working on my third album and I was in a place where I was struggling to find direction. I was in my 30s, trying to figure out if I should start a family and when I should start a family, because they’re always telling you, especially in this business, that you can’t take time off. And Whitney just said to me, “Don’t let the business dictate. Don’t put the important stuff on hold. This business is not all that it’s cracked up to be. Have your family.” It was great sisterly advice.

PGN: How did you get so involved in the LGBT community?

DC: I’ve been doing late-night circuit parties, gay cruises and Pride events for a long time. Right from the very beginning, people would come backstage crying and telling me that I helped liberate them through my music. I’m a very spiritual person and my spirituality doesn’t come from a place of judgment. I just leaned where the spirit led me to go, and it led me to a place where people felt comfortable sharing their stories. It felt like I was fulfilling a purpose.

PGN: It seems like a full-circle moment as someone who struggled for acceptance. You were able to turn around and say, “I love you and accept you” to a community who didn’t get that often at the time.

DC: There are so many parallels. We often think we’re so different, but there are so many more similarities, which became very apparent to me early on. I didn’t set out to be an activist, but being in the trenches has given me a chance to really hear and understand the stories of people who have told me that I helped them to come out or played a pivotal role in their lives. It happened organically and I thank God that it did. Being involved with the community has helped me to be my authentic self as well. And that’s why I’ve continued on this path. If my gift inspires people to be who they’ve been created to be, then I’ve done my job. 

For more information on Deborah Cox’s Rehoboth Beach concert, visit

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