MY CHILDHOOD (S)HERO
- by Tito Bonito / April 25, 2018
Inspiration can come from a million different places, people, media, experiences; you name it. While I am constantly impacted by more than one source, there was one significant person that helped shape the way that I think at a crucial time in my development. My childhood hero was Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes. She was someone who demonstrated all of the qualities that I want to possess; a loving and giving energy with a great work ethic, and a strong will to utilize their art to heal and improve. Left Eye came into my life when I was in fourth grade (circa late 1993) during her early reign as rapper of my favorite music group, TLC. I was at a friend’s birthday party when I heard the rap remix of “Baby-Baby-Baby” and “What About Your Friends” for the first time. I instantly loved all of the elements these three women offered. The smooth funk of T-Boz’s voice, the sexy growl of Chilli’s R&B influence, and Left Eye’s energetic and lyrical genius had meinvested. With a remarkable array of talents and an abundance of love for others, Left Eye is still, unfortunately, wildly misunderstood.
The thing that captivated me the most about TLC was their sense of humor. Even though the girls were all charismatic and powerful, Left Eye's energy always stood out and I could identify most with her. It wasn’t until their sophomore album, CrazySexyCool, came out and I saw them on MTV’s “Past, Present, & Future” that I became full blown obsessed. The music video for “Creep” showed how TLC were special. They were visually versatile with a catalogue of music to back up their fierce image. With the success of “Waterfalls,” they were catapulted into stardom. Nothing could stop them. Not even bankruptcy, illness, or even arson. Back then I would videotape every TV appearance and music video I could find. I would drive my family nuts re-watching those VHS tapes over and over but I loved them so much. I could not get enough. I wanted to entertain them as much as they had me. This continued into my high school days with the release of the group’s third record, FanMail, and the iconic hits “No Scrubs” and “Unpretty.” They called out bullshit but also wanted everyone to love and be themselves and they had a blast doing it.
They could almost do no wrong.
Growing up, I was very blessed to have had two phenomenal parents. They did the best they could with an overly sensitive, effeminate, and closeted child. When I discovered TLC, they were an incredible source of happiness for me. There were several things that set Left Eye apart from the rest of her bandmates. She would dance differently, she didn’t necessarily sing, and she rapped. Her imagination provided a level of creativity to TLC that crumbled without her. She named every album, designed the stages for their concerts, and had even constructed the group’s wardrobe. As a gay youth with not many resources for queer idols, Left Eye was my biggest one. Not only extremely gifted as an emcee and writer, she was undeniably inspiring as a person on a quest for self improvement. During the most tumultuous time in her career (re: the infamous fire), she used that negative experience to inspire with her brilliant rap in “Waterfalls.” It is a pivotal moment in TLC’s legacy.
Even with all of the positive messages Left Eye and TLC were providing, I still struggled with depression since as far back as I can remember. I could never fully accept myself for being gay. It was a major reason as to why I was always easily angered. It took a long time and the newly found internet for me to understand more about other ideas. All of it helped make me comfortable enough to come out. I got the courage in the summer before senior year to tell a few close friends and eventually my family.
That was the plan.
On August 25, 2001, the Saturday before my first week of senior year, Aaliyah, one of my favorite entertainers, dies in a plane crash. It was a devastating loss to me. It was the first time I experienced losing someone I looked up to as an artist; especially one who so young. I retreated emotionally and tried to focus on school but two weeks later, September 11th. I started to feel real terror and insecurity about the world around me. A few months after, my brother joined the Marines and while training at boot camp, Left Eye died.
My world shattered. I was so scared to believe in anything that I chose to believe in nothing. My fears stopped me from growing spiritually and mentally. Following her death, I felt alone in my grief. Not many friends and family were sympathetic to what I was feeling so I shut myself out. I tried to process as best as I could. I accumulated a massive collection of TLC memorabilia and even operated one of the largest TLC fan sites on the internet from 2000-2005 (hello TLC Lyrics Archive a.k.a. TLCsource.com). It helped a little. Though with time, I started to realize that TLC, at least in the sense of what they once were, was over. How was I going to find peace again? I needed to dedicate my life to my dreams. So I slowly started to cultivate my talents and in doing so, I hoped to find my artistic voice.
It was only the beginning.
Now, everyone has their turmoil; Lisa was not perfect. She had a history of being arrested, alcohol abuse, arson, and she went missing from several TLC appearances, on purpose. However, I think she was incredibly misunderstood. Just before Left Eye’s passing, she had frequented the message board of a TLC website that many fans belonged to, including myself. On occasion, she would go online and share personal thoughts and plans. Together we celebrated this new technology that connected us easily and hoped it would unite us. She had recently released her first solo project which had been a long journey in itself. Originally, she had planned to put out a “Left Eye”, hip-hop record in 1998, which was set to boast legendary guests such as Prince, David Bowie, Madonna, Lil’ Kim, Lenny Kravitz, to name a few. Eventually, in 2001, we were given a spiritual awakening from “Lisa Lopes.” After spending much of her later life traveling to Honduras to find peace, the project had a lot more to say. I saw it as such an incredibly personal gift to the world and that album helped me immensely that year; especially with her passing.
There were a lot of avenues that I could explore. Since I was a hermit in high school, I used that time to teach myself photoshop, graphic design, and how to edit audio and video. In the summer of 2005, I decided to move to Chicago and study theatre after seeing my brother move there to study film. Watching both my brothers move away from home gave me the strength to know that I could do it. My anger and desperation allowed me to follow through. From 2005 to 2009, I worked hard to build a life in Chicago and create art. In 2009, I finally got the nerve to perform and even had a brief stint as a drag queen named Dina Cochina. A few gigs in and it just didn’t feel right. My best friend, Jeez Loueez, who had been performing burlesque (and is now an ICON; I call her the Left Eye of Burlesque) took me to a “boylesque” show (starring the Stage Door Johnnies) in hopes of inspiring me. I had never seen anything like it and new instantly that it was the next path I wanted to try out. A few months later, on my 26th birthday, I performed as Tito Bonito for the first time.
Pain has always driven me to want something better. In a way, losing my idol at a young age helped me. Every time I faced rejection, I came out a little stronger. I learned that I can’t change the past but I can have more faith in myself. The power of energy is real and you can manifest anything you want as long as you are willing to work extremely hard for it; extremely hard. I have taken many risks and have been very poor for a long while in order to follow my dreams. Yet once I learned what worked well for me artistically, it was all in. I have given my heart and soul into my craft and it’s because I see the difference it makes in people’s lives; mine included. Left Eye used her celebrity to spread positivity, educate, and take care of others. I live by those values each and every day. I believe burlesque, as an art form, is the perfect style of entertainment for all audiences. I have seen the positive effect it has had on people. It allows people to open their mind up to a natural thing; sexuality. It has even given me the opportunity to confront my sexual repressions.
In the almost eight years of performing, I have been heavily influenced by TLC performing to many of their hits. Currently, I will be competing for “Best Small Group” with Japan’s greatest export, Nikita Bitch Project, at the 2018 Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. We are performing our Super Mario Bros duet set to “What About You Friends” and I am so excited to be performing to my favorite song of all time. No matter if we “win” or “lose”, it feels like it’s full circle for me. I spent so much of my life doubting myself, especially starting from scratch, with no experience, in a career that didn’t exist. I faked it till I made it and although I still have a long way to go, I will always keep Lisa in my heart. She taught me how to motivate myself and to be fearless in the pursuit of happiness at all costs.
Below is a video of the very first time I met TLC in 2015 after grabbing both the actual concert ticket and a Meet & Greet at the very last minute. After meeting T-Boz and Chilli, they gave me a memory that I will cherish forever. It felt like Lisa was there.
p.s. BONUS THOUGHTS
In 2016, I almost quit performing altogether. It was right after the horrific tragedy at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Perhaps, it felt a little too close to home as my hometown is Miami. I had just recently been touring the whole state of Florida with my mom and spent so much time in nightclubs just like Pulse. However, fear has never proven to be a positive force. Our country, and the world, tends to worry so much about insignificant matters such as people’s sexualities. We are constantly bombarded with confusing messages about sex and it is important for me to create my art. For the past eight years, I have seen it change many lives for the good, including my own. We all need to laugh more and burlesque in it's essence means "a joke." It is the perfect way to open people’s minds, hearts, and if we are lucky their legs, too.
These photos are of me with Left Eye's younger sister Reigndrop Lopes right after I hosted and performed at Tease, If You Please! and Marijuana Madness in Los Angeles.
P.S.s. DREAMS COME TRUE
In case I didn't say that enough! In May 2019, I got to take a master dance class from T-Boz and Chilli themselves at Mihran K Studios in Burbank, California. It was the first time they did something like this and I even got to dance to my FAVORITE SONG OF ALL TIME ("What About Your Friends") while in the middle of them wearing a Left Eye shirt! Video below provided by @DanceOn.