“At the age of about seven singing was something that I knew I wanted to do professionally. It was a passion of mine, a secret passion of mine. Not many people knew outside of my family,” says Deborah Cox. Her smooth voice on the receiver makes me even more nervous and a bit giggly.
Cox is a homegrown diva from Toronto whose R&B and dance tracks have topped Billboard charts for more than a decade. I hear her music every week in the Village. Despite her success since 1995, she has humble, even closeted, beginnings.
“I was painfully shy to the point where if there was a new song that I learned I would perform it in the closet because I wouldn’t want to look anybody in the eye,” says Cox. “I remember distinctly doing that at Christmas time, singing Christmas carols in the closet. It was easier.”
To our benefit she overcame that shyness and, since her explosive success in 1997 with the dance music track “Things Just Ain’t The Same,” has worked widely in the gay community from Pride events, to AIDS fundraisers and with DJs like Hex Hector.
Tracks like “Nobody’s Supposed To Be Here” — which held number one on Billboard’s R&B charts for 14 weeks, a record that held for eight years until Mary J Blige’s “Be Without You” — and “Absolutely Not” have become anthems in the gay clubs and fuel her diva status.
“I’m flattered when I’m called a diva because when a gay audience is touched by a voice, a big voice, and they sanction you as the next one, or the one, you obviously have something very special. I don’t abuse it and I share it as much as I can,” she says.
These days, diva status has a number of associations for me: the arms of clubgoers are raised on cue as the bass swells, their heads tilt back during the long notes as they gyrate passionately to her tracks, drag queens perform her hits, and videos of such performances are readily available on YouTube.
Cox has connected with this scene and her wildest performance yet was in Australia for Pride.
“Australia was off the chain because I was on this platform that moved in the middle of the audience of about 20,000 gay men and the stage became a runway. At the end of the song about 20 drag queens came out in different Chanel costumes behind this big, huge Chanel purse to join me in ‘Absolutely Not.’ That was the most outrageous ever. I’m surprised that’s not on YouTube yet,” she laughs.
She hasn’t always owned the stage with drag queens; as a performer she realized gradually that she had to really live up to her image and voice, especially in the gay clubs.
“When I first started doing the gay clubs, I wasn’t hip on everything and really didn’t have my style together. I went on stage with these tight white pants, a white tank top, and a white cardigan and immediately felt the energy say, ‘What is she wearing!?’ I hope no one has pictures of that performance,” laughs Cox.
“When I look back at it now, gosh, you have to be much more fabulous and more forward for this audience. As the pacemakers you got to be fierce and I was so not fierce! I’ve grown and I get it now. I think they were expecting someone way more fabulous than this meek little person dressed in white tight pants and a cardigan. The visual didn’t fit the voice.”
Her big, four-octave voice doesn’t simply lend melody to a dance track, but competes with the big bass and big sound. Her messages around relationships and love are empowering, and express the frustrations of anyone regardless of gender.
She first broke onto the scene with the smooth sound of “Sentimental” — you may have been paying more attention to Omar Epps in the video.
Always a fan of block parties and dancing in the streets, I first got caught up by her video “Who Do U Love.” On the tail end of new jack swing she was singing straight up R&B.
Her influences include popular music from the ’80s and the work of Dinah Washington, another multigenre diva whose work Cox covered in her album last year.
“I remember hearing Dinah Washington on the 45s that my mother used to play,” says Cox. “I really loved her style because her voice was very distinctive, but her style reached many different genres. She did blues. She did jazz. She did big band. She did pop ballads. I saw a lot of myself in that as far as the twists and turns that my career has taken.”
While her career has taken unexpected directions, her life has graced her with two young children and a bit of reassessment around her work.
“I’m even more driven to do music that is sustainable. I really want to make sure that I leave my mark and a great legacy and body of work. I want to make sure that I’m doing something positive. I need to represent the fullness of who I need to be,” reflects Cox.
She is thankful to have found a community that embraces her work and relates to her messages. Outside of her music I am struck by how earnest she is on the phone, and how honest she is about her own hardships through her career.
“It’s important to be hopeful, that’s always been my spirit,” says Cox. “There’s been down time, a lot of hardships, a lot of ridicule, a lot of ‘you should be this or you should be that’. I’ve always stood very firm on whatever choice it is that I make. If there are mistakes that I’ve made, I live up to it. It’s hard to admit it because I’m very stubborn. I really value that about myself. I feel like that’s a good part of me where I just always try to find the good in something.”