When Cheryl James abruptly abandoned her red-hot career as "Salt" of the hip-hop duo Salt-N-Pepa and became a Christian, she also shattered her relationship with partner Sandra (Pepa) Denton.
Ten years after drifting away from the band, James, 43, is trying to be true to both faith and friendship by reconciling with Denton in the VH1 reality show "The Salt-N-Pepa Show."
"Kids look at [fame] and all they see is the glamour," James said in an interview from New York recently, "but there's a dark side."
When Salt-N-Pepa first hit the airwaves in 1985, 20-year-old James reveled in the freedom to make music she loved. "I found something that made me excited and something to be passionate about," she said.
Her passion paid off. Salt-N-Pepa, with aggressive, often raunchy lyrics ("Let's talk about sex, baby"), was the first female group to conquer the hip-hop genre. They won a Grammy, scaled the charts and released five albums.
Their most popular songs ("Push It," "Shake Your Thang," "Whatta Man" and "Shoop") featured catchy rhythms and get-stuck-in-your-head lyrics that remain some of the most popular dance songs from the late '80s and early '90s.
"S-n-P brought female empowerment to the forefront," says Andrew Ryan, an adjunct professor at George Mason University in Virginia, who teaches courses on hip-hop and is executive director of the online site the Journal of Hip-Hop. "Their music spoke directly to women."
Even as her onstage career exploded, however, James began to find her backstage reality oppressive.
The busy schedule left no time for relaxation or reflection. She felt suffocated by the demands of people who relied on her for their livelihoods, and the pressure to be thin pushed her weight worries into full-blown bulimia.
Hitting rock bottom
James felt she had lost control of her life and became severely depressed. She drifted away from the group, baffling her bandmates (Dee Dee "Spinderella" Roper joined in 1986) as well as fans.
"Most fans of hip-hop are unaware of the private lives of the artists," Ryan said. "[They] would not understand why one would leave the limelight and supposed monetary gain of rap music."
Looking back, James said she simply "got to a point where I just couldn't handle it anymore. I hit rock bottom."
In the throes of depression, she struggled to explain her decision to leave. "I was so focused on me that I felt I had no room to think of them," she said. The group officially disbanded in 2002, leaving Denton and Roper angrily holding the shreds of a once-promising career.
"I got to that desperate place where nobody could help me but God," James said. On her knees and praying for help, she felt she received an answer from God: "I want all of you."
"That meant to me that I needed to shut down a lot of things and focus on God because that was where my healing was. I needed to take a beat for myself," James said.
Immersing herself in a church, she sought healing for her underlying wounds. She worked on forgiving her father, whom she describes as a great man weighed down by alcohol. She reconciled with Gavin Wray, her daughter's father, and the couple married, had a son and settled in New York.
"Change is not an event; it's a process," James recalls her pastor saying. Over time, she won her fight with bulimia, as well.
When VH1 offered James and Denton a chance to work together on a reality show, James saw an opportunity to not only jump back into entertainment, but also to repair her relationship with Denton. The first season of "The Salt-N-Pepa Show" was "me trying to explain, and her trying to forgive, and both of us trying to untangle the mess," James says.
Some might be taken aback by James' decision to team up with Denton, still a party girl, but James sees the struggle of finding common ground and rebuilding friendship as compatible with, even necessary to, Christian faith.
"There are different kinds of people in the world," she said. "Christians often want to hide behind the walls of the church, where we are comfortable, but sometimes we have to come out of the box."