Faith Evans: 'Biggie thought I was the best thing ever'

Faith Evans tells James McNair about her personal transformation and keeping her first husband's name alive
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The Independent Culture

Behind the singer, a sun-kissed vista stretches to Santa Monica pier. Living nearby with her three children, Evans is happily paired with her manager and second husband, Todd Russaw, with whom she has a son, Joshua, aged six. She also has an 11-year-old daughter, Chyna, by the music producer Kayma Griffin, and an eight-year-old son, PJ, who was fathered by the late rapper Notorious BIG (aka Christopher Wallace or Biggie Smalls).

Keeping her genetically complex family under one roof has been an achievement in itself for Evans, but Los Angeles holds painful memories for her. In 1997, it was here that Smalls was gunned down in a drive-by shooting. No one has yet been charged with the rapper's murder, but conspiracy theorists still hold he was killed by the gangland associates of his arch rival and one-time friend, Tupac Shakur, himself the victim of a drive-by shooting in 1996.

"Financially, a lot of families would have given up by now," says Evans regarding the ongoing lawsuit Biggie's estate has brought against the Los Angeles Police Department, "but we don't care how much it costs. It's about me as PJ's mother and Biggie's widow doing everything we can to honour his memory. Basically, we're dealing with a mistrial, and the judge has ordered that paperwork, video and intelligence be combed over. We may never find out who killed Biggie, but we know a proper investigation wasn't carried out. It ain't over yet, that's for sure."

Evans was 23 when Smalls was shot; though she and her late husband were already separated by the time of his death, the grief-stricken singer carried his ashes in an urn for months afterwards. Soon came the ugly rumours, but Evans has always denied that Biggie had any part in Shakur's death, and she has been similarly dismissive of reports that she slept with Tupac, as the East Coast rapper's Biggie-taunting song "Hit 'Em Up" claimed. In 1997, when Evans sang the chorus of Puff Daddy's nod to Biggie, "I'll Be Missing You", it seemed a curiously tidy footnote to such a dark debacle, but then Evans, it's abundantly clear, is a survivor.

Ten years and four albums into her chequered career, The First Lady has seen Evans reinvent herself Jackie Kennedy-style while stepping out from beneath Biggie's sizeable shadow. While her musical rejuvenation is pleasingly apparent on the sassy retro-funk cut "Mesmerized", you sense that her physical transformation was much more hard won. So how did she manage to lose 50 lbs and drop five dress sizes? "My husband has never told me, 'You have to be a size six', but he definitely told me, 'You've had three kids, Faith - it's time to start looking after your body.' He was speaking on a professional level as my manager. You know: what bases that could affect my career hadn't we covered? Working out was certainly one of them. I'm not Cindy Crawford, but I'm the best Faith I can be."

Asked about her belief in God, Evans says that the crucifix tattooed on her right shoulder was her way of dealing with "the first whirlwind of media scrutiny" that accompanied her separation from Biggie in 1996. "It was my way of reminding myself what was sustaining me; I thought back to the scripture, 'Everybody has a cross to bear.' Most people pray when they go to bed or when they wake up", she adds. "I do all of that, too, but I pray all day long for different reasons."

Evans was born in the small town of Lakeland, Florida, but moved to Newark, New Jersey when she was six months old. She was raised in Newark by her cousins, Bob and May, a couple whom she euphemistically describes as her grandparents. Theirs was a devout Baptist household in which listening to the "devil music" on the radio was forbidden. Her single-parent mother, Helene, had left Faith in Bob's care to seek her own fortune as a singer. "I can totally understand why she left me", she says. "She wanted to dream bigger and leaving me with my grandparents was a way of protecting me. A cousin told me that my mom got me out of there because that family was crazy." What about Evans following her mother into singing? "It is ironic that I've ended up living out my mother's dreams", she says.

Evans first rebelled against her grandparents by cutting her hair and "wearing shell-toe Adidas with big fat laces." A more powerful statement was losing her virginity aged 14. Soon, she was turning on to Aretha Franklin, whose rich, stentorian voice and journey from religious background to secular success she found hugely inspiring. Evans graduated from singing in church to gigs at weddings and parties and funerals. At 19 she had established herself on the New York City session-musician scene and earned a reputation as a gifted arranger of vocals. It was at one such session that Evans first encountered the rap producer-impresario Sean "Puffy" Combs. Puffy signed Evans on the spot, making her the first female artist on his Bad Boy roster and inviting her to co-pen material for Mary J Blige.

"I didn't come into the industry with much knowledge of the business. I was a church girl who could sing and write songs. I thought Puffy would show me the ropes, but like many things in life my time at Bad Boy ended up being both a blessing and a curse."

That same dichotomy could arguably be applied to Evans' relationship with Biggie Smalls. She met him at a photo-shoot, the 6ft, 400lb rapper engineering a lift home to Brooklyn in her car, and securing her phone number surreptitiously. "I was looking at some photos of mine that day, and, unbeknown to me, he had taken my number off the envelope", says Evans, smiling at the memory. "When I dropped him off, he said, 'You're cool - I'm gonna call you.' When he did get in touch, he told me how he'd got my number, and I thought that was kind of cute.

"I loved Biggie's sense of humour, and I think he was attracted to my independence and intelligence," Evans adds. "I was a single mom with a car and an apartment and money in the bank. He thought I was the best thing he'd ever met. That was how he made me feel."

On stage in New Orleans, Evans delivers a fantastically earthy performance,the capacity, 99 per cent black audience eager to bump and grind to everything from "You Used To Love Me" to Evans' sweet soul hit, "Again." At one point Evans honours Biggie from the stage. No one could begrudge the singer her cries of "Respect for the Notorious One!", but surely her nightly props to her superstar ex-lover must test her current husband's magnanimity?

"That's been part of my show for eight years now," she says, "I don't know if I could handle it if the roles were reversed, but the way Todd has dealt with it has deepened my respect for him. You also have to remember that Todd is my manager. He wants me to make the most of everything that happened with Biggie and change it into a positive."

Heartened by the No 2 US chart success of The First Lady, Evans plans to diversify. A fitness video is on the way, and she is recording a Christmas album. More intriguingly, she is gathering material for an autobiography, but says her notes might turn into a screenplay, or a sitcom. "Oh yeah," Evans smiles, before making another of her shifts into the third person. "Faith is gonna do big things next year. You'll be hearing plenty more from the First Lady."

'The First Lady' and the single 'Mesmerized' are out now on EMI/Capitol