Christina Milian: ‘Things have evolved when it comes to culture, when it comes to respect, when it comes to women’

The Noughties pop star talks to Kate Solomon about turning up for music industry meetings to be told, ‘actually we’re going on a date’, trying to avoid being pigeonholed, and taking over the late Naya Rivera’s role in Lionsgate+’s ‘Step Up’

Saturday 15 October 2022 13:03 BST
‘When I first came out, I had to deal with people trying to define me’
‘When I first came out, I had to deal with people trying to define me’ (Getty)

The early Noughties were a verdant time for chart pop. Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera couldn’t put a musical foot wrong, and it seemed easier than ever to launch a young woman with a catchy song into the stratosphere. One of those hopefuls was Christina Milian, bursting into the charts and our collective cultural memory with bubblegum-adjacent hits like “AM to PM” and the sultry “Dip It Low”. Twenty years later with the days of low-rise jeans and whale tail thongs a distant dream, she’s hoping for a different kind of success in Lionsgate+’s dance-school drama Step Up.

Pop hadn’t reached the point of sincere critical evaluation when Milian released her first record in 2001, but it held a power over the masses that seems to have ebbed a little in the years since. As the decade wore on, Rihanna, Jennifer Lopez and Destiny’s Child defined the Noughties club-R&B sound and it seemed, for a while, that every new pop hopeful was an identikit copy of their formula, their looks, and their songs.

At first glance, Christina Milian was just another pop girl engineered to cash in on the trends cast by Swedish producers and perfected by Destiny’s Child. Her family had cottoned on to her potential when she was a mere four years old, uprooting their lives some years later and relocating from New Jersey to LA to help her achieve her dreams of becoming an actor. Though she did have a few small film and television roles, it was her voice that got her noticed. Cute-faced and smiley, she caught the ear of uber-producer Darkchild, sang the chorus to Ja Rule’s “Between Me and You”, wrote and sang on Jennifer Lopez’s “Play” and signed to Murder Inc Records at 19.

What had seemed like a dream quickly became a rude awakening: it wasn’t easy for a young woman to navigate a sea of masculine energy. “Most of the business was run by men,” she recalls, speaking on a video call from a hotel suite in London. Milian is still quick to smile, shrouded in glorious autumnal knitwear, and, at 41, has the air of a cool mum who’d always have a bottle of pinot chilling in the fridge. “You’d come across situations where you think you’re coming to work and then, of course, it’s somebody taking advantage of the situation saying, ‘Oh no we’re not having this meeting, actually we’re going on a date.’”

She struggled, too, with producers who would change lyrics to things she didn’t agree with, or even withhold her demos. It was a harsh lesson in the inequitable realities of the entertainment business and left her determined to retain as much control over her career as she could. In contrast to her turn on Ja Rule’s track, her early hits are glistening, polished PG diamonds: “AM to PM” is a catchy dancefloor filler co-written by Milian and Bloodshy (the Swedish producer who co-wrote Britney Spears’s “Toxic”); “When You Look At Me” fits happily into the genre of inoffensive radio-friendly songs about going out-out and personal empowerment, heavy on the canned strings and celestial harmonies.

Though the songs did well, Milian herself struggled with the micro-aggressions that came with being a Black Latina in an unenlightened age. “When I first came out, I had to deal with people trying to define me,” she says now. “So it’s like, ‘oh what, are you Black? Are you Latina? What are you?’ That’s very hard still in this day and age.” She found herself hampered, too, by those early forays into music, finding that she was expected to make a certain kind of music and keep on making it.

At 19, she had been testing the waters and figuring out what kind of artist she was, so when she returned at 21 with the outrageously raunchy “Dip It Low”, it was a surprise. The chorus is basically a manual of sexual yoga moves that sound frankly dangerous for anyone over 30 to perform (“Roll it all around, poke it out, let your back go”) but guaranteed to “make your man go, ‘oh’.”

Milian in ‘Step Up'
Milian in ‘Step Up' (Lionsgate+)

“‘Dip It Low’ was all me,” she laughs. “I’m not gonna say anybody made me sing that, I found the song and I loved it. I’m 21, I’m feeling sassy, I’m telling the girls – let’s own it.” Having fought her label to take her seriously and give her the support she needed for this phase of her career, though, she found a fickle public was desperate to put her in a box once again. Her sex-positive new persona became “almost the only definition [of me] at that time”, as if a young woman could only be one thing at a time and not contain multitudes.

“People were like, well, you need permission, you need to ask your agent, you have to ask this and that. Finally, one day I just did it myself and I’m so proud I did that: I see so many people doing that now. We don’t have to wait for a man or anybody else to tell us what to do or how to do it.”

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Her music career began to dovetail with her dream of being an actor when she was cast in Be Cool, the 2005 adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s sequel to Get Shorty. She played Linda Moon, an aspiring musician dealing with John Travolta’s loan shark-turned-Svengali music producer Chili Palmer (spot the plot points that drew her to the film). Filming a live scene with Aerosmith for that film was a pinch-me moment, the moment when she realised she had “made it”, not least because she had a crush on Steven Tyler – “I was ready to leave on the tour bus.”

But in 2006, the unimaginable happened: Murder Inc dropped her just one week after the release of her album So Amazin’. She spent some years trying to reclaim some of her former success, signing to MySpace Records but she had begun to lose interest and turned to acting and entrepreneurship for career fulfilment – her business ventures include celebrity chatbots, a vineyard and food trucks selling beignets – French deep-fried pastries.

On stage in 2001
On stage in 2001 (Getty)

After a string of schmaltzy, low-key romcoms tailor-made for streaming, her role in Step Up is a juicer one. The series is an adaptation of the popular 2006 film of the same name about the trials and tribulations of teenage dance hopefuls at the cut-throat High Water dance school in Atlanta (the first two seasons were known as Step Up: High Water). Milian has taken over the role of hard-nosed but caring dance school head Collette Jones, previously played by Naya Rivera who died in a tragic boating accident in 2020. Milian wrestled with whether or not to take the part, drawing up endless pros and cons lists. “How could I do this respectfully? Was it right to even do it? What are her fans going to feel?”

When filming began, the cast were still mourning their co-star and Milian was in the difficult position of coming in as a replacement. “I didn’t want to force myself on them: it took some time.” Relating to the character was what sealed the deal for her. “Colette is a very confident woman. I didn’t want to lose that sense of confidence, but I also wanted to show the layers, the way people cover everything with confidence. It’s like a mask.”

Though Milian recorded a song for the series, she seems genuinely conflicted about whether or not she will ever return to music. At the moment, it’s mostly “Baby Shark” and workout playlists on repeat in the Milian household (Milian was seven months pregnant while shooting Step Up and gave birth to her second son, Kenna Tota, two weeks after the series wrapped). But there’s a twinkle in her eye as she sets out another pros and cons list for me. Pros for a return to music: she knows what she’s doing now, she’s in a comfortable place in her life. Cons: am I even ready to go through that again?

“I have no regrets,” she insists. “And things have evolved when it comes to culture, when it comes to respect, when it comes to women.” A 2022 Christina Milian record might not be on the cards, but she’s determined to get as much out of life as she can. “Well,” she concludes, after weighing up her options. “Watch this space.”

‘Step Up’ season three is streaming now on Lionsgate+

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