A fairytale love story that began with the world’s biggest R&B star, R.Kelly, and his ex-wife Andrea Kelly, soon turned to a nightmare of fear, intimidation, and abuse
Growing up on the south side of Chicago, Andrea Danyell Lee was drawn to dance at an early age.
She recalled many happy memories of dancing in her mother’s living room while her idol Debbie Allen starred on-screen as if it was her own dance class in the 1980s television series “Fame.”
“Sometimes my mom had to choose between paying the light bill and sending me to dance class,” Andrea explained. “That light bill was going to win every single time,” she quipped with a hearty laugh.
Andrea, who now goes by Andrea Kelly, a name she said she “paid for with blood, sweat and tears…literally,” is known to the world as the ex-wife of R&B icon and notoriously accused abuser R. Kelly (nee Robert Kelly).
But while she will always be known as Kelly’s ex-wife, the Chicago native revealed she was so much more. The former reality star—Andrea appeared on all three seasons of the VH-1 non-scripted series “Hollywood Exes”—and famed choreographer breathes dance, speaks dance and even used dance as a source of healing throughout her life.
Years later, Andrea would be living her own dream as a choreographer and dancer. In 1993, she earned her big break. Slipping off to an audition in a music video for Kelly’s first solo single, “Sex Me,” Andrea landed a job as Kelly’s principal dancer and choreographer in the same year he also got his big break with his debut album, “12 Play.”
Kelly’s “12 Play” went on to top the R&B albums chart for nine weeks straight, while reaching the second position on the US Billboard 200 chart.
Soon, Andrea noticed a change in the professional relationship with her boss. “Be careful what you say—three kids and a divorce later,” she warned with a knowing smile.
At the time, Andrea was engaged and had no interest in building a relationship with Kelly besides dancing for him. Kelly himself was married to 15-year-old singer Aaliyah.
On Feb.7, 1995, Kelly’s marriage to Aaliyah was annulled. Andrea said she and Kelly never discussed Aaliyah because she felt it wasn’t her place in the beginning. For Åndea, Kelly had said what he had to say and Aaliyah’s family had spoken their piece on the situation.
One day, the energy between Kelly and Andrea changed. From there, Kelly described her relationship with the singer as being intimate, but not at all sexual.
Soon, Kelly and his backup dancer became even closer. In the beginning, Kelly describes the singer as charming, sweet, and with the best “momma jokes.” However, back then, she said, she wasn’t aware of the difference between “a charming man and a cunning man.”
Andrea recalled the moment she said Kelly told her he fell in love with her. “I had been sitting in the back of the tour bus reading the Bible, and he said the light was coming in through the window,” she said. “He said, ‘I opened up the door and saw you and I didn’t want to disturb you.’
“He said that I reminded him of his mom and that’s when he fell in love with me,” she said.
The early stages of the couple’s relationship were full of bliss; according to Andrea, the two had become best friends.
Around the time he revealed his love for Andrea, Kelly opened up to his would-be wife about his dark past of growing up in a home where he was sexually abused on several occasions by his sister and the secret of being illiterate.
“I had no idea he had been molested. Not once, not twice, but three times by three separate people,” Kelly said. “Like all of this information that he started sharing with me.”
“It was through him sharing his childhood and dealing with the illiteracy, growing up in a house and being abused, I got to see Robert and everyone else around us got to see R. Kelly, the persona,” she said. “ It went from friendship to love.”
For Andrea, the news of his past connected them.
Having grown up in an abusive home watching her grandfather, a former Baptist preacher beat her grandmother; abuse wasn’t foreign to the newlywed.
“The same man who would put his hands together and pray over breakfast was the same man who would have his hands around my grandmother’s neck,” she said.
Still, her grandmother would get up the next morning and cook breakfast as if nothing happened, Andrea said. “Robert’s behavior was not foreign to me because if the man of the cloth (my grandfather)—if he’s abusive, of course, a man of the world is,” she said.
God, love, and pain is what the dancer knew. Andrea said that watching her grandmother be helpless helped her relate to Kelly not being able to help his mother.
This connection would prove dangerous for the couple’s marriage.
In 1998, the couple welcomed their first child together, a daughter she named Joann Arielle Kelly, after Kelly’s late mother. Andrea recalled that the two had originally agreed to name their newborn Chase Monet Kelly.
“I ended up naming her Joann the day she was born because when she came out, she looked exactly like his mom and I met him not too long after his mom passed away,” Andrea said. Kelly rushed to the hospital thinking he was coming to meet a baby girl named Chase Monet. Instead, the singer walked in to see a ticket on her arm that read “Joann Arielle.”
Joann, who is estranged from her father, now goes by the name Buku Abi.
“I remember he cried and cried and cried and it took me back to that little boy in him, the first time he shared with tears in his eyes, ‘Drea, I can’t read,’” she said. “All this time, not knowing that this charming, loving, happy man crying over his newborn is covering up for the monster I’m about to meet.”
Andrea described her ex-husband’s relationship with their children as the best provider he could be.
The world of “Robert” was one of a man who was molested and who couldn’t read, according to the mother of three.
For Andrea, her ex-husband couldn’t accept that part of himself which made him feel inadequate as a father not even knowing how to read a bedtime story to his kids. “Did he provide a home? Yes. Did he provide food? Yes. Did he provide nannies? Yes. Was he a father? No,” she said.
With a difference between being a father and provider, Andrea said that the job was 24/7, despite a schedule full of video shoots and concert tours. “He did not know how to do that. And I think that the world that gave him confidence was the world of R.Kelly,” she explained.
Despite his shortcomings as a parent, Andrea said she didn’t blame him for not being able to give what he didn’t have, but holds him fully responsible for not being the father he did not have. “It’s your job to be the father that you were lacking,” she said. “Give that to your children on whatever level that is.”
The Kellys welcomed another baby girl named Jaya in 2000.
The following year, Aaliyah died in a plane crash killing her and eight other after shooting her “Rock The Boat” music video. 2001 was also the year Kelly was sued by Tracy Sampson, a former intern at Epic Records, who claimed she lost her virginity to the singer at 17-years-old. Eventually, the case settled out of court.
In 2002, the couple welcomed their son Robert Jr. What seemed like a happy time, become a nightmare soon after.
Asked about the moment when the marriage took a turn for the worse, Andrea said there were many days he wasn’t abusive but she saw glimpses of Kelly’s behavior before they’d even married.
“Some days were abusive, but it was an abusive relationship and an abusive marriage from day one,” Kelly said.
Physical abuse came later in her marriage to the “Ignition” singer, she said. But the mental, emotional, and financial abuse had already been set in stone before the physical abuse manifested.
In 2001, a videotape was sent to a reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times that revealed the singer having sex with what appeared to be an underage young woman, who some say was only 14-years-old.
On June 5, 2002, when things seemed that they couldn’t get any worse, Kelly was indicted on 21 counts of child pornography. Both Kelly and the woman in the video denied their involvement in the video and he was never charged with assault.
Further, he would later be found not guilty.
Andrea said once she hoped she could be a light in Kelly’s life.
“You feel like, ‘I can save him if I’m just here for him if I love him enough if I pray for him enough; but, at the end of the day, that person has to want it more than you do for themselves,” she said.
During his darkest times, Andrea said she felt as though she was obligated to stay with him because of the things Kelly was able to do for her.
“‘Look how he cares for me,’ I told myself, not knowing that that was a part of the trap,” she explained.
Even with a non-guilty verdict, in an interview with People.com, Andrea explained that the effects of the scandal took a major toll on the family. “My children have had to deal with kids telling them, ‘Your daddy is the guy who peed on people,’” she said in her People interview, “and it’s ongoing.”
Andrea said the case became a breaking point for her as their marriage continued to crumble.
“At the time I didn’t know there was such a thing as spousal rape. He’d tried to lock me in the bathroom,” she said. “I remember being ready to jump off the balcony of our hotel suite and commit suicide.”
“Thank God I didn’t,” Andrea said. “After that, I said, ‘I’m done.’ In 2004, I called my dad, packed my bags and left with our kids in the night.”
Andrea said she then filed for an order of protection against her husband and the couple separated in 2005. The man who had once swept her off her feet now became the man she never wanted and was now preparing to divorce him.
Andrea explained that fear kept her from coming forward a lot sooner. Even walking into a courtroom was intimidating for her, as she had three children to consider.
“You’re the victim, and your abuser walks in with five lawyers, and you’re trying to figure out why do you need five lawyers against me?” she said. “They intimidate you from the time that they feel that you’re about to leave.
“When I walked into a courtroom, and it was him with his grease ball, slicked-back hair and a team of five lawyers, I’m thinking to myself, “Is this what I’m up against?’”
Already feeling defeated, Andrea said she was then feeling the financial burden of figuring out how she was going to get away from her abuser and take care of her three children.
“All these things are stacked against me, and here you are with five lawyers, and they’re telling me, be careful,” she said.
While the legal system did award Andrea with a restraining order, her response was that restraining orders wasn’t bulletproof.
“What am I supposed to do with that?” she questioned. “You gave me a restraining order against him. What about his lawyers that are calling me and harassing me and threatening me? What about his accountant that calls and harasses and threatens me and letting me know no one’s gonna believe you?”
Andrea said she also dealt with threats from Kelly’s manager.
On June 13, 2008, Kelly was acquitted of all child pornography charges and, on Jan. 8. 2009, Andrea finalized her divorce from Kelly and obtained custody of their children.
“I got sick and tired of suffering in silence, and that’s what it felt like,” Andrea said.
While she had to deal with the financial burden and emotional, physical, and mental trauma of an abusive husband, Andrea said there’s no price tag on keeping her quiet to save other women’s lives.
Ten years later after finally divorcing the troubled star, the world would see several women— including Andrea—come forward to speak on the alleged abuse they’ve experienced from the hands of Kelly.
In 2018, Andrea agreed to join several other women for a six-part docuseries titled, “Surviving R.Kelly.”
For Andrea, the tipping point to come forward once again for the docuseries was after seeing Jerhonda Pace appear on the daytime talk show, “The Real.”
“It was so eerie to see somebody that I do not know, and they’re speaking to my life parallel, like the things she had experienced and things she’d been through,” Andrea said. “It was like, ‘Wait!’ It was that weird feeling like how would you know that unless it has happened to you verbatim?”
Having been divorced from Kelly for nearly 13 years, Andrea said watching Pace on TV brought forth a sickening feeling.
“I thought what I went through with him had to be the worst and to see someone else come forward, it’s like, wait a minute, and then after her, it was another woman and another and I’m like, whoa, whoa, whoa!” Andrea said.
With a ten year gap between Pace and Andrea’s abuse, she thought, “God, not again.”
To hear women stories, Andrea wanted to bring validity to their accounts for those who have doubted the women. She knew for women in color in America, they were the “last on the totem pole.”
“If this were Becky, if this were Amber, if this were Hannah, it wouldn’t take 20 years and 30 women. It would have been 60 seconds and one girl,” Andrea said. “I felt if I come forward at least someone will listen; it won’t fall on deaf ears.”
When the docuseries finally aired Jan. 3-5 on Lifetime TV, people began to finally listen. Kelly has been publicly condemned and several cases have been brought up against him including here in Georgia.
Soon after the docu-series, the Fulton County District Attorney’s office reached out to several women who dated the singer who shared their stories ranging from sexual harassment to sexual abuse.
The family of one of Kelly’s alleged victims, Jocelyn Savage, contacted the DA days after the docu-series aired to provide a list of witnesses to an alleged incident that took place at Kelly’s Georgia’s residence in 2017. Additionally, Fulton County investigators have reportedly have been “flooded with calls” since the docu-series premiered.
While Andrea herself received support from family, friends, and viewers, there have been some who doubted her claims, suggesting her efforts were essentially a money grab. Instead of getting angry, Andrea flatly blamed people’s doubts about her claims due to their own attachment to Kelly’s R&B persona.
“Behind the persona is a flawed man, a person. I don’t care how much your celebrity you are, you can still be bad. You can still be wrong,” Andrea said. “You can still be sick; you can still need help. It doesn’t make you flawless. It just makes you famous.”
Andrea admits to suffering from PTSD due to the abuse she faced while with Kelly.
Certified Clinical Trauma Therapist Anisha Cooper said that this is common among women who have been abused.
Cooper, who teaches sexual trauma victims healing and relearning touch, said that post-traumatic stress could cause a client to have flashbacks, nightmares, and anxiety as a result of certain triggers.
“Whether that be people that look similar to their abuser, sometimes it’s a place that similar to the place that they were assaulted or violated,” Cooper said.
Andrea said that her own triggers didn’t emerge until women started coming forward. “Things that you think that you’ve dealt with you like, ‘Oh, that did happen. Where did I put that?’ But I understand how the human body works,” Andrea said. “Sometimes it suppresses and put things where they need to be for you just to get up and survive day to day.”
Andrea also mentioned that her healing is ongoing.
Constance Wallace, a psychotherapist who works with sexual trauma victims, said that some victims can experience moments of isolation, but it’s vital to have a support system.
“They are going to provide you with that emotional support if you were deciding to share details of what happened,” Wallace said. “Getting to know yourself before you were abused is an essential factor in the healing process.”
Wearing two hats, one as the victim-survivor and one as the mother of Kelly’s children, Andrea said she has not really addressed her pain, just the feelings of judgment.
“I’ve had people say, ‘Well, you don’t look like you’ve been abused. Well, what does that supposed to look like?’” she said. “Like you feel like you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
“I’ve done videos where I’m bawling and crying, and people will say, ‘well, you need to get over it. Why you are bawling and crying?’” she continued. “Then there’s a video of me being happy. Well, ‘She’s all happy and smiling?’”
Not knowing what people want from her, Andrea said she wants other women to know that there are highs and lows, good days, and bad days. Andrea said her healing is “whatever it looks like to me” and that “it has no expiration date.”
“If it took me 15,20 years to be in it and get out of it, it might take me 15 to 20 years to heal and get over it,” Andrea said. “But who are you to dictate what that is and every tear that you see me cry isn’t necessarily a tear of pain. Sometimes those are tears of joy when I reflect on where I was and where I am.”
There are even times when Andrea holds on to good memories while married to Kelly. “I am going to have good memories of the first time he held Joann and found out that she was named Joann and not Chase. Excuse me. I’m sorry that I have good memories. Forgive me, but who doesn’t?”
Andrea also mentioned how her estranged ex-husband connected through their experience abuse; Cooper said that this isn’t uncommon among people who grew up watching someone they love abused or being abused themselves.
“Often, some of the survivors that I work with didn’t even know that there was something different because they haven’t been exposed to anything different,” Cooper said. “They’ve had relationships in the past that looked like that. All of these backgrounds kind of a groom that person to be more susceptible to a violent relationship.”
“It wasn’t just witnessing the abuse, it was witnessing the reaction to the abuse as well, which for her laid the framework for, okay, this is normal in a relationship, in a marriage for physical abuse to occur, verbal abuse to occur, and then you continue going. And so there’s nothing wrong,” said Wallace.
Andrea said that a big part of her healing was redefining what family meant to her.
“Family allows you to lay down, but they don’t allow you to stay down. They let you go through because that’s your journey and you have to learn,” Andrea said.
She compared her fallen steps in like to a baby learning to walk. “Imagine if every time a baby looked like they were going to fall, we didn’t let them,” she said. “They would never learn how to walk. They have to get their balance.”
Andrea also said that family is unconditional love and, most of all, protection—a trait she said the community is lacking.
“Why do we tell children to stay away from Uncle Johnny at the barbeque?” she asked. “Stop inviting Uncle Johnny to the barbeque if you know that he’s a predator. We have failed them with the ability to know that family is what you should run to and not from. The family is supposed to be your safety.”
Along with redefining what family means to her, Andrea said she has gained new meaning for self-love and self-care.
“Love is self-care. Self-love is the epitome of love because if you don’t have self-love, you have no love at all,” Kelly said. “Because without self-love you put up with far more than you should.”
To learn from her situation, Andrea wants women to know they’re in control. She referenced it as letting no one drive your vehicle without showing their ID and insurance. Lastly, Andrea wants the world to know that she is not a broken woman.
“My mantra is, ‘I have cracks, but I’m not broken,’” Andrea said.
For any woman struggling to leave their abusive relationship or marriage out of fear, Andrea said let fear be the reason you leave.
“Let fear be the catalyst for you never going back,” she said. “Let fear be that thing that you feel that says, this is why I don’t want to stay with you. Let fear be that thing that tells you if I got to sleep with one eye open; I shouldn’t be here.”
Andrea said if she could tell her ex-husband anything, it would be to “get help and take responsibility.”
For those who have been abused, Shaunda Jones, a therapist at The Hardy Clinic and Social Work Counselor at a Crisis Stabilization Hospital recommended that survivors seek help immediately urges survivors to not pick up drugs because if those emotions behind trauma are mixed with a harmful substance, it can turn into an addiction.
“Exercising and working out or accomplishing a goal,” Jones said. “Therapeutic activities will help along with a support group.”
Andrea agreed, saying that she still turns to dance when she can’t express herself while healing.
“Dance is, for me, that serenity and that sacred place. And it has been since I was a little girl, like watching my grandfather choke my grandmother, oddly enough it was dance,” she said. I kept counting five, six, seven, eight, and in my mind, I disappeared into a dance studio.”
Right now, Andrea said she is focusing on franchising a dance studio, finishing a book, acting, and a starting a sexercise series to teach women how to love themselves.
Not giving up on love and relying on God’s plan, Andrea also said she is looking forward to finding love again and also bringing another little one into the world.
“I love being a mom and being a wife—like women don’t give ourselves the props we deserve,” she said. “I was a damn good wife and a damn good mom. That’s what I love doing.”