Transformation can be frightening, or it can be exhilarating. It’s usually some combination of the two. Kelis seems to embrace evolution with ease and fluidity, gliding seamlessly through different musical sounds, hairstyles, outfits, and recipes — always aware of her own desires and what feels authentic to her. She might just be the baddest bitch alive, and that’s putting it modestly.
From sounds, to hair, to fashion, to food, Kelis has never been afraid of taking risks. That’s something that is innate to her character, but was also cultivated by a supportive upbringing. Raised by her father, a jazz musician, and her mother, a chef and fashion designer, Kelis has inherited her parents’ musical, stylish, and culinary talents. From a young age, she was encouraged to follow a path that brought her joy, regardless of whether or not it was financially rewarding.
Her career has been both fulfilling and lucrative. But in 2006, after 10 years in the music business and a messy label situation that left her drained, Kelis decided to enroll in culinary school to pursue her other passion: food. Today, she juggles her time as both a chef and performer.
Over the phone, I spoke to Kelis about food, the lessons she learned from her mother, why she needed a break from the music industry in 2006, and why it’s important to keep your style fresh.
What was your relationship like with food growing up?
My mom was a chef and I guess I just always watched her. She worked with ease and everything was always very pristine. I learned the art of it very early on. It was something to be grateful for and to be appreciative of, but it was also how she showed us love. I watched someone be in love with what they did early on, so anything that wasn’t that was unacceptable. She knew exactly what to do and how to do it and how to present it and she would never give anyone anything that she wouldn’t eat herself or want herself. It came with such ease for her and I always felt that was really intriguing. And for us, for a long time, the only real acknowledgement that we had of our cultural diversity in the family: my mom never really talked about it, but it always came out in the food.
You often describe your mother as a very bold figure in your life. Do you feel like you’ve gotten some of your boldness and ability to take risks from her?
Yeah, for sure. My mother has an amazing sense of style. Even now, she’s the cutest thing. She created me, so I guess I get that [boldness] from her. But I think I felt the right to be that way. It wasn’t ever so much like be bold, it was moreso like, be true. And I think that’s always resonated more with me. I think being bold just for the sake of it kind of sucks. It only counts when it stands for something and when it’s genuine and when it can’t be any other way. If it’s not true then how can anyone believe it or trust it or allow it to be a guideline or inspiration for their existence? My mom really allowed me to be that. It was always like, Be true, do it the right way, be true to yourself.
Growing up, my mom used to always tell all of us, all my sisters, to nurture our natural talents. Meaning, Don’t ever try to fit yourself into anybody else’s shape. Nurture what you naturally do best. I don’t care if it’s freaking, like, being a housekeeper — do it the best, be amazing at it because that’s what you’re good at. Do what you’re best at and do it well. She always encouraged us to be honest and true. Know who you are and own it, and that’s where you’re going to find success, and not so much financial success only but also being content.
I think that what people have interpreted as me being bold wasn’t that, it was my desire to be honest. In my honesty, because of how my mind works, sometimes it came off as, Oh, that’s different. But my goal was never to be different, my goal was never to be bold or to stand out, ever, really. It was just to be honest.
So it was always more about authenticity?
Yeah. Being real. Being true. And sticking to your guns once you find that place. I think finding out who you are in the process of growing up and knowing who that is, and then sticking to it. That’s it. I can’t pretend to be anything else. I can only do me, this way. This is all I can do. And even when I think about a time in my life when I would’ve wanted to assimilate or make it easy and go along with what was working or what made sense around me, it was so ingrained in me from growing up that I couldn’t. It wouldn’t have worked.
“My goal was never to be different, my goal was never to be bold or to stand out, ever, really. It was just to be honest.” —Kelis
You brought your food truck to Camp Flog Gnaw this year and you also performed. What was it like to blend cooking and performing together at the festival?
I’ve done that before, and it’s definitely one of those things where in the midst of it it's torturous because it's really hard to do. But before and after, I always think it was a great idea. [Laughs] Afterwards I’m like, That was dope, I’m really glad I did that. But in the middle of it I’m just like, This is a horrible idea.
Did you ever have doubts about pursuing a career as a chef? Or was it more like, I don’t care, I’m doing this.
When I went to culinary school, it was at a time in my career when I was super fed up. It I was 27, so it had been like... I woke up one day and I was like, Yo it’s been freaking 10 years that I’ve been doing [music] and I haven’t done anything else.
First of all, this was never my plan. Not to sound ungrateful but, like, it wasn’t my plan. It sort of happened and I allowed it to happen and I got on that train and kept going. People come up to me all the time and they’re like, Hey I wanna get into the industry (which sounds crazy to me) I wanna get into the business, what’s your advice? And I’m like, “Dude, if you have to ask then you shouldn’t do it.” It’s not a question, it just is.
Right before me getting into food, I was signed to Arista. Arista had folded, L.A. Reid, you know, whatever, all that stuff happened, and then we all got shipped off and it became this weird like modern-day slave trade. We had no say as to where we were going and I ended up at Jive with Barry Weiss and it was just the worst possible situation ever for someone like me. I didn’t fit, and they had no desire to make me fit. It became this very animosity-filled relationship between myself and my label head. I never would have signed there, he never would have signed me, and then here we are stuck with each other and I’m smack in the middle of my third album.
Long story short, I tried to get off, the label wouldn’t let me off and I had to put out [Kelis Was Here], which was probably one of the worst times in my career. I ended up doing it and that was like four years. All that time went by and I was not being released and I was just pissed. Then finally one day I got a call from my lawyer, he’s like, “Yo, you’ve been released.” I was like, “Oh... okay.” I had been fighting for so long that I forgot that I had no plans. I had been fighting since I was 17, so here I am at 27. I’m an adult now, I have nothing else, what else am I gonna do? If I don’t put out another record, what am I gonna do? So I was like, screw it, I’m done, I’m never going to put out another record, I don’t want to do any of this anyway. Then there was a moment when an actual light bulb went off, like I was a cartoon, when I was like, Yo, I’m going to go to culinary school. And that’s when everything kind of flipped on its head for me.
I had been so begrudgingly doing everything that I was doing and I had been so disillusioned. I watched my dad, who’s a musician and absolutely brilliant, never make a penny, so it was never about that for me. He was a jazz dude from New York and I was a baby sitting in the Village Vanguard and Blue Note just falling asleep on the tables. No one made any money. There was no money. There was no fame. There was no glory. So when I decided to go to culinary school I was like, This is my way out. I didn’t have any big plans, I was just like, I need to do something that’s NOT this. This is eating me alive and I literally CAN’T. I wanted to do something for me. Something where there’s no managers, there’s no agents, there’s no one depending on me or my time or scheduling my life, nothing. I went to school five days a week, seven hours a day and that became the most refreshing and renewing career for me.
It’s funny because after doing that, it allowed me to get back to the music. It was the first time in a long time, in years of doing it, that I didn’t feel like I had to do [music]. I had something else that I loved, that I was good at, that I could engulf myself in.
“I’m older and more in control and I haven’t lost sight, for years now, of what matters to me.” —Kelis
Do you feel like your career in cooking allows you to be more authentic?
It’s not so much that it’s allowed me to be more authentic. I think I needed a moment. There’s nothing wrong with the music industry per se, it’s just if you allow it to take you where you don’t plan on going. Me personally, for who I am and for how I like to live my life and who I say I want to be, I had to take a break. I needed a mental hiatus. So now, I really enjoy both of my careers. I love being able to get on stage, I love being able to write. The last record I put out is my favorite album to date.
That’s kind of the beauty of this whole thing — not so much that I can be more authentic, but just that I had to stop for a second, and get off of that. My life has been awesome, I haven’t had a “real job” since I was 17, so I can’t really complain. Knowing myself, I needed to take the reigns back and have more control and remember why I started this. I never started this for fame and fortune and popularity. I don’t need people to praise me all day to feel like I’m doing a good job. You have to center yourself and what matters to you. I think that’s what I needed. So now, with food, I love the fact that I’m good at something else and I can get my hands dirty. I’m older and more in control and I haven’t lost sight, for years now, of what matters to me.
Let’s talk about hair. I also have really big, curly hair and I got really bored with it recently and straightened it, cut it, and got bangs. Before I decided to go through with the change I was thinking about all your different hairstyles over the years and I was like, What would Kelis do? And I did it.
[Laughs] I love that.
Do you get bored with your hair often?
Constantly! I get bored constantly. I mean, it’s ridiculous. To the point where years ago I was like, Is there something wrong with me? Is this normal? But yeah, I get bored all the time. You just gotta keep it fresh for yourself. I think as women we’re so multifaceted.
I’m always intrigued by people who’ve had the same look forever. One of my best friends — she’s amazing, I love her to death, she has an amazing sense of style — but we joke because I literally change my hair every week, and she’s had the exact same hair since like 5th grade. If it works for her and she’s happy, then why not? It’s great. I just don’t know if I could.