Brandy, Oprah and Sonja Norwood
What happens when a teenage daughter has power to burn but no self-esteem to speak of? How two determined women recaptured a life that was spinning out of control.
We've always known her as a good girl with a charmed life, the singer with the hip-yet-wholesome lyrics who also starred in a squeaky-clean teen sitcom. But behind her bright smile, the real-life Brandy was grappling with an emotionally abusive relationship and an eating disorder that left her dangerously thin. In 1999 she walked off the set of her show, Moesha , suffered a nervous breakdown, and spent three years out of the limelight. Now 23, Brandy has emerged as a transformed young woman, committed to using her experience to help others. She also has a new family: Secretly married last year to producer and songwriter Robert Smith, 22, she's expecting a baby girl this summer.

Her mother, Sonja Norwood, 51, saw her come full circle. From the time 2-year-old Brandy sang her first solo in their Brookhaven, Mississippi, church, Sonja became Brandy's manager. When Brandy was 4, the family moved to Los Angeles to jump-start careers for her and her younger brother, Ray J. A decade later, she recorded her first album, Brandy , which went on to sell four million copies. In 1996 Moesha became an instant hit on UPN, while her second album, Never Say Never , won her a Grammy for "The Boy Is Mine," a duet with R&B singer Monica. This spring she released her third album, Full Moon , with lyrics reflecting the pain of the last few years.

I met with Brandy and Sonja at Brandy's castlelike, high-ceilinged house with a winding staircase and a backyard flower garden overlooking the San Fernando Valley. I'd interviewed them once on my show and decided to talk with them again because Brandy's story of following an unhealthy relationship with an even more devastating one has the potential to help so many women. The issue of self-esteem affects each of us, no matter our age or apparent success, yet Brandy is one of the few who has enough courage to publicly admit she struggles with it. Many people I've talked to believe that if only they could have a bigger car, a bigger house, and all their bills paid off, their problems would be solved. Brandy and her mother remind us that it's far more important for us to understand our real worth.

Start reading Oprah's interview with Brandy and Sonja Norwood

Note: This interview appeared in the July 2002 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.

Oprah: A lot of people reading this magazine are parents of teenagers. Do you think the challenges are different when your child has money, celebrity, and access to everything?

Sonja: When your teen has money and she's already living in the adult world, she's like...

Brandy: Why can't I date?

Sonja: She'd been taking care of herself since she was 15.

Oprah: Brandy, at what stage in your career did you realize you were hot—that you had what a lot of people wanted?

Brandy: I don't know if I ever realized it. My mom used to always tell me, "You don't know how big a star you are...."

Oprah: Is that because the spotlight is all you've ever known?

Brandy: Yes. But I've always wanted to stay down-to-earth. I didn't want people to look at me and say, "She thinks she's all that." So I tried to be the girl who was smiling all the time.

Sonja: I think Brandy felt guilty about her success and couldn't really enjoy it because her friends didn't have the kind of life she had. So she gave her friends very expensive gifts, which was her way of trying to say "I love you." But that wasn't the answer, because she discovered over time that those people were not her true friends. Even now she still tries to please people.

Oprah: Yes, but she's 23. I was 42 before I got over that. How old were you when you first understood that, Sonja?

Sonja: Because I was bullied in school when I was 13 or 14, I decided I wasn't going to take crap from anyone. I guess that's why I still don't have a lot of friends. I do cater to others sometimes, but then I stop myself.

Oprah: It's a miracle you learned that at such an early age.

Sonja: But it's also been very lonely. So many of the challenges Brandy has faced are the same ones I did. If there were anything I could go back and change in raising her, I would focus more on helping her understand how valuable she is to herself.

Brandy: But, Mom, I think experience is what teaches you who you are. And you did teach me about my worth. I don't regret a lot that's happened in my life. Everything I've been through has led me to where I am right now spiritually.

Sonja: But from my perspective, it's still painful. As a mom, you want your children to see themselves as worthy. I think the biggest mistake I've made as a parent is not homing in on how a [romantic] relationship can change who you think you are. If you're not strong enough to know who you are, it can take your identity away from you and make you someone you're not.

Oprah: And when you're in the music world—which truly is a world unto itself—that environment defines you. It's difficult for a parent to help her child focus on building characteristics like kindness, strength, and generosity.

Sonja: And no one ever teaches you how to be a parent—even after you have children, you're still inexperienced. I only know what it's like to be the parent of a 23-year-old. I can't tell you what it's like to be a parent to a 30- or 40-year-old. I'm still learning.

Oprah: When you were on my show, you said something very powerful—that there were times when you were a manager when you should have been a mother, and a mother when you should have been a manager.

Sonja: A lot of Brandy's problems revolved around her feeling that I was being more of a manager than a mother.

Brandy: I just wanted someone to listen to me, to see me as a human being. It seemed everyone treated me as if I were an item. I was too embarrassed to tell my mom about some of the things I was experiencing because of the good-girl image that had been created for me. I couldn't really express myself to anyone. The public thought, "Brandy would never do this or that." But I was doing those things.

Oprah: What things are you talking about?

Brandy: When I was 15, I fell in love with someone who was 20. When I tried to talk to Mom about it, she said, "You're not in love. You don't know what love is."

Oprah: When I was 14, I remember thinking I was in love. When you're a teenager going through your first stages of love, it's even more powerful and overwhelming than when you're older. And when you hurt as a kid, you don't know you'll heal because you don't have experience.

Sonja: Right. But you know what, Oprah? As a parent, you do listen when your child comes to you and cries. But when you say what you need to say, it's not what the child wants to hear.

Brandy: But you don't listen with your whole body and your whole mind.

Sonja: A parent isn't built to listen with her whole body and mind when she's talking about her 15-year-old daughter going out with a 20-year-old man! Whether she was a celebrity or not, I had the same fear all mothers do: that my daughter would get caught in a situation where a baby is making a baby.

Oprah: How did you resolve your conflict?

Brandy: We fought.

Sonja: Brandy stood her ground, and I stood mine. But her father and I allowed her to do things most parents wouldn't allow their children to do. Because she was a celebrity, she got away with murder. And I was there for all the pain that came from her being in a relationship with a 20-year-old—the things he said and did to her. I wanted to kill him!

Brandy: But that's life, Mom.

Sonja: It is, but nothing is more painful for a parent than to see your child in pain.

Oprah: But forbidding that relationship would have been like inviting it in, right?

Sonja: Oh, believe me—I've learned that! If you say yes, they're gonna say, "I don't want to do it." But if you say no, they'll do it anyway.

Oprah: An expert on my show once said that when children are going into the teen years, their parents become consultants instead of managers. As Brandy's mother and manager, how difficult was it to become her consultant?

Sonja: It was very hard. She'd say, "Mom, can't you call me sometimes without asking me to do something?" or "Can't we just go shopping or hang out without having a conversation about the business?" She didn't understand that I had people constantly calling me about contracts and commitments. But for a long time, I took the risk of her not liking me in order to make sure she would be secure and protected both financially and emotionally. Because she's my daughter, I negotiated hard for her. At the end of the day, I didn't want her to say, "Mom did nothing for me—I have no house, no car."

Oprah: No financial security.

Brandy: Yes, and that's why she took care of everything. But emotionally, I took care of me. As I've gotten older, our relationship has changed. I've started to really pay attention to myself because I hated the low self-esteem.

Oprah: How can you project confidence to the world and yet have such low self-esteem?

Brandy: I'm a good actress—being Brandy is a job, you know? You smile, you dance around, you kiss butt. You do everything you can to get where you want to go. I wanted to be as big as Whitney Houston.

Oprah: That was the goal?

Brandy: Yes, and I was willing to work all the time to get there.

Sonja: In my opinion, Brandy became less valuable to herself when she got into relationships. When she focused on her music, she was always on point.

Oprah: Is that true, Brandy?

Brandy: Yes, but even then, I had low self-esteem.

Oprah: When you'd walk into a room with other powerful people, would you feel like you could hold your own?

Brandy: Yes. So maybe my mom is right—it was in relationships with people outside of my career where my low self-esteem started to show.

Oprah: And part of why you could hold your own is because when you walk into a room, you are Brandy.

Brandy: Right—and people feed your ego. They feed the Brandyism. Everyone wanted to talk with me, to take pictures of me. You start to feel like "I'm it."

Oprah: But what happened when you'd be sitting around in pajamas, no makeup, across from someone you were in a relationship with?

Brandy: I'd think, "Whoever I was in that room, I'm not that person now." And because the person I was with was tearing me down, I started to feel, deep down, that I was nothing.

Oprah: In that moment, why can't you call up that Brandyism?

Brandy: That goes back to not wanting others to perceive me as not humble.

Oprah: Was the relationship you had at 15 the one that became abusive?

Brandy: No. That one started when I was 19. I only had two serious relationships before I met my husband. In the first, I had to deal with the pain of someone a lot older than me cheating. I guess on some level, that is abuse.

Oprah: At what point did you say, "You can't treat me like this anymore"?

Brandy: After he'd treated me that way about 20 times. I was like, "Okay—I'm stupid." That's when the voice kicks in and you know you've got to get out.

Oprah: Did part of you ever believe love is supposed to be painful?

Brandy: At the time, yes. You become a victim of pain. You start to unconsciously want it. It feels good when the person comes back and says, "I'm sorry—I will never treat you that way again." But then you accept the apology once, twice, and on and on.

Sonja: And someone has to bring that to your attention. During the second relationship, I bought her this book called The Verbally Abusive Relationship .

Brandy: Oprah, I have to go upstairs and get the book so I can show it to you.

[She leaves the room].

Oprah: Sonja, did you witness her being verbally abused?

Sonja: I strongly believe God has given me some type of antenna. It only takes me a few seconds to know whether someone is good or bad. Every guy Brandy has met, I would tell her right off the bat: "He's not the one." I got her this book because I knew she wasn't getting the message from me. I said, "Bran, we're gonna sit down and go through it together." [Brandy returns and shows Oprah a page in the book.]

Oprah: Here's a list of ways to know if you are being abused. "He seems irritated or angry with you several times a week, although you hadn't meant to upset him."

Brandy: Check!

Oprah: "You sometimes think, 'What's wrong with me? I shouldn't feel so bad.'" Did you feel that way?

Brandy: Yes!

Sonja: Every day I would ask her, "Did you finish that book?" When she finally finished it, she called me on the phone and said, "Mom, I'm being verbally abused."

Brandy: I was a victim! I felt like I was dealing with Satan—and yet I thought I loved him so much. He'd say things like, "You ain't nothing—you and your little castle."

Oprah: How were you seduced into this relationship?

Brandy: The guy looked good—and at first, he was so sweet and protective of me. It was like a dream come true. And we were intimate right away. After that I was hooked.

Sonja: Then he became controlling. No one could get to Brandy except through him.

Brandy: I liked that at first—it made me feel safe. But then he was even trying to "protect" me from my own mom and dad!

Oprah: That's what a controlling, abusive person does—he starts blocking out the people around you.

Sonja: That was the battle. I was like, "Oh, no, homeboy. You may have her hooked, but I know what you're about. I've been through a lot with people like you, and I'm still the last one standing. So I'm going to stand on this one."

Brandy: Yet my mom was so cautious about what she said to me—I'd never seen her like that before. Because of who I'd become, she wasn't herself. After three weeks, I was ready to move in with him. He went on tour with me, and it was after the tour that he became abusive—when I wasn't "Brandy" anymore but just a regular girlfriend. I think he'd seen me as this prized possession.

Oprah: Was he ever physically abusive?

Brandy: No. But you know how people shake you?

Oprah: Yes—I call that physical abuse.

Brandy: But there was no hitting going on—he wouldn't be here today if that was the case.

Oprah: But he shook you?

Brandy: Yes. I was shook up a lot.

Sonja: Those were the kinds of things I didn't know.

Oprah: I think it's important that you acknowledge that as physical abuse.

Brandy: Yes. It was the darkest place I've ever been. I felt so bad about myself. I felt like I became his thing, his chick.

Oprah: What kinds of things would he say?

Brandy: He called me a bitch 13 times in one day—I counted. I thought, "How could you have the audacity to call me a bitch when you're not doing a dang thing—not even grocery shopping?" You gotta pay the cost if you're gonna be the boss. But I was as sweet as pie with him and walked on eggshells so I wouldn't upset him.

Oprah: How long were you together?

Brandy: About a year and a half.

Oprah: Is that why you left the Moesha set?

Brandy: Yes. I had no decision-making power on that show, yet I was blamed for so much. The same people who were smiling in my face were talking about me behind my back. Then I'd go home, and there was Satan, tearing me down. On top of that, I was trying to be thin because the camera adds ten pounds. I was abusing my body.

Oprah: Anorexia is really about power, about trying to find at least one thing you can control. Did you feel that?

Brandy: I did. And because I was very thin, everybody was telling me how great I looked. So I felt good about my outward appearance, but my insides were hell.

Oprah: Were you able to tell your mom?

Brandy: No.

Sonja: She couldn't tell me, but I knew anyway.

Brandy: I was a different girl—I didn't talk much. My newest album is so much about that relationship.

Oprah: How did you finally break free?

Brandy: I broke down. I started to feel very bad on the set one day. My character, Moesha, was being very judgmental of one of her friends, and I was like, "This character has got to go." I couldn't take it anymore. She was too perfect. So I pulled a diva move and left the set—something I'd never done before. I remember turning off the clock when I got in the car and saying, "I don't want to be on the world's time. I want to be on my own." I called homeboy and asked him to meet me somewhere. After we were together, I started to feel very dehydrated, so we bought some apple juice and I felt better. He had a dance audition, and I wanted to go with him because I didn't want to be alone. In the car, I remember scooting all the way down in the seat and saying, "I don't want to see cars or anything the world has to offer. I just want to see sky and trees." After that I blacked out. I don't know how I got back to my apartment.

Sonja: The next day, I got a call that Brandy was acting strange and we needed to get over to her apartment. When we drove up, I asked homeboy what was going on. He said, "I don't know. I'm tired of going through these changes." When I went inside, she was sitting cross-legged in a chair. Everything was just so funny to her. She was giggling. I told my husband, "She's probably just playing." Then I tried to jolt her into getting angry with me.

Brandy: She told me, "This is not The Matrix! This is reality! I'm not God, he's not God."

Sonja: I thought she believed we were God!

Brandy: To me everything was God.

Oprah: You really were having a breakdown.

Brandy: Yes—I was broken all the way down.

Sonja: I was so worried. She was walking around in a daze. I wanted to get her help and at the same time protect her so that she still had a career when it was all over.

Brandy: It's so weird to hear this. I just remember that I wanted to be outside.

Sonja: I decided to get her to a doctor. We had to lock the car doors so she couldn't jump out. [She starts to cry.]

Brandy: Mommy, don't cry. It's okay now.

Oprah: I've talked with so many people about what it means to have a nervous breakdown, and no one has ever really explained what it looks like until now.

Sonja: It's a snap. Your whole being goes out of whack.

Brandy: I remember being in the backseat with homeboy, holding his hand while my parents drove, and thinking, "This is great! They finally like him!"

Oprah: Were you afraid for her, Sonja?

Sonja: I was afraid. And I was at the end of my rope. I didn't know what to do. When we got to the hospital, I hired a couple of nurses, women who had no clue who Brandy was—I didn't want this to be embarrassing for her. The doctor told me we needed to replenish her body with fluids and then we'd see what we'd do after a few days. The weight of those two days was huge. I kept thinking, "Did I drive her to this? Is this my doing?" As a mom, you always blame yourself.

When she came back to herself [after those two days], the first thing she did was ask about homeboy. That pissed me off, but I knew then that she was okay. The doctors said she was going to be fine.

Oprah: Didn't you have a revelation in the hospital?

Brandy: I took the opportunity to ask God, "Do you exist?" Before that I'd been searching, trying to find the right path. What I saw in my dreams were people—all my friends and the people in my life. It seemed that everybody was me. I saw myself in everyone and in everything—including the rain and the fire, the storms and the planets. What I was being told was that everything is everything. The true essence of who I am is love. When I see myself as part of everything, I won't judge or criticize.

Oprah: Will you ever let yourself be abused again?

Brandy: Never. I realized it's my responsibility to take care of myself, because nobody else will. And I can't depend on my mom or anybody else to be responsible for me. And when I take care of me, everything else will fall into place.

Oprah: I love something I heard you once say—that our perceptions change our reality. And when your reality changes, you begin to draw different people into your life.

Brandy: After I left the hospital, I was still with homeboy, but he didn't look the same to me. I didn't see a reflection of myself in him. I wasn't angry like him anymore. I wasn't full of pain. And then one day we had a conversation on the telephone, and he hung up on me. That was the last time I talked to him. He has been out of my life ever since.

Oprah: Your breakdown led to a breakthrough.

Brandy: Yes. Then I met my husband, Robert, and I could recognize him for who he was. I had never really recognized true love before, because I'd always thought love was just protection and ownership. I feel like I'm an angel in this relationship, like I'm helping someone along the way. He's a year younger than me, and I'm his first love.

Oprah: Why did you get married without telling anyone? When you do that, people think you must have been pregnant.

Brandy: That's not true. I'd always allowed people to influence me, and I just wanted to go off and do my own thing.

Sonja: And I wasn't upset with her for doing that.

Oprah: You really weren't?

Sonja: No. I got married six months after I met my husband.

Oprah: But your mom knew you were getting married.

Sonja: Yes, but listen—there's not very much that Brandy doesn't tell me.

Oprah: How did you find out?

Sonja: We were in front of my house, and she was talking about getting married and the ring and all that. I said to both of them, "When is that time coming?" She said, "Mom, we already are married."

Oprah: When did that happen?

Brandy: At the end of last summer. I promised Robert I'd never tell the date.

Oprah: That's okay—you don't have to. Thank you for trusting me enough to tell me all the things you've already shared. What do you see for yourself in the future?

Brandy: I want to be the kind of example for others that you have been. I'm only 23, and I've been through what so many women have gone through. There are a lot of things I haven't shared—I'll save them for B Magazine one day! I want to start small—maybe get a group of teens or women together to talk about some of these issues.

Oprah: The power will be with you to do it. I've learned there's no point in having people put you on the pedestal if you don't use it for something meaningful. It's too powerful of a position to waste.

Brandy: Right.

Oprah: All right, girls—thank you for being so open with me. This was great!

Brandy and Sonja: Thank you!


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