R Kelly and Aaliyah's relationship: Grooming, an illegal marriage and her death

R Kelly and actress Aaliyah Photo:Courtesy

R Kelly’s controversial conduct with women has been put under the spotlight in damning new documentary Surviving R Kelly.

The six-part docu-series, which premiered on US channel Lifetime this week, features interviews with the 52-year-old singer's former colleagues, girlfriends, ex-wife and alleged victims.

Among the issues explored in the film include his relationship and illegal marriage to tragic singer and actress Aaliyah, who was killed in a plane crash in 2001.

In the first episode, Kelly's former back-up singer Jovante Cunningham alleges she saw him having sex with his protegee Aaliyah when she was underage.

Cunningham breaks down as she recalled: "We were out on the road with Aaliyah. On a tour bus, there really aren't many confined spaces.

When you get on the bus there are bunks and so these bunks have little curtains you can pull at night if you don’t want anybody to see you sleeping.

"So it just so happened we were all laying in our bunks and the curtains are open, everybody's communicating, laughing. When the [room] door flew open on the bus. Robert (Kelly) was having sex with Aaliyah."

When asked what she allegedly saw, Cunningham replied: "Things that an adult should not be doing with a child."

In response, Aaliyah's mother Diane Haughton denies Cunningham's claims: "My husband and I were always on tour with [Aaliyah] and at interviews and every place she went throughout her entire career. Whoever this woman is, I have never seen her before anywhere on planet earth, until now."

Aaliyah's acquaintance with Kelly dates back to 1992 after she was introduced to him by her uncle Barry Hankerson, who was his manager at the time.

Aged just 12 at the time, Aaliyah was a talented young girl with aspirations of being a singer.

Kelly recognised her talent and they started working together on her 1994 debut album, the rather controversially-named Age Ain't Nothing But A Number, which was recorded when was 14.

He even named checked Aaliyah on his January 1992 single She's Got That Vibe - around the time of her 13th birthday - declaring "little cute Aaliyah's got it (that vibe)".

Following the release of her album in May 1994 - which sold millions - Aaliyah and Kelly made a joint appearance on BET show Video Soul when they were 15 and 27 respecitvely.

Despite being told not to discuss their personal relationship or Aaliyah's age by Jive Records representative, the presenter Leslie Segar said: "Okay, let’s clear something else. Everybody seems to think y’all either boyfriend or girlfriend, or cousins or friends. Let’s just get the record straight."

Aaliyah responded: "No, no, we’re not related at all. We’re just very close. This is my best friend."

When Segar asked how old Aaliyah was, she replied: "That's a secret."

R Kelly Photo:Courtesy

A short time after the Video Soul interview, Kelly and Aaliyah reportedly married in an Illinois hotel room n 31 August 1994.

A Cook County marriage certificate - published by Vibe magazine - listed Aaliyah's age as 18. She was actually 15 at the time.

The certificate claimed the nuptials took place at the Sheraton Gateway Suites in Rosemont with the Rev. Nathan J. Edmond officiating.

In Surviving R Kelly, the singer's former tour manager and personal assistant Demetrius Smith said he attended the ceremony and helped them forge documents for the marriage.

He said: "I’m not proud of that (day). I had papers forged for them. Aaliyah was underage. We got the marriage license, we were at a hotel in Maywood, Illinois.

"It was just a quick little ceremony, nothing elaborate. Aaliyah didn't have a white dress, Robert didn't have on a tux, just everyday wear. Robert said 'I do'. Him and Aaliyah.

"Aaliyah looked worried, scared. She was worried and scared. I wanted so much to grab Aaliyah and talk to her. She gave me a look like she wanted me to talk to her. I knew that it had changed the course of everything."

Smith goes on to claim he realised Kelly's relationship with Aaliyah was sexual when the singer feared she was pregnant.

"Robert said, 'Man we got Aaliyah in trouble.' Robert mentioned to me that, 'I think she’s pregnant.'

"That broke my heart right there because I really believed him when he said that he wasn't messing with Aaliyah... Once he told me that I was at a loss for words."

Smith's claims about the nuptials back-up previous confirmation the wedding took place by Kelly’s ex-business-manager, Rocky Biven in 2018 BBC Three documentary R Kelly: Sex, Girls and Videotapes.

When host Ben Zand asked him if there was a wedding, Biven replied: "Yes," and confirmed he was in attendance.

The wedding was widely reported at the time, although Aaliyah and Kelly always denied it had taken place.

When Aaliyah's parents Michael and Diane Haughton found out about the ceremony, they understandably hit the roof and applied to have it annulled in February 1995.

Soon after the marriage was annulled, contact between Aaliyah and Kelly ceased, with the talented young star leaving Jive Records, where he remained as an artist.

In May 1997, Aaliyah admitted in court documents that she had lied about her age as she filed an application to have all records of the marriage expunged because she was not legally old enough to get married without her parents' consent. A judge subsequently agreed to seal the records of the marriage.

In one of Aaliyah's few interviews addressing the marriage, she told the Chicago Sun-Times in December 1994: "I don't really comment on that because I know that's not true. When people ask me, I tell them, 'Hey, don't believe all that mess. We're close and people took it the wrong way.'"

Meanwhile, Kelly's publicist at the time, Regina Daniels, said of the pair's professional parting at the time: "It ended with, 'Maybe we're over our heads, maybe this is too much, maybe we need to go our separate ways. I love you, I always will, I wish you the best, but maybe we just jumped in way too deep into this thing.' And she went her way and he went his."

ALSO READ: R Kelly caught on camera blasting #MuteRKelly campaign over his sexual misconduct, claims 'it's too late'

Following the negative attention over his marriage to Aaliyah, Kelly went on to marry 22-year-old dancer Andrea Lee in 1996.

They had three children together, before splitting in 2006 after Lee filed a restraining order against the star, claiming he had assaulted her, claims she repeats in the Lifetime doc.

Meanwhile, Kelly has continued to maintain his marriage to Aaliyah never happened, telling a 2016 interview with GQ: "Because of Aaliyah's passing, as I've always said, out of respect for her mother who's sick and her father who's passed, I will never have that [marriage] conversation with anyone.

Out of respect for Aaliyah, and her mother and father who has asked me not to personally. But I can tell you I loved her, I can tell you she loved me, we was very close. We were, you know, best best best best friends."

After parting ways with Kelly, Aaliyah went on to enjoy chart success, but her fame was tragically cut short when she was killed in a plane crash in the Bahamas, when she was just 22, in August 2001.

The following year, Kelly was indicted with possession of child pornography, but a jury found him not guilty in 2008.

Rumours of underage girls and alleged sexual, mental and physical abuse have surrounded the singer for years. He has never been convicted of any crime.

Kelly's lawyer threatened to file a federal lawsuit against Lifetime if it aired the show, but the channel proceeded.

While many celebrities declined to take part, Grammy winning singer John Legend was one of the few who appeared on camera.

He said: "R. Kelly has brought so much pain to so many people. Time's up for R Kelly."

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