R. Kelly stood above her in his gray suit, screaming. He jumped out of his chair and pounded his chest, yelling into the camera. Gayle King sat in front of him, just inches away, emanating nothing but calm.
In his first interview since he was charged with sexually abusing four women, three of them underage, the R&B singer spoke with Ms. King of CBS This Morning at the Trump International Hotel & Tower in Chicago — and he completely lost hold of his composure.
In the interview, which began airing in segments on Wednesday, they spoke about his finances, his crumbling reputation in the music industry and whether he has ever had sex with minors. CBS will air a prime-time special Friday night that will include new footage.
We asked Ms. King what it was like to be on the other side of that interview. This conversation has been edited and condensed.
How did the interview come about?
Somebody on his team reached out to me on Thursday [Feb. 28] and asked if I would be interested in talking to him, and I’m like, uh, R. Kelly himself? Yes, I’d be very interested. They said, when would you like to do it? I said, is he available tomorrow? The earliest he could do it would be Tuesday, would you be able to fly to Chicago on Tuesday? I said, count me present. [Mr. Kelly was free on bail, but went back to jail the day after the interview for failure to pay child support.]
What ground rules did you set up?
They didn’t want any questions about Aaliyah, which I was fine with. I feel we have heard the Aaliyah story. Really, this interview was about R. Kelly’s reaction to the “Surviving R. Kelly” documentary and the latest charges, and they said he cannot discuss the latest charges because those are still in court. O.K., fine. I still feel we had a lot of information to get from R. Kelly.
What was going through your mind when he got hysterical?
I could see it escalating, but I didn’t think he was going to jump out of his chair. Even when he jumped out of the chair, I have to say, I didn’t think he was going to do anything to me. It’s just that he was extremely emotional and extremely worked up.
The problem is when you get that out of control — the way he was hitting his fist and the way that he was cursing, the intensity of his voice — sometimes you can’t control yourself, so I just didn’t want to get hit accidentally. So I just decided, let me just sit here very quietly, and I would look at him to let him know, I’m not getting up. I worried that if I got up, that would say to him, this is over, this interview is over, even on a subliminal level, it’s O.K. to leave.
The worst thing you can do when someone is that emotional is to say, “calm down.” You know what it’s like, if you’re really worked up and somebody tells you to calm down, it’s like, “I AM calm!” So I knew I didn’t want to do that. So I thought, let me just sit here quietly and let him know that I’m not going anywhere. When you’re finished, we’ll continue. That was really my attitude.
In my head, if there was a thought bubble, it would have been: Please don’t walk out, please don’t walk out, please don’t walk out! Because I’ve seen him walk out of interviews. And I’m sitting here thinking, we’re not even halfway done! I was just thinking, I want to salvage this, I want to save this.
Did you feel any sympathy for him during or after his outburst?
I felt sympathy for a human being that I could see was coming unglued. I don’t have sympathy for the charges or the allegations. And I don’t ever want to witness something like that. And I do think that he needs help. After, I told him, I hope you do get therapy, I think it could be helpful.
You have two children. What was going through your mind when the two women who are living with R. Kelly spoke about their devotion to him and their disdain for their parents?
[The parents of the two women, Azriel Clary, 21, and Joycelyn Savage, 23, accuse Mr. Kelly of brainwashing them.]
I just thought, you girls have no idea. I think one day they’re going to look back on this and go, what the hell was I thinking? At the end of the day, you’re going to need your family. I believe your family is going to be there long after R. Kelly is not. Because we don’t know how the R. Kelly story is going to end.
Have you ever had an interview subject respond with such an outburst before?
I’ve had people get irritated, but no, I’ve never had that happen to me before. I can’t say that I know how to handle this kind of thing or that I was prepared for this kind of thing because I wasn’t expecting it. I just knew that I wanted to save that interview, and I wanted to do whatever I could to save it without getting out of my chair.
Some of his answers are difficult to believe, like the idea that he had never had sex with an underage girl even though he was married to Aaliyah when she was 15. Do you think he hurt himself with those answers?
I don’t think he helped himself, because I think 99.9 percent of people who have been following this story believe that he was married and had sex with Aaliyah, she was certainly underage. That’s at least one that we do know about. And we’ve seen interviews with other women who told us that they had sex with him when they were underage. Listen, I knew going into it he was going to deny. I expected that. I didn’t expect him to say that he had done nothing wrong. But there was no sign of acknowledgment or contrition about anything.
You mentioned on “CBS This Morning” that your children called you and Oprah called you to see if you had been afraid. Were they worried about you?
They were worried. They thought that maybe I might have been frightened. If you look at the pictures and the video, it does look frightening. I guess nobody wants to see your mom get yelled at, but I didn’t necessarily feel that he was yelling at me. I thought that he was having a rant, and I was just in the path of his anger.
When it was over and R. Kelly was out of earshot, what did you and your colleagues say to each other?
We were all a little stunned by what had happened. No one acted like that was no big deal. We all said we’ve never seen anything like that.
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