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Gayle King Reveals What She Wanted to Say to R. Kelly’s ‘Snippy’ Girlfriend—But Didn’t

12 minute read

CBS This Morning‘s Gayle King has scored some pretty big interviews with newsmakers in her career, but few have garnered more attention than her recent remarkable sit-down with R. Kelly, who in February was charged with 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual assault. During the interview the R&B singer stood up and shouted at the camera, said he was being “assassinated” and insisted that all his accusers were lying, while King stayed cool and collected. Things were also markedly tense during her interviews with the young women who live with Kelly, Azriel Clary, 21, and Joycelyn Savage, 23. King spoke to TIME about how her encounter with Kelly and his girlfriends really went down.

Why do you think Kelly chose you to talk to? I mean I don’t have a relationship with R. Kelly or even know R. Kelly that well. On some level they must have trusted me. He could have gone anywhere; everybody was asking for him. I don’t care why he picked me. I was just glad that we were the ones that they came to. I really wanted to do the interview.

It seems difficult to believe what he says. How do you prepare for an interview like that when you are pretty sure someone is not going to be telling the truth? I knew that he was probably going to deny that he had done anything wrong. I was not prepared for him to not accept responsibility for anything. I thought there would at least be some acknowledgment of, “Well, you know, I could have done some things differently. I have thought about some things.” I did think that there would be a moment of that; I’m talking to him as he’s getting out of jail. And after that R. Kelly documentary. So I thought that there would be some kind of self-reflection.

As much as I knew that he wouldn’t come clean about underaged girls — I didn’t think he’d say, “Well, yeah, Gayle, I have been doing that!” — I was pretty much prepared for anything that he was going to say. I was not prepared for his very emotional reaction bordering on a breakdown. I was not prepared for that.

Did you do anything differently than you normally do to prepare for that interview? I’d already seen that six-part documentary. I looked at all of the old stories about him. I watched as many of the interviews about him as I could. I spent that weekend doing that. I really felt very prepared when I walked in there to see him.

We did it at Trump Tower, where he lives in Chicago. Fifteen minutes before we did the interview, I went to his apartment because I met him years ago, but it’s not like we’re friends or I have any kind of friendship with him or relationship or rapport. I don’t have a rapport with him. But I wanted to at least see him and him see me eye-to-eye. You know, that was a big shoot for us. There were five cameras, there were a lot of lights. And so I didn’t want him to walk in the room and sit in the chair and the first time we had any conversation and it’s lights, camera, action. I wanted to have a moment with him. That’s where I learned about the Christmas tree and the love for his mother. I met his dogs, Popcorn and Believe.

Believe, really? Yes. And I’m sure that it’s intentional. These two little froufrou dogs. I did feel that he was as comfortable with me as he would be under the circumstances, but it’s not like he was nervous. He was very relaxed, and I also think it’s important to point out that we had an 80-minute conversation, and sure, there were a lot of rants, but there was a lot of coherent and cogent conversation, too. He didn’t spend the whole time ranting and raving. We had a bona fide, genuine conversation. And a nice back-and-forth. So it wasn’t all just one big rant.

Have you ever had anybody lose it like that in an interview before? No, that’s very unusual. That’s extremely unusual.

What was going through your head? The more he ranted, I was thinking I don’t want him to get up and leave, which he has done in interviews when he gets agitated. He was clearly agitated by some of the questions, and I just didn’t want him to leave. So I figured the more agitated he got and the more emotional he got and volatile he got, the best thing to do was to sit there and just be still. You can also start meditating. I recommend headspace. So you can also in that moment just say, O.K., I’m going to take a moment here. Let him get through whatever this is.

If I had tried to comfort him or stop him, I thought that that would have escalated the situation because he was so ramped up, and the way he was hitting his fists so violently, I was more concerned that he might accidentally hit me as he’s flailing his arms. Not that he intended to hurt me. I was never afraid of him. I never thought, Oh my God, I’m in danger here. When I look at the picture, the picture is like, Whoa. But in that moment, that is not what I felt. I just felt let me be calm, let me be still, let me let him work through this, and hopefully, he won’t leave the room. I thought if I had stood up, it would have signaled to him that, O.K., I understand it’s time to go.

And his people were telling him, “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.” Our producer even said, “Do you want to take a break?” I’m thinking, Don’t ask him if he wants to take a break! I just sat there. But I made a point of looking at him so he would know, I see you. I see you and I hear you. And now as soon as you’re done, I’d like to continue this conversation.

Do you have softer questions when you think people are going to get too upset? No. Because I just go with the flow of the conversation. I also come from the school of, I believe any question can be asked when you have the right circumstances and you have the right tone and you have the right amount of respect. Even difficult questions. Any question can be asked. I just think there’s always a way. A time and a place to ask a difficult question.

Was that why, when you were interviewing the young ladies he lives with and you asked about their sex lives, and Azriel Clary replied she didn’t want to talk about it and asked if you would talk about yours, you then tried to explain why it’s important in that situation? What I wanted to say — but I didn’t want to get snippy with her the way that she got snippy with me— was, “Listen, listen, little girl, you don’t even know what you’re saying right now. And one of these days you’re going to regret this moment. You’re going to regret this moment, you’re going to regret this time in your life.” But I saw no point in chastising her or, as the young children say, breaking bad with her the way she did with me. I also wanted to say, “Yes, but I am not dating R. Kelly, who is perceived to be a child predator. That’s the difference, and that’s why this is a valid question. Because you’re sitting here at the age of 21 with this guy who is older than your father.” But I decided there’s no point in doing that.

And by the way, I talked to her father yesterday, who apologized for his daughter’s behavior. He said, “I’m so embarrassed. That is not how she was raised. My family couldn’t believe what we were seeing. This is not our daughter. We just want you to know that we’re embarrassed and we’re ashamed, and we have a lot of respect for you and we’re very disappointed that she handled it that way.”

And I said, “You know, Mr. Clary, it’s really fine. It’s O.K. I believe your daughter doesn’t even realize the situation she’s in right now.” R. Kelly is allegedly getting out of jail very soon, but who knows how long he’s going to be out of jail. And at the end of the day, she’s going to need her family. Let’s hope that the time will come where she will see things differently than what she sees today.

Gayle King interview
Gayle King interviews the women who live with R Kelly, Azriel Clary and Joycelyn Savage, on March 8, 2019.Lazarus Jean-Baptiste—CBS

Did any maternal instinct kick in? It wasn’t a maternal instinct. I just feel sad and very sorry that you don’t even realize what is happening to you at this moment. I have to say, if that was my daughter, I think that I would be camped outside R. Kelly’s apartment.

But she had a very snippy little arrogant attitude. She started out the gate like that. I was surprised. That’s why I said, “You seem so angry.” I thought that was an interesting reaction from her. But I wasn’t even offended. I was like, “O.K., all right. We’re going to play it like that. Okie-dokie.” I was surprised that that was the tactic she chose to take. But what am I going to do? I’m not going to start screaming and hollering at her.

Have you ever seen a story like this? I don’t think anybody’s seen a story like this. We’ve all heard this allegations about R. Kelly, but what we haven’t seen is the women who are speaking out in real-time and how, despite all of these allegations that have been going on really since the late ’90s, early 2000s, that despite all of these allegations, this behavior appears to continue. And that you have women who are coming to his defense.

I don’t think we’ve seen stories like this, where you have anguished families saying, “We want our daughters, we haven’t seen our daughters.” You have a man who is not taking any responsibility and you have women who are continuing to stand by him. And you have a man who is the subject of a six-part documentary! And you have people alive to tell the tale and who want to tell the tale. No. We’ve never seen anything like this. But you know, these are different times and people are listening differently, and they’re believing.

On some level, people like R. Kelly’s music, so I think — you know, it’s like the mother I talked to last night. I said, “There were all sorts of allegations about R. Kelly. So why would you want R. Kelly to help your daughter, who was 19 at the time, get into the music business?” And she said, “Well, yeah, I had heard those allegations, but he was acquitted. He was acquitted, and all these other artists were working with him.” Well, you know, to me, I don’t want my younger daughter working with someone who’s even been acquitted of those kind of charges. I don’t want my daughter in that situation. And I think if the parents had to do it all over again, you know hindsight’s 20/20, I think they would all choose a different path.

Was there any moment where he felt credible? He felt credible when he was talking about the pain of not being able to see his children. I felt him on that. I did feel that that was very genuine. But the father pointed out to me last night, and I hadn’t thought about this, “He’s crying about his children, not seeing his children, but he’s preventing us from seeing ours.” That father was not moved by his tears over, “I can’t see my children.” But I did feel that was a real moment.

How have people reacted to the story? I have all these psychiatrists and stuff reaching out to me about how it was classic abuse behavior. They said R. Kelly’s behavior in the interview is classic DARVO. It stands for Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender. And that’s exactly what he did. One psychiatrist said it’s a reaction to confrontation. Some of the people who were [his former girlfriends] said, “I couldn’t even watch it because it brought back so many memories for me.”

People stopped me on the street and said, “Listen, that was a trip to Crazy Town.” There were other people who said, “I felt sympathy for him. I felt his pain. I see why he’s upset. Suppose he’s been falsely accused?” So believe it or not, he does have people that — I didn’t say it was a lot of people — but he does have people who thought, I understand where he’s coming from.

I thought what we were witnessing was a man having a breakdown. I don’t ever want to be witness to seeing someone having a breakdown in real‑time. But I did think that that was what was happening.

What’s going to happen next, do you think? I don’t know. There’s so many ways this story could end. I really don’t know.

Do you feel like you’ve become part of the story now rather than being a journalist? No. No, I think people associate that interview with me. But I didn’t do that, he did.

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