Kimberly Denise Jones, a.k.a rapper Lil’ Kim, is a hugely influential and popular music artist. She’s sold millions of albums, won a vast amount of awards, and earned herself nicknames like “Queen Bee” and “Queen of Rap.” But recently, the Grammy winner and ’90s icon has been making headlines for an entirely different reason. All of a sudden, it’s all to do with the way she looks, rather than the way that she sings. And some might even say that her story is a cautionary one, or a complicated one at least.
Before she became a star of the rap world, Kim’s life wasn’t easy. The Brooklyn native was, as a child, racially abused by her classmates, who mocked her dark skin. Then, when she was nine years old, her parents split up and she was sent to live with her father. Her relationship with him deteriorated fast and, reportedly, he mistreated her. Eventually, she left her family home, quit school, and began living on the streets.
It was at this point in her life that she met rapper Biggie Smalls, better known as The Notorious B.I.G., then a drug dealer. The two of them hooked up and embarked on rap careers together. By 1994 they had joined the group Junior M.A.F.I.A., along with future star, Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs. It was Smalls who helped Kim put together her “Lil’ Kim” image and make her famous in the rap world. But as they got closer and closer to the top, they were constantly rocked by drama.
After she released her solo debut, Hard Core, in 1995, it seemed that Kim had the world at her feet. The controversial, sexual content of her music helped her carve out a niche, and made her first album a big hit. But, behind the scenes, her personal life wasn’t going nearly as well. Biggie Smalls, the man she loved, had wed R&B singer Faith Evans the previous year. So, Kim embarked on an affair with him while he was still married.
According to her 2008 biography Keeping the Faith, Evans eventually found Kim and Smalls in bed together naked. That sounded the death knell for the marriage, which was already fraught with affairs, and the two separated. Kim remained on the outskirts, according to Evans, as the “other other woman.” However, something was to come along which was to end the love triangle in the worst way possible.
In March 1997 Biggie Smalls was murdered in a drive-by shooting. The perpetrators were never caught, and their motives to this day remain unknown. But the shock of the violent death rippled out all over the rap and hip-hop community. It also united Faith Evans and Lil’ Kim in their grief, and they buried the hatchet over the affair. Indeed, both of them were present at Smalls’ funeral procession.
For the next few years, Kim’s career went from strength to strength. She won accolade after accolade for her music, becoming one of the biggest female rappers in the world. But those paying close attention to her noticed that she seemed to have some sort of desire to change her appearance, something that went beyond the usual playing around with image that music megastars do.
She favored blonde wigs and blue contact lenses, almost like – some people thought – she was trying to hide the fact that she was black. In 2000 The Washington Post asked her about this. “Think about it,” was her answer. “The girls that [men] dated when I was younger were light-skinned and tall. I’m short and brown-skinned. And I always wondered, ‘How do I fit in?’”
Another interview she did that year, this time with Newsweek, was even more revealing and upsetting. “I have low self-esteem and I always have,” she told the publication. “Guys always cheated on me with women who were European-looking. You know, the long-hair type. Really beautiful women that left me thinking, ‘How I can I compete with that?’ Being a regular black girl wasn’t good enough.”
Kim’s insecurities were seized upon fast, and not an awful lot of sympathy seemed to come her way. “I’m convinced, man, something really wrong with these hoes/I thought Lil’ Kim was hot, ’til she start f***ing with her nose,” 50 Cent rapped on the 2002 Eminem track “Love Me.” And, by 2004, the plastic surgery was starting to show, especially around Kim’s lips.
Kim’s music continued to be popular as the decade went on. But her fans were getting more and more concerned about the amount of cosmetic surgery she was having. People compared her to Michael Jackson, the beloved pop singer famous for his changing face, and suggested that Kim’s self-esteem issues were worsening. Whenever she appeared in public, media outlets would comment on how different she looked.
Kim herself kept quiet about the plastic surgery, never outright admitting that she’d even had anything done beyond a couple of nose jobs. She was also always quick to declare herself confident in her skin whenever the subject came up in interview. But, come 2016, the game changed. She posted a series of selfies on her Instagram in April of that year, and that simple action sparked a huge debate.
In the photos Lil’ Kim shared, she was wearing a blonde wig, but most significantly, her skin appeared a great deal lighter. She looked, some people said, more like a white woman than a black one. Had she used Instagram filters, or had she actually bleached her skin with chemicals? No one was sure, but the issues of race and colorism quickly came to the forefront.
Colorism is closely linked with racism. It’s the theory that, regardless of a person’s race, they’re more likely to be awarded certain social privileges if their skin is light. Therefore, it isn’t uncommon for people to wish to bleach their skin, especially in areas where black men and women think it might help them find better jobs. Needless to say, it’s a fraught and painful issue. In some countries, skin bleaching products are even banned.
Lil’ Kim, though, was adamant that she hadn’t bleached her skin. When a commenter on Instagram claimed she had, Kim angrily responded that she hadn’t. “When the f**k did I bleach my skin u miserable Moron!” she wrote. But that didn’t stop the controversy. Kim’s changed appearance had ignited a serious and often difficult discussion about race in America.
Huffington Post tackled the problem in a 2016 article entitled “Stop Asking What Happened To Lil’ Kim’s Face. You Already Know.” It reposted her old Newsweek interview where she spoke about her lack of self-esteem and how the men in her life had had a tendency to belittle her. “It’s always been men putting me down, just like my dad,” was perhaps the most upsetting quote.
The article also pointed out that Kim wasn’t even the only black female artist who’d ever come under fire for skin lightening, it had happened to others, too. “Why criticize just them, and not the circumstances surrounding them? Why not criticize an industry and a society that makes them feel as though they must be lighter in order to actually be successful or to be considered beautiful?” the article read.
Gradually, the furore around Kim’s selfies died down. But, come 2017, the pattern was repeated: Lil’ Kim posted a picture of herself with lighter skin again, and people criticized her. Her Instagram was flooded with comments. “You look a mess,” one person said. “Somewhere God is in heaven pacing the floor checking his mental inventory and looking at her and trying to remember when he created that,” said somebody else.
Some of the comments Kim received were downright cruel. But there were others which actually seemed more concerned about her health. There was a real possibility she had an addiction to plastic surgery, and like all addictions, that can be life-threatening. Too much surgery and the skin and muscles start to weaken. And that’s not even getting into the psychological damage.
Lil’ Kim was never put off by the comments she received on any of her photos. She continues to post shots of herself on Instagram to this day, and some of her more recent ones show her with a skin tone which looks more natural and less lightened. But no matter what, Kim’s story is certainly one of the sadder tales of plastic surgery to come out of the entertainment world.