A tear trickles down Tata Vegas face as she stands with me on the Walk of Fame on glamorous Hollywood Boulevard. "God's been so good to me," she says. While Tata tries to squelch her emotion, soon her tears flow more freely. "These streets used to be my home. What a messed-up life I've lived. But God's forgiven me. He's the God of second and third and fourth chances."
A young woman and her friend walk by and notice Tata silently waiting for a photographer to take her picture. "Is she somebody?" the woman asks.
She certainly is. Tata, 48, has released 12 albums-her most recent is her third Christian recording, Now I see (Qwest Records). She's been a powerful vocalist on the movie soundtracks for The Color Purple, The Lion King, and Forrest Gump. She's worked with top mainstream artists Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and Quincy Jones, as well as toured with gospel great Andrae Crouch.
But despite her success, Tata experienced enough trauma to warrant a storyline from a soap opera. Raped and impregnated at the age of 15, Tata gave birth, then left home to go to California to be a movie star when she was 16-and ended up homeless. She was abducted, raped, and impregnated again; she became promiscuous and had several abortions and miscarriages; she married a man who introduced her to crack cocaine. When they finally divorced, Tata was left with a young daughter, Chloe, to raise alone. Tata struggled with her self-esteem, with anger at her parents, and with her role as a single parent. Yet despite the pain of her past, today Tata joyfully demonstrates how God's love finally brought the peace she so desperately needed.
"If my story helps even one woman discover the awesome grace God pours out on broken, hurting people, then my experience has been worth it," says Tata. In this interview, Tata reveals how God's transforming power turned her life around.
You were raped when you were 15.
Yes. My parents had taken me to the beach, and I disobeyed them by going alone to an isolated area behind some big rocks. As I was lying on the sand enjoying the ocean, a man approached me, but I didn't thing anything of it.
He seemed friendly, so I wasn't afraid. I never imagined he'd hurt me. But he did. I tried to fight him off, but everything happened very quickly. And I was so naïve, I didn't even realize what he'd done. I just knew he'd hurt me. After it was over, he made a fast retreat. I walked over the rocks and saw my father pull his car up looking for me, but I just couldn't tell my parents what had happened. I was too scared.
My father was in the Air Force, working in intelligence. He ran our family like a boot camp; he was harsh and strict, and I was afraid of displeasing him. My mom came from an old fashioned family in which you didn't talk about such things.
When did you discover you were pregnant?
I contracted a sexually transmitted disease from the rapist and became really sick, so my dad took me to a doctor to be treated. That's when I discovered I was already six months pregnant.
You had no idea before that?
No. You have to understand, my parents never talked to me about sex. My mom told me when I was 13 that babies came from your armpits. That might sound really stupid, but whatever my parents said, I didn't question them.
What happened when your parents discovered you were pregnant?
My dad freaked out, then he wouldn't talk to me. He didn't believe I was raped.
While my parents were with me for the birth of my daughter, they decided to keep my child and raise her as their own.
How did you respond to their decision?
I hated them for it, because I wasn't given a choice. But in 1969, you couldn't be a minor in Florida (which was where we lived at the time) and keep a baby. I didn't know that; I thought my parents should have let me keep my baby. I realize now they were just trying to do the right thing.
I remember sitting on the rocking chair after Angelica was born and holding this sweet little child, feeling devastated that my parents wanted me to call her my sister. My whole life became a lie, and every day I wished our house would catch fire and my baby would be saved and my parents would die.
Looking back on it, I'm so sorry I thought that.
What finally happened with your family?
I couldn't take living all the lies and harboring the intense anger, so I left.
The truth is, my anger toward my parents had been building for years. Because we were a military family, we moved around a lot, so I found it tough to make friends. I'd walk into a class and everybody would snicker at me because I was fat. My dad would say, "You have to learn to adapt." But I felt worthless, and eating was my way of covering up my pain.
One day, when I was about eight years old, I came home from school crying because the kids called me "porky" and "the blob." But when I got home, no one said, "Baby, I love you. You're beautiful to me." No hugs. Nothing.
I desperately wanted to make my parents proud of me. I loved to sing, so I was always singing with some band. I wanted to show them I was good at something. But they never said anything.
I didn't know at the time why I was angry, but now I realize it's because my parents didn't give me the affection every young girl needs. So when my folks took my child and made me say she was my sister, that was the last straw.
So what did you do?
I'd always dreamed of going to California to become a star. So at 16, after school was over that year, I told my parents I was moving to Hollywood. I thought, I'll show them. I'm going to be somebody. To my surprise, my parents didn't try to stop me.
Once I got to Hollywood, I ended up living on the streets. My mom and dad didn't know what was happening with me.
Weren't you afraid?
Not really. I was still very naïve. I met all kinds of interesting characters-young people, old people, bums, winos, prostitutes, drunkards, and drug addicts. I also met some Christians. They talked to me about Jesus, but I wasn't ready to listen. I'd sing on the street corner, and that's how I made money. I'd buy something to eat, then go to this church on Sunset Boulevard and sleep on the cement outside. Sometimes the pastor would feed us during the day.
But this one night, I was walking to get something to eat. I hadn't been in California long; I was 16 years old. A man in a car offered to drive me to get some food. He seemed like a nice man, so I got in his car.
He bought me a meal. But afterward, he started driving away from the area, and I realized, Oh, oh, wait a minute. I started to open the car door, but he said, "Don't even bother because I'll fill you so full of holes, you won't even touch the pavement." He held me at gunpoint and raped me repeatedly that night.
Did he ever get caught?
I don't know. I reported him to the police, but they treated me as though I'd been "asking" for it.
About three months later, I found out I was pregnant. So the pastor at the church where I slept arranged an abortion for me. I guess he figured that was okay since it was a special circumstance.
How did you feel about getting an abortion?
I didn't understand what an abortion was. I just knew that you went to sleep, and when you woke up there was no baby. I didn't have a clue!
After that rape, though. I became very promiscuous. So I ended up having more than one abortion.
But when I was 19, I got pregnant by a guy with whom I was living. I wanted our baby, but he insisted I abort it. I was six months pregnant when I went to the hospital to have the abortion. They inserted a long needle filled with saline solution into my stomach, and burned the baby to death. Then I went into labor and delivered the baby in a bedpan. The nurse kept saying, "Don't look at the bedpan. Call me when the baby comes." I didn't understand, so I looked in the bedpan-and there was a dead baby in there. A baby! Something in my brain snapped. I couldn't believe I'd actually killed a baby!
Now, if somebody gets pregnant, I tell her to have the baby; I'll take it. God has a plan for children-even if they're conceived in rape. Children are a blessing; who knows what God has planned for their lives?
I only wish I'd known what God's plan had been for me when I was younger.
How did you handle the guilt you felt over the abortions?
I went into a deep depression and cried for days. I even thought about killing myself. So I finally signed myself into a mental institution, where I stayed for 10 days. Then I moved out of my apartment and tried to put my life back together. That's when good things started to happen for my career.
By this final abortion, you had established a career?
Yes, while I was still living on the streets, I contacted a friend who hooked me up with a singer in the musical Hair. She got me a part in that show, and recording artist Dobie Gray heard me and invited me to become the female vocalist for a group called Pollution-and boy, were they polluted! I went to a party after a performance, and this guy handed me a pill and said, "Take this." At first I refused, but he kept shoving it toward me. So I finally took it. I remember spinning around and around, falling into an endless pit. Then I passed out. When I woke up the guy said, "Hey, man, are you all right? You were trying to dive off the couch."
He'd given me LSD. And that was the beginning of my drug habit.
Didn't somebody in the music industry try to discourage your drug use?
Are you kidding? Drugs were a part of the whole scene back then. Everybody did them-so I figured, why not me? I had nothing to lose. After all, I was still dealing with all my shame and guilt. I felt worthless, ugly, as though my whole life was a lie. I longed to be loved and wanted. Everything in my life was as though I kept repeating the same things over and over. No matter where I lived I kept getting involved with the wrong people.
How did you escape this lifestyle?
I started to search for something spiritual to fill my void. I visited mediums and consulted Ouija boards. I talked to spirits in seances. I tried soul traveling and self-realization.
Although I met people who called themselves Christians and who were witnessing out on the streets, they told me, "You're going to hell!" I thought, If that's what a Christian is, hasta la vista. I didn't want any part of that!
Meanwhile, I was in a band and we needed a guitar player. This guy, Jay Leach, from Wichita, Kansas, auditioned. And he was really different. We were all smoking and drinking and doing everything you could imagine, but not Jay. He had a Bible. We really liked his playing and asked him to join the band. And Jay said, "I'm going to pray about it." Pray about it? Was this guy from outer space?
But Jay joined. During the breaks when we were in the clubs, he'd be in the corner at a table reading his Bible. He never said a thing to put us down, he just lived his life the way God called him to live it. As I watched him, I realized he had something I didn't have. And it was appealing.
Somehow, I don't know how he did it, but Jay got me to go to church. Easter Sunday, 1974, at this little church, I just started sobbing uncontrollably and asked Jesus to come into my life.
Did this decision change your life?
It did. I got off drugs, got signed with Motown Records. But I was still living in the same place surrounded by the same people, and I was a baby Christian with no one to keep me accountable. So instead of trusting God to guide me, I'd meet some man-there always was some man-and try to make him fill that void only God can fill. I'd get back into drugs and sex, and leave God behind.
But after about nine years with Motown, a Motown executive told me I was too old, too fat, and that my career as a recording artist for the label was washed up! I was so crushed, I turned my back on God-again. I couldn't believe it.
Then I met Andrae Crouch. He'd somehow heard me sing and wanted to meet me. I went to his house, started singing, and from then on I was in his group. Andrae took me in when I had no place to go. I stayed at Andrae's house-along with about a dozen other people!
Is that when you met your husband?
Yes, Jeff was a musician who had met Andrae at a studio. Jeff asked Andrea if he could stay over with him because he lived several hours away. So Andrea was very kind, and Jeff would periodically stay with him.
Although Jeff looked like the drug-user type, I was in total denial. I was listening to those voices that said, "You're old. You're fat. You're in you thirties. You have no husband, no children. You're going to be alone. Nobody wants you." So I bought into it. I went after Jeff. And he introduced me to crack cocaine. The very first time I did crack, I became addicted.
At Andrae Crouch's house?
No. Andrea never knew. I hid it so well from him. I don't know how, but I did. But after I got hooked, I moved out.
For two years I fought against God. He'd let me down, so I was going to go my own way, do my own thing.
Why did you and Jeff get married?
I got pregnant. I told Jeff, "You've got to marry me. How's this going to look? What's Andrae going to say? What are other Christians going to think?"
So you knew you were making another mistake?
Yes, but you know what? When you're disobeying God, you're in denial. I just focused on one thing: I wanted that man. I wanted to prove those voices wrong.
Reminds me of the Bible story of King David and Bathsheba.
Yes, Jeff didn't want to marry me, but he did, and in the sixth month I lost the baby. She was born alive, but she didn't make it. I named her Heaven Patience.
I told Jeff there was no reason for him to stay married to me, but I guess he stayed out of pity. Our life together was horrible. I continually suspected Jeff was unfaithful to me. All the while, I was still addicted to crack. Then, in 1987, he was arrested for drug possession. It scared me so badly, I stopped doing drugs.
Did you remain married?
Yes. I became pregnant a second time-and lost her (April Dawn). Then I got pregnant a third time, but all my previous abortions had weakened my ability to carry a baby to term.
So in my seventh month, when I started to bleed, we drove to a hospital with a special unit for premature babies. Chloe was born, and she had to stay in the hospital for a month because she weighed 3 pounds 11 ounces. After her birth, my whole life started to change. One night, I walked in on my husband with another woman, and I realized I needed to go. I couldn't stay in the relationship. My career had gone down the tubes, "I'd rebelled against God, and I didn't want my child to make the same stupid mistakes. So I left Jeff.
And your relationship with God?
I went back to church and just started all over again. Wow, it was hard. There were times when my husband would come to visit and he'd still be getting high. It was hard to resist. When you open that door, you can be a Christian and still fall. So I'd get high and then I'd feel such guilt and shame. You can't look people in the eye because you've got this secret. Meanwhile, I didn't feel as though I could really talk to anybody, because I thought they'd hate me if they found out.
How did you finally overcome the temptations?
God delivered me completely-but not until I actually confessed my wrongs to him, Andrea, and other Christians. If I'd known what would happen, I'd have done it so much sooner! Then I had to say to Jeff, "You can't stay with me and Chloe any more because our lifestyles are different. We're living for Christ now."
Did the Christians you confessed to respond positively?
They did. By that point, I'd made such a mess of my life I finally decided I had to tell somebody. That was a difficult decision because I didn't know how they'd respond to my confession.
I told them everything. They prayed over me. And those desires for drugs, for men to fill my void, everything was healed. That's God's grace.
Being a Christian isn't easy, but I won't trade it for the world.
What about those destructive thoughts?
I still hear those voices telling me, You're fat. You're ugly. No man wants you. Now I don't listen to them, because those voices aren't speaking the truth. Jesus loves me. He wants me. He made me. He doesn't look at my fat. And he doesn't look at my past. He's forgiven me.
Let's talk about some of the challenges of being a single parent.
Chloe's only 10, but she's starting to blossom, and she's very strong-willed. Don't know where she gets that!
The hardest thing is knowing that everything I do, Chloe copies. Wow! Does that make me pray! But I look at my precious Chloe and realize that God trusted me enough to give me this child to raise. I often pray, Thank you for believing in me enough to give me Chloe. I can't do this parenting thing by myself, but somehow with you, I know I'll make it.
As a single parent, I'm learning to take one day at a time-sometimes, one second at a time! I want to show Chloe the same mercy, grace, love, discipline, and understanding God shows me.
What do you tell Chloe about her father?
My mom gave me some excellent advice: "No matter what happens, never speak ill of your child's father in her presence, because eventually she'll see the truth for herself."
Chloe talks a lot with her dad. They have a special relationship-and that's how it should be. We pray for him daily.
And your family? Have you reconciled with them?
Yes. It's been a slow process, but having Chloe prompted me to bridge the gap in our relationship. God softened my heart, and I started to see my mother and father in a different light.
My dad died in 1987. Looking back, I can see my dad did love me-he just didn't know how to communicate it. There are times when I think, Oh Daddy, I wish you were here. I'm so ready to talk to you. I'm so sorry for what I put you through. It took me a long time to get to the point where I could say that, but now how I wish I could share with him what I've learned about Jesus!
I've also realized the pain and the suffering I put my mother through. The fact is, she wanted me to have a good life. She wanted Angelica to have a good life. She just didn't know how to do that. It's too bad I made her life a living hell. There are some things she finds too painful to discuss. And you know what? I let those go. It's not worth it. The fact is, I got my mom back. I took the first step to call her and really talk to her. I asked for her forgiveness for all the mean words and harsh things I'd done to her.
I get to share with her about my new life and about how wonderful Jesus is. And she listens. Not too long ago, my mom visited my sister and they went to church. A lady was singing and my mom suddenly started to weep. My sister asked her what was wrong, and she said, "It's that lady. She reminds me of Tata. And I can hear Tata's voice in my ear saying, 'Jesus loves you, Mommy. Jesus loves you.'"
Jesus did that. He's healed so much of our relationship, because I've been able to see her through his eyes. Now my mom's become a best friend.
What about your relationship with Angelica? When did she find out who her birth mom is?
Angelica approached me right before my father died and we talked about the truth. She said, "I knew when I was five that something was different. I had a feeling you were my mother." I wish I could have done things differently.
I didn't get to rear her, but I love her so much. Right now my relationship with her isn't where I'd like it to be, but I know that's just a temporary state. Someday, God will heal those wounds.
How have you learned to forgive yourself for the past?
I know God's forgiven me, but forgiving myself has been a daily process because I had such self-hate. My past really weighed heavily on me.
It took me a long time to believe God would forgive me-but I don't struggle with that anymore.
And I know I have a bunch of kids in heaven, and they're just waiting till Mom gets there. Someday, I'll get to see them and hold them. But it took me years to get over the guilt and shame.
Staying grounded in the faith becomes extremely important.
Definitely. I turn to the Bible for insight on everything. I ask, What does God say about that? And I surround myself with people who are grounded in God's Word, too. So when I start to give in to self-degrading thoughts, I call those friends now.
I've learned the hard way not to give up on God. I have to keep believing what God's Word says in Romans 8:28: That when I follow him, all things-even circumstances that seem like failure-work for my good.
Even though God offers me mercy and grace, I still suffer the consequences of the decision I made 30 years ago, even yesterday. But even in that, God still works to turn around all that sorrow and grief and hurt and shame and guilt.
That's why I love to sing for him. For all the times I've walked away from God, for all the self-destructive things I've done, I should be dead. Yet God's kept me-and he's still watching over me today.
God can still turn your life into something beautiful.
That's right. I want to tell other women that there's a God who's merciful and filled with grace. We look at a person's outer appearance; God looks at the heart. God really loves us, and he has a plan for our lives. No matter who you are, or what you've done wrong, you matter to God-and he can turn your life around. I'm living proof!
Reprinted by permission, Today's Christian Woman.º