Rapper Big Chan Lost All Her Money and Was Sleeping in an Attic. Then She Discovered a Sewing Machine...
|Prince has worn Chan Gaines' gold-sequined creation just about everywhere.|
The rapper formerly known as both Big Chan and Ghetto Cyndarella is sitting at a Hollywood Boulevard diner, contemplating fashion. We must, Chan Gaines believes, move away from the stripper look on the red carpet. Though she has learned not to judge. She is a seamstress and clothing designer now, and the customer is always right. "If you're happy with one tit out, there you go," she says, "have a ball."
Rap is Gaines' first love, but first loves don't always work out. Now 39, she paid her dues in the rap scene for forever. She was signed with Eazy-E's Ruthless Records in the early '90s, before he died.
Eventually Snoop Dogg signed her, along with two other girls, and called them his Doggy's Angels. In their music videos, Gaines is the tall girl swaying in the middle of the trio -- a bit thinner in those days but with the same round face, sleepy bedroom eyes and sultry lips. The Doggy's Angels had a hit song, "Baby If You're Ready," climbing the charts, and in 2000 they released a debut album, the cover of which depicted the girls silhouetted in fiery, rolling flames, just like Charlie's Angels.
But the best of times quickly turned into the worst. Immediately after the album dropped, Columbia Pictures sued the label for copyright infringement, forcing them to pull the cover image and all the promotional artwork.
Snoop no longer had time for Doggy's Angels. They stopped playing shows. Then one of the girls dropped out. The band disbanded. Two years after it had formed, Snoop's foray into the gangsta-rap, girl-group genre had ended.
When Gaines couldn't get into the parties anymore, and was no longer a VIP, spending $1,500 a day -- every day -- at the mall with her girlfriends, and the phones stopped ringing and people stopped taking her calls, what, she asked herself, was she supposed to do? The money ran out.
"People," she says, "showed their true colors."
The time of bright, flashing lights came to an end, and the time of sleeping on other people's couches began. Homeless and penniless, she moved to Atlanta, where family let her live in their attic. "Now, these people, they didn't live in the center of Atlanta, where it's all crunk," she recalls. "They lived out in the boonies, where Walmart was a big deal."
In the attic was a sewing machine. "I'm sitting up here. I ain't doing nothing," Gaines thought. "At least I can occupy my mind."
She taught herself to sew.
When she returned to Los Angeles, Gaines started going to every party she could, wearing clothes she'd sewn. Afterward, a rap artist would be shooting a video or hosting an awards show and they'd need a seamstress to do on-set alterations, and someone Gaines had chatted up at a party would say, "Call Chan. She's good."
Slowly but surely, her phone started ringing again.
Most people in Los Angeles live in their cars. Gaines did so literally. For two years, she slept in her old Thunderbird, driving from job to job, saving her cash. "It smoked, but it ran good," she says with a laugh. She told no one, because "when you're down, that's when they really kick you."
Occasionally, she'd get orders to make gowns or dresses or shirts. As sewing in a car leaves something to be desired, she'd rent a room in a cheap motel and crank out the clothes there.
The former Ghetto Cyndarella dropped the "ghetto" and christened her clothing line Cyndarella Couture. Currently, the house of Cyndarella Couture is basically Gaines and her sewing machine whipping stuff up in her apartment. She makes clothes that hug the body and catch the light. They look insane up close but fantastic onstage and on camera.
Gaines has always preferred costumes to ready-to-wear. "Costuming is crazier," she says. "Your train can go from here to the end of the street. Your sleeves can be big."
She describes her style as elegant, "but something is kinda off about it." Today, for instance, her nails are painted shimmery pink, except for one, which is blue.
She sews tube dresses and catsuits out of sparkly material that make the wearer look as if she's enveloped in stars. Gaines tiles corsets with glass squares or spangly little pieces of metal. For hip-hop singer Doll Phace, she made a sheer black gown crisscrossed with a spiderweb of gold sequins. Gaines has never met a sequin she didn't love.
"When you wear sequins, you gotta be going somewhere, though," she says. "You can't be at Whole Foods just blinging it, like, 'Where are the pears?' "
You've got to be, say, headlining a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden, as Prince did last year. One of her girlfriends does Prince's hair. "We need some hot stuff," she told Gaines. "Can you do it?"
So Gaines made a gold-sequinned shirt and gold-sequinned trousers. Prince wore them over and over again -- on tour, on TV, on billboards. Gaines is proud of that Prince outfit. "Because he loved it. He wore it more than once. It's like if you bake a cake, and he ate the whole cake."
Sequins have been good to Gaines. Cee Lo Green, who opened for Prince, saw the gold-sequinned shirt, admired it, and has been a regular client of Cyndarella Couture ever since. He commissioned a black-sequinned choir robe and wore it to the Super Bowl, where he performed "Like a Prayer" during the halftime show with Madonna. "It looked dope," Gaines says.
On the day of, she and a girlfriend went to a sports bar to watch. Overwhelmed, Gaines put her head down on the bar until Green's stylist texted her: "Do you see your robe?"
Gaines owes a debt of gratitude to Alexander McQueen and Versace and Bob Mackie's designs for Cher and Diana Ross. "I was mesmerized by those clothes," she says of the Mackie dresses Ross wore in the film Mahogany. "And her body was killer."
Not that she's a slave to glamour. Homelessness cured her of that vice: "That situation let me know, it ain't about Versace.
"God put the sewing machine in my way," she says now. "But I had to go all the way to Atlanta to find it."
At those inevitable moments, when she wonders why she doesn't have a big house, she reminds herself, "You could've been still in that car. Get your shit together."Follow me on Twitter at @gendyalimurung, and for more arts news follow us at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.