How faith, authenticity and intuition took Deborah Cox from back-up singer to multi-faceted superstar.
By dictionary definition, Deborah Cox is indeed an icon. Not that we needed one to tell us that. The Canadian recording artist, Broadway star, television and film actress, and LGBTQ activist can do it all with an inspiring grace.
Authenticity and faith are the names of her game — her belief system. They are the pillars to which she attributes her longevity.
That authenticity exudes from her as we speak on Zoom. She is gorgeous (as you would expect), but her genuine kindness and self-deprecating humour makes it feel like you’re catching up with an old friend. And, in a way, I am.
Deborah Cox’s hit singles like “Who do you love?” and “Sentimental” formed the soundtrack of any good Gen Y’ers high school dance party. I am trying to hide my inner Fan Girl when the woman herself appears on my screen, expecting me to be professional. Imposter syndrome alert!
It takes about three minutes for me to feel comfortable, a testament to her nature more than my glad-handing.
Rooted in “mix-up, mix-up” culture/xHED
Cox was born and raised in Scarborough, Ontario to parents of Afro-Guyanese descent. The 1970s was a time of immigration heaving into Canada, turning her community into a melting pot of families from places from the West Indies to Poland, all searching for a better life.
“My community was very ‘mix-up, mix-up’ as we Caribbean people like to say,” she tells me. “All of my friends were of all these different cultures. I loved that I grew up like that because I just have such an appreciation for people’s individual tastes and their rituals. That fuels me and I think it gave me a well-rounded background.”
She grew up in a blended family (her mother remarried) with her stepfather and sisters. Their financial struggles were not something that impacted the kids because, frankly, they didn’t notice.
“We had a good upbringing in the sense that I didn’t know we were poor until I went to my friends’ homes,” she says. “We had a fake fireplace and a beautiful chandelier. It was fake, but it was beautiful! I’d see all these things on TV and be like ‘we’re doing pretty good,’ but I didn’t know we had the bargain version of everything!”
Clearly, the Cox family knew how to work with what they had. And what they had was an incredible talent in young Deborah.
Harnessing the gift
As a four-year-old, she would sing along to commercials and the radio. By seven, her talent was impossible to ignore. She loved pop music like Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston (foreshadowing?). She didn’t know what her path would be, but she knew it would be one that allowed her to share her gift in whatever way she could.
“I like the saying that ‘the gift will make room for you,’” she says. “I’ve had so many opportunities that even though I wasn’t the best dancer or the best actress, I have found myself in this position where I have been able to use my gifts and serve whatever the piece is.”
It was Canadian legends Roch Voisine and then Celine Dion who first booked young Deborah and took her on tour as a back-up singer. These tours would form the foundation for the way she viewed her talent — something she needed to take care of.
“When I got called to sing back-up for Celine Dion, I had already been on tour with Roch Voisine,” she says. “So, I had already learned things like not to sing at the top of my lungs every night. If you want to be great at whatever it is, you have to be super disciplined about it. Celine was — and still is — very disciplined about her instrument.” [She points to her throat].
It wasn’t long before the recording heavy hitters came calling. Clive Davis had been a de facto hit-making machine since the late 1960s. In the 1990’s, his label Arista Records signed handfuls of A-list artists, including the late-great Whitney Houston. He signed Deborah in 1994 when she was 20 years old.
This is the part of the story where you brace for the inevitable plot twist. Let’s face it, the story has cautionary tale written all over it. Young Canadian singer gets signed by big-wig music producer, gets caught in a life of drugs and debauchery, turns into intolerable diva, ends up in expensive rehab.
We’ve heard it a million times. But that didn’t happen. Not even close.
Letting faith lead the way
“I am somebody who believes in God,” she says. “And I believe that my faith and my absolute trust in God’s plan has been my number-one source for navigating this whole thing. I could not have planned it out any better — and I know that’s God.”
Cox credits her faith for steering her in the right direction, even when faced with some of the classic drug-fueled company she was forced to keep in the music business. Plus, she had learned good habits from women like Dion. That discipline had been instilled early and stuck.
Her belief in herself and God’s plan for her has allowed her to sail through her career unscathed by self-indulgence and negativity.
“You don’t need to go that route to be successful,” she says. “You don’t have to constantly be validated by other people. Find a way to believe in yourself and that will help propel you on to whatever your journey is.”
Mind, body and soul
It’s no surprise then that faith forms the cornerstone of her health and wellness regime. Taking the time to pray has been key to maintaining her mental health, especially during the pandemic.
“Even when I’m really busy, I always find that moment to pray and to just be in gratitude,” she says. “And when you live in gratitude, you realize there are a lot of people who have it worse off than you. And that brings everything back into perspective.”
A life-long advocate for taking care of yourself – mind, body and soul – she is not one to preach. She understands that what works for her (a recipe that has taken years to finesse) might not work for you. All women are different and there is no one-size-fits-all solution for looking and feeling your best.
“I now know what works for me and what works for my body,” she says. “Over the years, it has just narrowed down to a small list of things that I know keep me going. I know that I need the sun. If I can get by the ocean or water. I need quiet time. Chilling out, reading, watching a good movie. Really simple things.”
As far as diet, she is clear that she is not one to exclude or restrict – “I am not a vegan!” – but she has had to make adjustments as she’s gotten older. She shuns all dairy for its negative impact on her vocal cords (remember, it’s important to protect her instrument), opting instead for almond milk or oat milk. And she has tried to reign in her affection for all things sweet when she learned that diabetes runs in her family.
Her weakness? Junk food. More precisely, Canadian junk food (she is quick to clarify).
She lives in Florida now and laments the lack of availability of ketchup chips, although after having a “melt-down” at her local Public grocery store, she was able to locate dill pickle chips at Target. Crisis averted.
“The struggle is real!” she says, laughing.
And how does she fit in her self-care routine around mothering three children? Easily, because they don’t talk to her much. This is a sore spot for Cox. She laughs-cries as she tells me that her kids don’t talk to her, need her for anything or think she’s cool. Oh, the joys of teenagers!
“They don’t need me and I’m having a serious problem with that right now!” she says.
Like most teenagers, they don’t share her taste in music (including her own). “I’ll play them something I’m working on or be dancing around to Prince and they just sort of stare at me,” she says. “They don’t get it. But they will.”
Still, she did score some cool points when the “Deborah Cox Challenge” took social media by storm during the second wave of Covid-19. On Sept 21, 2020 an Instagram account dedicated to showcasing singers asked fans, regardless of talent, to try to sing her classic ballad “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here.” Tons of celebs took part – from Lizzo to Keke Palmer. So did thousands of amateur singers, some amazing, some, uh, not so much.
“It was cool and the part that really tickles me was that all these new people were discovering my music,” she says. “This song is 20 years old and it still resonates. Good music can transcend time. Plus, my kids finally thought I was cool. Once you’re on TikTok, you’ve really made it.”
Transitioning to this new stage of parenting has freed up a lot of time for Cox to partake in her favourite activity: sleeping. “I have so much time on my hands to do exercise and stuff, but I’d rather not do it,” she says. “I’d rather sleep. I love sleep – that’s the secret sauce. Sleep is everything – it rejuvenates you It’s good for your cells.”
Trusting her intuition
Despite her affinity for a good nap, Cox certainly isn’t spending all of her time in dreamland. After all, she has work to do.
She has been bitten hard by the acting bug over the past few years and is currently talking to me on location in Atlanta where she is shooting a yet-to-be-announced television series. She also plans to release a new album — well, sometime this year!
“I’m trying to get a new album done this year — fingers crossed,” she says. “I’m not even going to say a date anymore, I’m just gonna drop it. It will definitely be this year. I think.”
For a woman who can pretty much do it all – and do it well – you’d think choosing a project would be difficult. But she tackles it the way she does most things, by trusting her faith and intuition.
“If I read a script and it resonates with me and it feels good, I’ll go with it,” she says. “It’s the same with music. If there’s a song that I hear and I really like it, I’ll go in that direction. You just have to have a vision for yourself and I’ve always been a person who wanted to explore different sides of art. I feel like I’m still growing and moving and wanting to do different things.”
The LGBTQ community: a love affair
Aside from her work on set and in the studio, she has always been a vocal advocate for the LGBTQ community. It’s a connection that was created in the early 90’s, when, despite being taboo, she performed in clubs like Palladium and Church.
“At that time there were a lot of people who were in the closet or who didn’t identify with any specific gender, a lot of people that were just discovering themselves,” she says. “And because I was the person that was in the clubs singing all these songs, I became this beacon of light. I hope they can get to this place where they can feel comfortable about being who they are.”
This love affair with the gay community has transcended time and space. For Cox, it has meant decades of doing the work; of showing up and affecting change. Oh, and always dropping a dance version of her records. That has been key.
She has always been an icon of authenticity – of being who you are and not apologizing for it. It’s what makes her such a great ally today. “It’s about being compassionate and having perseverance — to want to see change,” she says. “We still have a lot of work to do”.
That remaining work has become even more apparent now that she’s living in the U.S. She has a first-hand view of the contrast in the way American governments deal with people.
“The past four years, it was tough to be a person of colour living in this place and raising a son here,” she says. “It has given me a lot of perspective and respect for Canada. There are a lot of things that Canada has been at the forefront of. LGBTQ rights is only one of them.”
She’s the real deal
As I wrap up my conversation with Cox, I admit I am sad to see her go. It’s always fun to write about what you know, and I can now say categorically that Deborah Cox is authentic, funny and inspiring. How cool is that?
She says she likes variety and gets bored easily, so I’m conscious of finishing the interview before that happens. But I do ask her to record a video shout-out to my older sister so she will believe this whole thing took place. I’ve played it cool for so long, but now my inner Fan Girl is showing up big time.
After all the excitement of having a face-to-face conversation with a Canadian icon, I think I’ll take a page out of her playbook and smear some of that “secret sauce” on my day. Have a nice long nap.
You might also enjoy reading about Deborah and 99 other women in our 2021 Top 100 Health Leaders.
Author: Julie Lawrence is the Editor for Optimyz Magazine based in Halifax, Nova Scotia.