"In the showbiz industry—where women often become famous for their beautiful faces and bodies, not their talent — Lettrice’s weight gain and rashes were the equivalent of a life-threatening illness..."
Part 1 of "Real/Raw" Interview
By Nuala Lincke-Ivic
Real/Raw: An Interview with Lettrice Lawrence
Her beginnings, as a singer, are storybook, the life of a future superstar. When she was a toddler, she began imitating sounds she heard, and at four, she climbed into the spotlight for the first time, singing a solo at church: “I was scared to death, but sang my heart out.” Her parents, both licensed non-denominational Christian ministers, encouraged her musical abilities: “I began piano lessons at the age of seven, [and] I sang in choirs and in shows my whole childhood. Throughout junior high school and high school, “People said I could sing.” Her talent was well known, a fact. As a teenager, she worked constantly as a solo and back-up singer, and after she graduated with her high school diploma from Los Angeles' St. Mary’s Academy in 1989, she began vocal lessons in 1991 with Dr. Karl Snider at Mount St. Mary’s College in the foothills of Bel Aire, preparing for a career of musical greatness. Young, beautiful and phenomenally talented, Lettrice Cathey-Lawrence felt like she was a passenger on a fast-moving, exhilarating train ride that seemed like it would never stop, like she was riding one of Japan’s famous bullet trains straight to stardom. But one day, and out of the blue, that ride did stop. The bullet train ground to an abrupt and sudden halt.
At 19 years of age, Lettrice was sexually assaulted, and the resulting trauma plunged her into a devastating state of fear, anger and depression. Struggling to recover emotionally and spiritually from the sexual assault, she received another severe blow at 21, when she was diagnosed with a rare muscular disease, Dermatomyositis, which her doctors believed may have been triggered by the trauma she experienced in relation to the sexual assault. Dermatomyositis is in the same family as Systemic Lupus and Multiple Sclerosis, autoimmune diseases that cause the immune system to attack the body’s cells and tissue and central nervous system. After her diagnosis, Lettrice had to be put on steroids and 14 other medications, and her dreams to make the big-time as a singer and musician came crashing down around her. “Doctors gave me three weeks to live, and my body was shutting down. I could barely walk, chew, move about or care for myself." She was bedridden for five weeks, and then miraculously, she began to recover: “God, my family, real friends and the love of my life made me fight my way back to remission.” However, there was a side effect to the medications Lettrice took to combat her illness: “I immediately blew up in size.” She also began to display a common symptom of Dermatomyositis: purple- and violet-colored rashes that often turned into scars, and began to splotch the beautiful, caramel-colored skin around her eyes, and on her neck, arms, and back, making her seem bruised, like she was a battered woman.
In the showbiz industry—where women often become famous for their beautiful faces and bodies, not their talent—Lettrice’s weight gain and rashes were the equivalent of a life-threatening illness; they were potentially career-ending, and the pressure to be thin and lovely caused her to become obsessed with dieting and make-up. Her talent was not enough; surviving a sexual assault and catastrophic illness were not enough. She had to be cute and thin! Lettrice coated the rashes around her eyes and on her body with heavy, cake-like foundation in an often-futile effort to hide them, and began limiting her food intake to celery sticks, carrots, and low-calorie “nutritional” shakes. However, the heavy make-up detracted from her natural beauty, and losing the weight was almost impossible because of the medications she needed to take to combat her illness. Still, she persisted in applying the heavy make-up and engaging in extreme dieting, and as a result, her skin and hair began to look dry and lifeless, and “I almost became anorexic.” Unable to disguise the bruise-like rashes successfully and to lose the weight, and wracked by constant pain, she again became severely depressed: “I wanted to give up and fade away. I hurt all day, every day, [and] to the most extreme level.” However, “God helped me to get past those dark days in my life.” She stopped applying the heavy make-up, and began to eat normally, and she resumed her career as a singer and musician.
Feeling better and with a restored faith in life and her purpose in it—to make music—Lettrice resumed vocal lessons at Mount St. Mary's College in 1992 with Dr. Karl Snider, who helped her to reaffirm her belief in herself as a talented music-maker. “Karl was my heart and has taught me so many things about my voice. He truly helped me to grow as a person and vocalist.” Dr. Snider also made sure she was classically trained as a musician. Always a strong lyric soprano, although she can also sing alto, she developed a profound love of classical music, which she added to her other musical tastes. In 1993, she graduated from Mount St. Mary’s with a B.A.; her major was music, and her minor was English.
In addition to Dr. Snider, there were other musicians who helped Lettrice to reaffirm her faith in herself after the sexual assault and resulting illness. Rogert Saunders, the director of One Foundation, a spiritual group for whom she works professionally, as a singer, “has been like a father and mentor to me. He has recorded my performances and worked with me for three years.” She also has more “extended family” members who have helped her. Kay O'Kelly, the director of Genesis: The Balm, another spiritual group with which she sings professionally, is a “very dear friend,” in addition to being “an outstanding director/musician…known all over Los Angeles for her conducting and directing talents.” Singing professionally with both musical groups has enriched her life, and helped her to heal emotionally and spiritually from the sexual assault and to cope with her illness.
Now a busy, vibrant, hard-working singer/musician, Lettrice has worked in the studio with The Outlawz (Mopreme Shakur), the Boys, Double Impact, LA Nash, Barbra Streisand, Herman Andrus, Albert McNeil (renowned Jubillee Singers), Fortress Ent, Jadar Records (as a background singer for Jovonnie Roberts), Devrik Williams, Rod Hines, Anointed Notion, Lincoln Memorial Congregational Choir, Church of Christian Fellowship Choir, One Foundation, Dichotomy, Genesis, The Divas, and the West LA College Band.
There are also many other musicians and musical groups Lettrice has worked with, and she learned a lot from each experience. She reports that she had the most memorable experience working with Barbra Streisand on her Timeless Tour in 2001: “She is an awesome performer, musician and beautiful person.” Of course, in the music biz, “there is some haterism and personalities you may run into,” she cautions, and “you have to have thick skin!”
In addition to singing both alto and soprano in One Foundation and Genesis: The Balm, Lettrice has amassed a body of her own original songs, which are available for purchase online (Google: Lettrice Cathey-Lawrence), and to keep her music-making abilities sharp, she has been studying voice and music with Professor Joyce Sweeney at West Los Angeles College “off-and-on for 10 years now,” and she thinks that Prof. Sweeney “is the best vocal teacher that any girl can have!”
Athough she “still struggle[s] from time to time” with her illness and sadness regarding the devastating detour her musical career took when she was 19, “I hold on to my faith in God and who I am in Him.” The last time she was put on steroids, which caused another weight gain, she reports that she “didn't obsess with dieting. I was uncomfortable with who I was at first, [but] I love myself now.” She views herself as “a little thicker, but newly improved,” and she believes that “I am a better person today with the extra weight; I have grown.”
Of course, her weight still subjects her to criticism: “These days, I am always told how pretty I am, but I [am told that I] need to lose weight by some industry people.” However, musicians like Jill Scott inspire her, help her to know “[i]t is okay to be a beautiful, caramel-skinned, full-figured woman,” so she can view such criticism with equanimity, refusing to subject herself to a diet of raw vegetables and weight-loss shakes. It’s more important for her to be healthy, and at peace with herself, which means to accept herself as she is. To young women everywhere, she has these words of wisdom: You are who you are, and that’s enough. And…"God opens doors when no one else will."
Listen:Ave Maria - Lettrice Lawrence
Hear Me, Lord - Lettrice Lawrence
Lost in Paradise - Lettrice Lawrence with Brandon Ford
Earthquake - Joseph McDaughtery with Lettrice Lawrence