Aaliyah in February 2001.
Photo: Getty Images
Ten years ago today (it was a Sunday, I remember) I was sitting at my friend Jordan’s house listening to the radio when I found out Aaliyah died. We flipped on MTV and the station had already gathered commentary from her many collaborators—Timbaland, Missy Elliott, Jay-Z. They all said the same thing at the VMAs the following week: She was so young, so talented, would be so missed. But to me, she was the first pop star I felt I looked up to: edgy instead of sweet, unafraid to rock a tomboy style, matching her sweet vocals to grinding beats (and dressing to match). I remember coveting her smokey eye in “Try Again” (and she rocks the ombre tips, years before the entire style world caught on) but loving how she glammed it up with a glittering neck/wrist cuff. Not only was Aaliyah gorgeous, but she kept it balanced. Her femme’d-out beauty complemented her tough chains-and-boots, utilitarian attire. (A style that Rihanna gratuitously borrowed from for her video “Hard.”)
To me, there were two Aaliyahs. The sultry, Queen Of The Damned-inspired, thigh-revealing lady in her videos, and the silly, oversized jacket and belly-baring Aaliyah of real life. Her street style was never “hard”—but it always had a fun edge, a cuffed bandanna or darkened lip liner, that referenced her Brooklyn/Detroit upbringing. Though I never had the toned tummy or could rock the low-slung pants, I remember desperately wanting to copy her torso-chain idea. (I’m glad I didn’t. Not only did they not stand up to the test of time, but body cuffs only work if, you know, you’re Aaliyah.)
Aaliyah in 2000 and 2001.
Photo: Getty Image
What I loved the most about Aaliyah was that she was able to stay relaxed and spunky without ever looking overtly tough: in an era of baggy pants, she rocked her oversized Hugo Bosses with the same type of pride and style normally reserved for the red carpet by pairing them with a sparkled belt or killer hair. Oversized pants, for once, had sex appeal, but sex appeal that I could relate to because it wasn’t inaccessible. It wasn’t Spice Girls or Mariah Carey, it was someone you could really see on the block. It was possible to be one of the boys (“Back In One Piece”) without giving up how lovely you are (“Are You Somebody”).
It’s been 10 years since Aaliyah died and I still remember being at Jordan’s watching TV, and probably always will. Not only was she one of the first celebrities my age that I experienced the death of, but she was my pop star. And I’ll never have her belly, but I’ll always be trying to re-create that smokey eye.