Art is imitating life for Naturi Naughton.
The 37-year-old actress got her start in the limelight as one-third of the R&B pop group 3LW at the tender age of 15. Alongside Adrienne Bailon Houghton (current co-host on talk show “The Real”) and Kiely Williams, the trio dropped myriad hits — including “Playas Gon’ Play,” “No More (Baby I’ma Do Right)” and “Feelin’ You,” featuring juggernaut producer-rapper Jermaine Dupri.
“The music business can be shady — and my experience as a teenager was not good,” she told The Post while hyping “Queens,” her new hit ABC show about the reunion of a ’90s girl group. “That pain, that hurt — that trauma is still there.”
Following her tumultuous departure from 3LW in 2002, Naughton put the drama behind her, and in the years that followed, she focused on pumping it into the big screen by playing Grammy-nominated rapper Lil’ Kim in “Notorious,” the 2008 biopic of Biggie “The Notorious B.I.G.” Smalls, and a six-year run as the wife of a gangster drug lord in the Starz drama “Power” opposite Omari Hardwick.
Now, after over 20 years in the business, Naughton’s career has come full circle. Currently the East Orange, New Jersey, native stars in the musical drama “Queens” as Jill, a k a “Da Thrill,” an original member of a girl group named the Nasty Bitches, formed with her high school friends. Sound familiar? After years apart, the 40ish bandmates decide to reconcile their differences and take over the music industry again, assert their swagger and reclaim their fame.
Playing Naughton’s fellow band members in the new drama from executive producer Zahir McGhee (“Scandal”) are rapper Eve (Brianna a k a Professor Sex), Grammy-winning R&B songstress Brandy Norwood (Naomi a k a Xplicit Lyrics) and Nadine Velazquez (Valeria a k a Butter Pecan).
Naughton sat down with The Post to set the record straight on awakening the “nasty bitch” within and reckoning with her traumatic past in the “shady” music industry.
What is the importance of being one of four women of color leading a show on prime-time television?
It feels exciting to be on network television. ABC [has] always been a progressive network who shows diversity in really exciting ways. I literally was obsessed with “Scandal,” and Kerry Washington is a friend of mine. I look up to her and Viola [Davis]. I think television is evolving in a way where women have voices and women of color are put on a platform to express those voices.
What has been the best part of working with your co-stars?
Honestly, the friendships, the sisterhood. I grew up with an older brother. I didn’t have any sisters growing up. And these women feel like the sisters that I always wanted. We talk about everything, we kiki. You don’t often get to do a show where you want to talk to them after you wrap. And that brings me joy because it doesn’t happen that way all the time.
The first single released for “Queens” is called “Nasty Girls.” How did you unleash your inner nasty girl to get ready for this role?
Oh she was already inside waiting to come. Obviously I’ve played some nasty characters, a k a Lil’ Kim. She’s a nasty girl all day, every day. But I wanted Jill to feel hardcore, but she’s also very theatrical. She’s exciting. You never know if she’s going to do something crazy on her knees. We shot that video in Florida on a yacht. It was a hundred degrees. It was hard work, but it was so much fun for me as an artist. Going back to some of those themes from the ’90s and the 2000s, I was transported back into my own life.
As the only member of the cast formerly from a girl group, has this show inspired you to reunite with 3LW or focus on your own music career?
I would focus on my own music career. It’s no shade, I’ve just grown so much from my teenage years. But I use my real experiences to help inform my character Jill. I definitely feel like my experience with 3LW had some ups and downs. It wasn’t the best situation for me, so I don’t think I would be inspired to go backwards. However, I’m inspired to tap into some of those experiences and remember how I got through them. The music business can be shady, and my experience as a teenager was not good. So I just try to be honest with myself and say, “Oh, wow, that pain, that hurt, that trauma is still there.” Now I need to just dig deep and use it for Jill and “Queens.” I am grateful that I had my experience. It helped me to be a better actress.
Has “Queens” inspired you to release music as Naturi?
That’s actually something I am working on. Before “Queens,” I was in the studio working with an awesome producer recording a solo project. I have some really amazing songs I’m excited to bring to the world. I get a chance to reintroduce that side of myself to an audience that may not even remember that I was a singer first, because I’ve mainly focused on my acting career. The last time people really saw me in this space was almost 20 years ago.
Your character is living a double life. She’s married to a man, but in love with a woman. How do you think your character will resonate with the LGBTQ community?
I hope that people really connect to this, because we are trying to show the truth, but in a non-stereotypical way. Jill is definitely living a double life, and she’s definitely struggling to figure out which side of the coin she wants to be on. But once she does decide, I hope that empowers so many people from the LGBTQ community, so that they feel like, “Maybe this is my moment to be true, to be honest [and] to be real with myself, whatever that may be.” This character is so complex that I hope it inspires people to say, “Don’t put me in a box, and don’t make my sexuality define me as a whole.” Hopefully that inspires many people.
Your character’s nickname is “Da Thrill.” What has been the biggest thrill of your career so far?
The biggest thrill of my career was taking on the role of Lil’ Kim in “Notorious.” My very first role was literally doing a nude scene and trying to rap when I had never done that before in my life, with pasties on my nipples like, what more do you need? I was so nervous when I got that part because I didn’t even know if I could do it. I didn’t really know if I believed in myself or felt sexy or confident enough, because I was coming out of being a young girl. And when you transition from being a young girl into a woman, sometimes, it’s a little nerve wracking. So that was a thrill. And I would also say, leaving the business, going to college in New Jersey and choosing to take a break from the craziness really changed me, because it let me know that I’m human first. I’m a woman first.
Your first line on the pilot is “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.” What do you think is the biggest sin women make in regards to their careers?
The biggest sin that we all make is apologizing for yourselves, like shrinking, trying to be small when you’re really big, trying to diminish who you are, to make men feel better when you are that girl. I think we need to stop apologizing for our voices, our opinions. We need to make sure that we own our bodies, that we own our stories and empower other women. But I think that’s a big sin. Sometimes it’s because there are other women that are in power that want you to shrink, so that they’re not intimidated by you up and coming. It’s a struggle being a woman in the industry, but particularly being I’m a black woman who is not always celebrated or welcomed. We should just say, “I will stand in this room in my glory and my amazingness.” Embrace who you are, and don’t apologize for it.
While your character Jill decides that she wants to divorce her husband in real life, you revealed that you got engaged this past Christmas without revealing his identity. Why was it important for you to keep his identity a mystery?
I’m private. I never got married before. I’ve never been engaged. But I learned some valuable lessons because I became a single mom pretty quickly, and I had to really figure out that new existence of being a mother on her own. And once I found a man who actually embraced me and didn’t make me shrink or didn’t make me feel small, I wanted to protect him just as much as he protects me. The industry can be vicious. Social media can be vicious. People are not always happy for you, girl.
What tips can you give us girls who are still looking for the love of our life?
I was actually in a whole prayer group praying for my husband. Real talk. You have to be ready. A lot of people say, “Well, I need companionship. I want a man, I want love.” But like, are you ready to receive that? Because sometimes we reject goodness in our lives. Really, I just decided I wanted to be ready.
Why should viewers watch your new show?
Watch “Queens” if you believe in true sisterhood between women of color in a celebrated way, that’s funny, dramatic, honest, organic and pure. Please come check the fashion, the hair, the makeup, because we are slaying. OK! If people want to escape the crazy world that we live in right now, I hope that they do make “Queens” No. 1, because we are working to give you guys our best.