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Former Backup Dancer Says She Saw R. Kelly Having Sex With Aaliyah When She Was A Teen

Jovante Cunnningham describes the disturbing tour bus encounter in "Surviving R. Kelly," but Aaliyah's mother disputes the story.

By Dorian Geiger

A former backup dancer for R. Kelly who alleged she witnessed the R&B star having sex with a then-15-year--old Aaliyah on a crowded tour bus is sticking to her story after Aaliyah's mom denied the episode occurred.

Jovante Cunningham made the claim about Kelly, who was 27 at the time, in Lifetime’s explosive six-part docu-series “Surviving R. Kelly,” which explores the nature of Kelly’s relationships with young women - and sometimes underage girls, including the late musician.

But shortly after the docu-series aired, Aaliyah’s mother, Dianne Houghton, blasted Cunningham’s story as “lies and fabrications,” on Twitter.

“My husband and I were always on tour with [Aaliyah] and at interviews and every place she went throughout her entire career,” she wrote. “Whoever this woman is [making the allegations], I have never seen her before anywhere on planet earth, until now.”

Cunningham, though, stood by her version of the story in a statement to PEOPLE.

“It’s unfortunate that there are still people trying to protect [R. Kelly] when they know he has destroyed so many people’s lives,” Cunningham said in the statement. “I loved Aaliyah and when people watch the documentary, they will see how much I cared for her and how much Robert’s actions deeply affected me and so many others.”

In "Surviving R. Kelly," Cunningham described the alleged tour bus incident in unpleasant detail. 

"[I saw] things that an adult should not be doing with a child. He was having sex with Aaliyah," Cunningham said.

“[You] get on the bus there are bunks and these bunks have little curtains you can pull at night if you don’t want anyone to see you sleeping. “It just so happened we were all laying in our bunks and the curtains are open, everybody’s communicating, laughing. It was prank time when the door flew open on the bus. Robert was having sex with Aaliyah.”

Kelly's former tour manager, Demetrius Smith, also voiced his suspicions in the Lifetime docu-series that Kelly and Aaliyah had a sexual relationship when she was underage.

“Her parents trust me, they trusted us,” Smith told Lifetime. “I thought they were getting closer, I was beginning to suspect, asked Robert, and he said ‘Hell no I ain’t messing with Aaliyah.’”

It was widely reported in 1994 that Kelly and Aaliyah were illegally married in Illinois when she was 15. The legal age to wed in Illinois is 16. In 2002, Kelly faced child porn charges in a separate (and infamous) case but was later aquitted. 

In “Surviving R. Kelly,” Cunningham also alleged that Kelly’s preference for young girls was well-known, but that was something that was often overlooked by the superstar's clique.

“[The] first time I witnessed [a] sexual act in [the] studio was during the recording of remix, ‘Slow Dance.’ He had one of my teenage friends in the booth with him. And we were all right there. I will not say with whom but none of us were of age.”

Cunningham admitted that fame and her career got in the way of her saying anything.

“We were just trying to make it,” Cunningham told Lifetime. “We had big dreams.”

Kelly was introduced to Aaliyah by her uncle and manager, Barry Hankerson, when she was only 12. Soon, she was a familiar face in Kelly’s entourage, where she met and became close with Cunningham. 

“We’d sneak Aaliyah out of the hotel and take her all over the place, we’d take her to my dad’s house and dance and sing in the living room,” Cunningham told Lifetime. “We were all very close. We had a very close-knit relationship. Those were the good old days, but those are the things that also make you cry.”

But it was that same inner circle, Cunningham lamented, that enabled Kelly’s alleged behavior against Aaliyah and other young girls.

“[Kelly] felt he was invincible, that he can’t be touched, and in hindsight, in society, we kind of made him feel that way,” she added.

“He destroyed a lot of people. A lot of people who loved and adored him. And I can’t stress to you enough how people are still suffering behind things that went on 20 years ago. After that, it started the breakup of everyone and everybody.”

R. Kelly has yet to directly respond to the allegations. However, TMZ reported that Brian Nix, Kelly’s lawyer, has threatened to sue Lifetime.

Aaliyah died in a 2001 plane crash at the age of 22. She was filming a music video in the Bahamas.

[Photo: Getty Images}