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Lisa Velez of ’80s Freestyle Band Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam Talks Overcoming Struggles and Finding Happiness in Music (EXCLUSIVE)

The star overcame a harrowing diagnosis and has been living her best life ever since

Lisa Velez, better known as Lisa Lisa of the trailblazing ’80s freestyle band Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, is busy as ever at 57, as she’s serving as the Madrina (the Godmother) of New York City’s 2024 Puerto Rican Day Parade, and kicking off her latest tour with a show at the historic Radio City Music Hall.

Lisa Velez rose to fame when she was just a teen, thanks to Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam‘s hits like “I Wonder If I Take You Home,” “All Cried Out,” “Can You Feel the Beat,” “Head to Toe” and “Lost in Emotion.” The group’s mix of R&B, pop and Latin music elements proved highly influential, and helped establish a new genre of dance music that flourished during the ’80s.

woman smiling
Lisa VelezMarvin Johns

How Lisa Lisa got her start

A New York native, Velez was the youngest of ten kids. Her late mother encouraged each of the kids to follow their dreams, and while her three brothers and six sisters all grew up to be teachers and attorneys, the young singer always knew she was different.

“Music was huge in my house,” Velez tells FIRST for Women, “My mom always played a lot of salsa and R&B as we did our chores and I just connected with it.”

Prior to settling in the Big Apple, Velez’s mom was living in Puerto Rico, where she and Velez’s dad performed in a local band to make ends meet. She says that having parents with musical abilities foreshadowed her career path despite all of her siblings going on to more traditional jobs.

“When I was 6 years old, my mom put me in the church choir and led a female group called Mary’s Girls, where I had to sing a song,” Velez recalls. “When I finished, I saw the reaction from the audience. That’s when I was like, ‘Yeah, I want to do that.'”

Lisa Velez in the '80s
Lisa Velez in the ’80sGetty

How Lisa Lisa became a star

On a night out with friends, Velez remembers meeting one of her future music partners, Mike Hughes, at a nightclub in New York City. She was only 13 at the time, but says Hughes strongly encouraged her to audition for a group he and his collaborator, Alex Moseley, were putting together. Velez skipped school to go to the audition. “I got in so much trouble for that,” she laughs.

“I arrived home at 12:45 a.m. from try-outs, and my mom had the cops at the house because she was freaking out,” she says. “Remember, we didn’t have cellphones back then, and because there was a long line of girls and I was the last one to audition, I got back late.”

Playing hooky paid off big time. Not only was Velez chosen from hundreds of wannabes, but the band went on to have multiple hit songs and collaborate with icons like Snoop Dogg, Patti LaBelle, Teena Marie, David Bowie and Earth, Wind & Fire.

Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam in 1987
Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam in 1987Getty

The call that changed everything

At just 21, Velez was riding the wave of success and enjoying her celebrity status. After years of hustling, the band was in high demand on dance floors around the world. While they were on tour, she received a phone call from her doctor telling her that she had been diagnosed with ductal carcinoma, an early form of breast cancer, and needed to come home to begin treatment. “I was so scared. I started crying and saying, ‘What am I going to do?'” she remembers.

It was 1987, when the band was at their peak. Velez recalls that support groups and information weren’t as readily available back then, and the disease wasn’t nearly as talked about as it is now.

With the help of her oncologist, they found a way to hide her cancer from the public. “I would secretly fly home to do rounds of radiation and chemo, and because I had to have a pack on my waist, I was able to hide it by wearing big clothes so I could still perform,” she says.

Over 30 years later, Velez is still in remission and actively involved in working with Memorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Center on charity work, funding, research and spreading the word about early detection. “Surviving cancer taught me to see everything from a different perspective,” Velez says. “You gotta live life everyday like it’s the last day, not let the little things stress you, be more aware of things and keep your eyes wide open.”

woman showing muscle
Lisa Velez in 1992Getty

Becoming a mom

“Ever since I was a 5-year-old, I wanted to be a mom and have babies,” says Velez. Sadly, it took her years to conceive due to everything her body went through following her cancer diagnosis.

After one disappointing doctor appointment after another and being told to walk away from the idea of having a child, she says, “A month later I found out I was pregnant and it was the best thing in the world. My boys, who are now 18 and 20, are my proudest accomplishment and my world, even if they made fun of me when they saw what I was wearing to film a video for MTV!”

lisa lisa smiling
Lisa Velez Clay McBride

Finding joy onstage

While Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam disbanded back in 1991, their hits still live on today, and Velez has never stopped working or performing. In the early ’00s, she dabbled in acting, with a role in the Nickelodeon teen sitcom Taina. “I studied musical theater, so I love it when I get to put those skills to use and become someone new,” she says.

After enduring her share of hardship, Velez has come out stronger, and decades into her career, she still finds salvation through music. “When I am up onstage, it’s like being in heaven,” she says.

Lisa Velez onstage in 1987
Lisa Velez onstage in 1987Getty

“The stage is my home, and I am so happy there,” she continues. “I feel as if I am in my element, because the energy from the audience is everything. Even 40 years after being in this business, I still find it invigorating and I never get tired of it.”

“I am a true believer that if there is something you want to do, you just have to make it happen,” Velez says. The ’80s star has manifested an inspiring career and a powerful sense of positivity, and she’s not slowing down anytime soon.

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