Naturi’s a Natural

Naturi Naughton’s first impulse when she snared the role of Lil’ Kim in the upcoming biopic Notorious was to get in touch with the rapper and paramour of the slain hip-hop star Notorious B.I.G., the film’s title character. Lil’ Kim wanted none of it.

East Orange native Naturi Naughton plays rapper Lil' Kim in a film about the life of hip-hop artist Notorious B.I.G., which opens Jan. 16.
Photo by Phil Caruso.

“I reached out to meet her; I just, unfortunately, didn’t get a response from her people,” says Naughton. Instead, Naughton spent time in Kim’s Brooklyn neighborhood, soaking up the environment. She talked to people who knew the two performers and read everything about Lil’ Kim she could get her hands on. Mainly, she prepared to get inside the skin of a woman whose rough-and-tumble formative years could not have been more different from Naughton’s traditional upbringing in East Orange.

That’s where Naughton’s dreams first took flight. She sang in the choir at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark at age 6 and later her idol and the personification of her hopes, fellow New Jersey native Whitney Houston.  The meeting was brief—just long enough for a young Naughton to perch on Houston’s lap for a photo opportunity—but it was a defining moment. “I told her, ‘I want to be like you.’ I got a picture and then the next kid went,” Naughton recalls.  But that encounter made Naughton realize “it was tangible to have hit songs and recording albums. These dreams are real.”

When she was 11, Naughton entered the Newark Community School of the Arts. By the time she was 13, she was the official National Anthem singer at New Jersey Nets games. “It was so cool to see the game from courtside,” she recalls.

At 14, Naughton signed with Epic Records as part of the R&B girl trio 3LW. The group toured the United States and Europe, but the best part was always coming home to New Jersey. “Just being in my own bed,” she says. “No matter how many hotels and Tempur-Pedics, it was so good to be [back] around people who knew me when.”

In October, Naughton, now 24, ended a two-year stint in Broadway’s Hairspray—a run interrupted only by a six-week break to film Notorious, which opens January 16. Up next for East Orange’s rising star: appropriately enough, a leading role in the remake of the 1980 hit movie musical Fame.

These days, Naughton splits her time among Los Angeles, New York, and New Jersey, but she makes sure she has one thing that always makes her feel right at home no matter where she is: the word game Taboo. “I’m all about game night. I’m super competitive,” she says. “I have a Taboo in Los Angeles and one back home, so I [have one] no matter what coast I’m on.”

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