October 22, 2007 12:00 PM

To their millions of fans Salt-N-Pepa were a fierce female presence in the male world of rap, singing about life, love and sex with humor, sass and the same gusto as the guys. “We broke down a lot of doors,” says Sandi “Pepa” Denton. “People started recognizing females can sell records.” But despite that success, Cheryl “Salt” James hid a secret, not only from the public but from her bandmates and those closest to her. She was depressed and bulimic, bingeing and purging up to seven times in a day. “I tried to stop,” she says, “but it was something I couldn’t control.”

In 2001, after years of touring and hiding her eating disorder, James decided that the only way to heal was to walk away from the wildly successful act. “I had to get rid of the chaos in my life, which I attributed to being in the group,” she says. Denton and third member, DJ Dee Dee “Spinderella” Roper, were stunned. “When Salt left, I was destroyed,” says Denton. Friends since college, the two didn’t speak for years at a time.

Now James, 41, and Denton, 42, have reunited for a reality TV series. VH1’s The Salt-N-Pepa Show (premiering Oct. 15) documents the thaw in their chilly relationship (Roper also appears briefly on the show) and their run at a second shot at fame. Returning to the public eye “is a lot of pressure,” says James. “But I know I can handle it now.”

The first time around she wasn’t prepared. “People thought I had all the confidence in the world,” says James, who recalls quietly buckling under “the pressure to be beautiful and management telling me, ‘You’re gaining weight.’ It was endless.” Her body issues began much earlier, as a girl in Brooklyn. “I remember feeling all right with myself until age 13,” she says. “Then, I was getting off the bus one day and this guy called me Miss Piggy. That was the first time I ever really felt like I wasn’t okay.”

Even becoming a rap star in her 20s didn’t reverse the slide in her self-esteem. “I felt like the least pretty one. Dee Dee was called the beautiful one, Pepa the supersexy one. What am I?” One day, out for pancakes with a friend who seemed able to eat anything without gaining weight, James overate, then went into the rest room and made herself throw up for the first time. “I remember feeling euphoric, satisfied and relieved afterwards,” she says.

From then on, she had three goals in life: keep the eating disorder hidden, win a Grammy Award and weigh 115 lbs. She accomplished all of them, but by then the bulimia was out of her control. “It was at its worst when I was alone. My mind would go to, ‘What can I eat that is sinful?'” Usually pizza, fries, pasta and chocolate cake in “outrageous portions.” Then she would vomit. Because James, who is 5’2″, never became painfully thin, no one noticed she had a problem.

She finally confided in her then-boyfriend, music producer Gavin Wray, who took her to a therapist. After one session, says Wray, who married James in 2000, “she told me she wanted to deal with it on her own, and she did.”

James turned to her Christian faith. “I got on my knees and cried out, ‘God, I just want to be healed,'” she says. “‘I just want to be whole.'” She returned to going to church regularly, and started talking openly with friends and family members about her pain. “For me, the bulimia was about stuffing my emotions,” says James. “So I stopped suppressing my feelings.” It helped, and eventually she was able to stop bingeing and purging. “I don’t want to give the illusion that one day God came down and I was healed. It is a process, and something you have to stay on top of.” There were short relapses, she says, but “I don’t have the fear that it will come back.”

Now a Long Island stay-at-home mom to son Chapele, 8, and daughter Corin, 16, James is working on mending the rift with Denton, who initially didn’t understand her bulimia. “She seemed fine to me,” recalls Denton. “There was no absence or illness.” Even now, emotions surrounding James’s exit are very raw. “I went through a lot to get where I was,” says Denton, who found it hard to market herself as a solo performer. “There was a lot we had to overcome in the industry. What was it all for?”

“She is right,” says James. “The way I left was wrong, but to this day it remains the best thing I ever did for myself.” Fans hoping for a reunion tour in which Salt-N-Pepa reprise hits like “Push It” will be disappointed to hear that, since becoming a devout Christian, James no longer sings her old racy lyrics. “They are an expression of who I was—or who I was trying to be—in my 20s, not who I am now.” Instead, she’d rather share her long-untold story. “There are a lot of good things that we can do. Maybe my example can help someone.”

Go behind the scenes of James’s photo shoot at PEOPLE.COM/SALT

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