R. Kelly's Former Bodyguard Gem Pratts Says He Wishes He'd Done More to Stop Singer's Alleged Abuse of Women
"I am the type to try to protect and I feel bad that I maybe didn’t do enough," former bodyguard Gem Pratts tells PEOPLE
As multiple women are coming forward with accusations of sexual misconduct against R. Kelly, the singer’s childhood friend and former bodyguard Gem Pratts is speaking out about how he wishes he could have done more to stop the alleged abuse.
In Lifetime’s shocking new six-part docuseries Surviving R. Kelly, many who are interviewed — including Pratts’ sister Andrea “Drea” Kelly, who was married to R. Kelly until 2009 — claim that for decades, the hit-making R&B singer and producer used his power and influence to sexually and physically abuse women and young girls. While representatives for R. Kelly have declined to comment on the allegations in the documentary, TMZ reported Thursday that Kelly’s lawyer Brian Nix said he would bring a lawsuit against the network on Kelly’s behalf. When contacted by PEOPLE, Nix had no comment.
Pratts – who has known R. Kelly (né Robert Sylvester Kelly) since he was 15 and attended Kenwood Academy High School with him in Chicago — worked as security on R. Kelly’s first three tours before leaving in the mid-’90s when he got married.
“Back then we were in our 20s,” Pratts tells PEOPLE. “I did see some strange propensities. I would check [girls’] IDs. You had to be 18. I am the type to try to protect, and I feel bad that I maybe didn’t do enough. I look back now and just wish I had seen more and was able to do more. It kind of tugs at me.”
“We went on tours to Europe, [where] legal age is 16,” he continues when asked if he was aware of Kelly’s tendency to pursue underage women. “So we were gone a lot and I did see that.”
The documentary’s first episode, which aired Thursday, included an emotional interview with former backup singer Jovante Cunningham, who met R. Kelly at age 14 and claims she bore direct witness to his sexual encounters with underaged girls in the ’90s, including his one-time protégée Aaliyah Haughton. (On Wednesday, Aaliyah’s mother Diane Haughton posted a statement to the official Aaliyah Twitter account, denying the allegation that any such thing could have happened and calling Cunningham’s statements “lies and fabrications.”)
In 1994 it was widely reported that R. Kelly and Aaliyah had secretly gotten married and news outlets made public a marriage certificate that listed Aaliyah’s age as 18, though she would have been 15 at the time.
R. Kelly and Aaliyah never addressed the reports about the nature of their relationship, but in the documentary, his former personal assistant Demetrius Smith claims he was present at the wedding and admits to obtaining false documents for underaged Aaliyah. The marriage was reportedly annulled within the year, and Aaliyah’s career continued to soar until she died tragically in a plane crash in 2001.”Honestly, I never saw him kiss Aaliyah, I never saw him outside of a hug,” Pratts says. “He hid that well.”
In 2002, R. Kelly was indicted after a video surfaced showing a man engaged in lurid sex acts with a woman who some witnesses testified was 14 at the time of the recording. Both R. Kelly and the 14-year-old denied it was them and R. Kelly was never charged with assault. In 2008, R. Kelly was found not guilty after being indicted with 21 counts of child pornography.
During this time, Pratts’ sister Drea, 44, was still married to R. Kelly.
“I still supported him,” Pratts says, while adding he was “still friends” with him even though he “kind of knew Rob’s issues.”
Drea and R. Kelly got married in 1996 and have three children together. They met two years before they wed when Andrea auditioned as a backup dancer for the star. She would go on to handle most of the choreography for his tours, videos and live performances.
In this week’s issue of PEOPLE, Drea is among eight women who open up about the alleged abuse they or their loved ones say they suffered at the hands of the musician. Representatives for R. Kelly responded “no comment” to PEOPLE’s request for a response to the accusations.
“He was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, he really was,” says Drea, who met Kelly at 19. “I started as a dancer. He was my boss. We weren’t allowed to talk to the other dancers or other artists on tour. We had to walk in a straight line, be in your room at a certain time. I’m like, ‘Okay, he runs a tight ship.’ Never looked at it as controlling.”
After falling in love, Drea says he proposed and secretly arranged their wedding, which none of their friends or family attended. It was the beginning of the isolation she allegedly faced for years to come.
“I have situations where I would question her not being able to look certain people in the eye,” Pratts says of his sister. “I knew he was controlling, but, at that point, hell, long as you not putting your hands on her, that’s just life.”
He adds: “He’s godly when it comes to getting in someone’s head. I almost want to say like a quasi-hypnotism.”
Not long after, Drea says the abuse started. In 2005, Drea obtained an emergency protective order against the singer after alleging that he physically abused her — but she dropped the order weeks later. The couple then filed for divorce in 2006.
“It started with yelling and being slapped and grabbed,” Drea says. “He chips away at your self-esteem, your ability to even think. You’re just thinking, ‘What do I do to not piss him off?'”
A report from BuzzFeed News released in July 2017 alleged that R. Kelly has kept at least six women in his Chicago and Georgia properties who allegedly fulfill his desires and are punished if they break any of his “rules.” Amid these allegations — which have never led to formal charges — women’s rights organization Time’s Up along with stars like Ava DuVernay and John Legend have called for a boycott of his music with #MuteRKelly.
But Pratts makes it clear that R. Kelly wasn’t always the way he appears to be today.
“He was a nice guy at one point, he was a good friend at one point,” he says. “This should have been a rags-to-riches story.”
RELATED VIDEO: Woman Describes Being Groomed to Be R. Kelly’s Sex Slave at Age 16 in Shocking New Allegations
While in high school together, Pratts says he and R. Kelly were “buddies.”
“He was real shy, not the outgoing personality you see now,” he says. “Just a real good, respectful guy.”
Pratts mentions that R. Kelly didn’t have the most stable childhood. The singer and his siblings — brothers Carey and Bruce and sister Theresa — were raised by their single mother, Joanne, as their dad left and they didn’t have much money.
During a 2016 interview with GQ, R. Kelly also detailed being sexually abused by a relative from the age of 7 or 8 to around the time he was 14 or 15.
“Rob went through a lot growing up,” Pratts says. “He didn’t have a stable home. It was wherever he could lay his head at night. He was very poor and would go down to the subway [to sing] to make money. He would make two, three hundred dollars a day sometimes. It wasn’t like this every time, but he was able to survive off that.”
He adds of R. Kelly’s musical talent, “For someone who can’t read, he’s truly a musical genius.”
Pratts says the shift in R. Kelly’s behavior came around 2009. “He went from being Rob to truly being R. Kelly — ego-wise, personality-wise,” he says. “He was a totally different person.”
For more powerful stories from alleged victims of R. Kelly, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE on newsstands now.
Surviving R. Kelly airs on Lifetime at 9 p.m. ET from Thursday, Jan. 3 to Saturday, Jan. 5.
If you or someone you know think they are being abused, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY) now for anonymous, confidential help, available 24/7.