From Cheetah Girl to Emmy Winner: Adrienne Bailon Shares the Playbook for Creating Her Own Fairytale

"I always joke around that I am the perpetual girl group member," Adrienne Bailon quipped to E! News. From 3LW to The Real, relive her enduring career and the love she found along the way.

From the start of her career, Adrienne Bailon seemed intent on harnessing her own happy ending instead of waiting for one to come true. 

At 19, the singer had landed a role in what would become a beloved Disney Channel franchise: The Cheetah Girls. Twenty minutes into the original movie, the girl group graces a high school stage belting in protest against the idea of having to be rescued by a Prince Charming. "I don't wanna be like Cinderella, sittin' in a dark old dusty cellar waiting for somebody to come and set me free," the song went.

It's an idea Bailon can fully get behind, having spent the past two decades creating her own success.

"I definitely knew that I wanted to be in entertainment," she told E! News in an exclusive interview, reflecting on her aspirations as a young girl. "I never thought I was going to be a daytime talk show host in the capacity that I am. I just didn't dream that necessarily, but I knew I wanted to be on television in some capacity."

By the time she debuted as one-fourth of the kid-friendly Cheetahs, she had already become a radio hit as a member of another girl group, 3LW, alongside fellow Cheetah Girl, Kiely Williams. The millennium trio's 2000 debut album ultimately went platinum while their single, "No More (Baby I'ma Do Right)," became an unforgettable track for a generation, memorialized as one of 2001's signature songs on the sixth edition of Now That's What I Call Music (back when those albums also went multiplatinum and everyone you knew was rocking out to them). 

Still, as is often the case in the music world, their time together wasn't everlasting. After two more albums, some alleged drama behind the scenes and a member change-up, 3LW ultimately fizzled out while Bailon and Williams' star power continued at Disney, the success of The Cheetah Girls movies propelling them into a real-life girl group for a time. 

While the girls purred their final notes together in 2008, Bailon has embraced the role to this day. "I've always felt most proud of the work I did during my Cheetah Girl Days," she wrote in a 2016 Instagram post. "Fun! Positive! & it allowed me to do what I love most… Sing, dance & act! I will forever hold Chuchi near & dear to my heart! Representing Latinas around the world!"

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And, as if no time has passed, she still keeps in touch with at least one Cheetah sister. "I chat with Raven [Symoné] all the time," she confirmed to E! News. "I feel like we are literally Bubbles and Chuchie forever—in real life. I love her. I have her saved in my phone as Bubbles. She has me saved as Chuchie." As for a reunion, "I never say never," Bailon said. "Anything is possible."

The performer isn't one to dismiss any opportunity to pursue what she loves. Because as much as she's experienced career highs in Hollywood, Bailon also knows what it's like to go without. "For some reason I always validated myself with being successful or working," she tearfully shared on The Real in 2014. "There was a period of time between Cheetah Girls and a lot of things that I've done now that I didn't work and I felt like men wouldn't want me because I wasn't where I was at that time."

Though, to be clear, she was still hustling. In that five-year stretch, Bailon embarked on solo music, continued to act and tried her hand at hosting gigs and reality TV. While none of it quite struck in the way the Cheetah Girls did, she kept trying and eventually, at 29, found what would become her next big thing—and made history simultaneously. 

In 2013, the outspoken star got a seat at the table of The Real, a new daytime talk show aimed at offering a diverse panel that reflected the audience watching. "We are Latino Americans, we are mainstream, we speak English," Bailon explained in a promotional video at the time, "and we want to be able to watch English-language television that still represents us." And watch it, people did. What began as a four-week test run has become an eighth season renewal. "It really has been a dream doing The Real," Bailon told E! News, "especially because of the impact that it's had and how groundbreaking it's been to just be a daytime talk show with all women of color on the panel."

In the process, Bailon—now one of the three remaining original co-hosts alongside Loni Love and Jeannie Mai—became the first Latina to ever host an English-language daytime talk show…and a first-time Emmy winner. 

"When I just think of the fact that that's the highest honor you can get in daytime television—that's what Oprah Winfrey has," she told E! News of the 2018 win. "That just blows my mind…While I'm super inspired for what's next, at the same time, I'm like, wow, I accomplished way more than I ever thought I would have."

With Bailon sitting down virtually with fans on a daily basis for the show, her personal life has sometimes been on the table, as well. When she became engaged to ex Lenny Santiago, she excitedly dished out details of the proposal during a February 2015 episode. And after ending that engagement months later, she broke the news to viewers as Mai held her hand throughout.

Seven months year later, in April 2016, she confirmed she was dating again—but the revelation thatshe was dating Israel Houghton, Grammy-winning Christian singer and songwriter, wasn't all sunshine and details of their recent beach getaway.

Just two months earlier, Houghton announced his divorce from Meleasa Houghton, revealing in a since-deleted post that he had "failed and sinned" in his more than 20-year marriage. When photos of him and Bailon vacationing in Mexico emerged in March, fans began to connect their own dots, forming a picture that wasn't quite reality.

"This man pictured here is not married," Bailon told viewers on that April episode, simultaneously defending herself against speculation that she was the cause of their split. "To put that blame on me was obviously hurtful." 

Houghton also spoke up for her, issuing another statement that read in part, "My marriage had been over for quite some time before going public with my divorce announcement. Where I shared, or as some have pointed out 'over-shared' my failure in my marriage… From over 5 years prior. It seems to be simple math that I had not even yet met Adrienne during the time my marriage was falling apart."

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Instead, they were friends first, having met on Bailon's 2013 movie, I'm in Love with a Church Girl, a film that Houghton produced. She even helped set him up on dates with her own friends before realizing, perhaps, she was more into him than they were. Plus, there was the musical connection. "He started singing these songs that I grew up singing in my church, literally like songs that I swear, nobody knows," she recalled to E! News. "He's like, 'I've grown up singing these songs since I was a kid.' And in that moment, I was like, Oh my gosh, this is somebody that actually gets me and understands me and will know me…I was like, oh, this is my soulmate. I get it. We've known each other for a lifetime—we just didn't even know it."

Houghton was all in as well. Despite previously swearing off marriage, he got down on one knee mid-boat ride as they cruised in front of the Eiffel Tower in August 2016. "I've taken a giant leap of faith in asking her to share life with me forever and to give me a shot at getting it right this time," he announced to fans in an Instagram post. "She has graciously granted my request… She said yes." Exactly three months later, on Nov. 11, 2016, they were once again in the City of Light, only this time to become husband and wife. The festivities were picturesque with the couple tying the knot and celebrating inside the famed Hôtel Plaza Athénée. "My favorite moment was just marrying my best friend, sitting in the back of this vintage Rolls Royce, eating french fries with him on the way to the Eiffel Tower to take our official pictures," she recalled to E! News. "And we have pictures of literally stuffing our face with French fries in this super classy moment. I'm in my gown with my train, and I'm just sitting with my bestie eating french fries and I loved that."

On Wednesday, the couple ushered in their fourth wedding anniversary with public declarations of their love. "You are my soulmate, my purpose partner, my lover & my BESTEST friend," she wrote to Houghton on Instagram. "These last 4 years have the been the happiest of my life. Being loved by you gives me wings. Cheers to FOREVER & EVER… I love you with all of me."

In the years since exchanging vows, the two have have taken fans behind the scenes of their life together with the help of Bailon's YouTube channel, which has amassed more than 1 million subscribers. There, they've quite literally opened the doors to their lavish homes, brought cameras along into their routine and reminisced about their love story. "Both of us have lived lives before being with each other," she told E! News, "and I think we're just so grateful every morning that we get to do life together." Reflecting on the "Danny's Song" lyric, "In the morning when I rise, you bring a tear of joy to my eyes and tell me everything's gonna be alright," Bailon continued, "I genuinely feel those lyrics about my husband. I wake up in the morning, I look over and I'm like, oh, we gonna be just fine. Like, it doesn't matter what happens in life, we're genuinely just happy to be together, to live the life that we live and we just feel so blessed."

Not that she's done manifesting her dreams. "I have manifested everything that's happened to me," the star told E! News, sharing her advice for friends: "Don't say if, say when."

Whether it's fashion design or continuing music— through positive thinking, "super hard work" and good behavior, she's ticking off the boxes to her dreams. "I think there's really something to be said for coming to set, working hard," the Masked Singer finalist told E! News, "being gracious to the people you work with, being kind and people wanting to work with you because you're a good person."

And always, always a go-getter. 

"More than anything," she noted, "if you're not getting the opportunities, finding ways to make those opportunities for yourself. I mean YouTube channels—invest in yourself and invest in your dreams. No one handed me a clothing line. No one handed me a jewelry line. No one handed me a vegan bag line. I was like, this is my dream, and I'm gonna invest in myself and make those things happen."

Now, more than a decade after fans bid farewell to the Cheetah Girls, Bailon continues to roar. 

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