HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Domestic abuse advocate Drea Kelly has spoken candidly in recent months about the abuse she says she suffered throughout her 13-year marriage to R&B superstar R. Kelly.
Recently, Drea Kelly brought her message to a group of girls at Homestead Middle School. The panel, hosted by local nonprofit The Embrace Girls Foundation, brought Drea Kelly together with several community leaders to speak to the young girls, most of them ages 12-14, about topics like domestic violence and sex trafficking.
Tackling a topic like sex trafficking with girls so young could seem extreme, but experts say this is the age when they are most vulnerable.
In May, Local 10's Amy Viteri spoke with a young woman from Miami who was only 13 years old when a man named Roman Thomas approached her, asking if she wanted to hang out. Within hours, he was selling her online for sex.
Drea Kelly spoke exclusively on camera with Viteri about what she learned from her experience.
"For me, it became very clear when my abuser, my ex-husband, R. Kelly, was verbally abusive in front of my daughter," she said.
R. Kelly has publicly denied any allegations of abuse. He is currently facing several charges of sexual assault and abuse involving several other women, some of whom were minors at the time. He has pleaded not guilty.
Drea Kelly, who worked as R.Kelly's choreographer and principal dancer, challenged the girls from the podium.
"If someone says, 'I'm going to give you this Gucci bag if you do this for me' -- We know the price of that Gucci bag. Do you think that Gucci bag should cost you a black eye? No," she said.
"Sex trafficking and domestic violence, when I say they are parallel, I call them identical twins," Drea Kelly explained about the similarities between the two. "There's nobody that's going to come along and say, 'I'm going to beat you, probably rape you, put you on drugs and also sell you.' No. They're going to be very charming, very sweet (and) promise you this great life."
Drea Kelly said, for her, the cycle started when she witnessed abuse as a child.
"Because my grandfather was a Baptist preacher, and he was also the first man I ever saw abuse a woman," she said.
Drea Kelly said it wasn't until her own daughter noticed abuse in her relationship with R. Kelly that she realized she needed to get out.
"It took her being 6 years old, sitting at the foot of the bed, like, 'Why are you talking to my mom like that? Why are you being mean?' It's like a lightbulb went off," Drea Kelly said.
Drea Kelly explained that abusers and traffickers often use the same tactics to lure victims into their web. But even if they manage to get out, she said survivors often face victim blaming and shaming from their own community. She said people who do this are the abusers' biggest supporter.
"How dare you then come behind that and try to justify?" she challenged. "The focus should not be on the victim. The focus should be on why is this person even abusing anyone in the first place."
Drea Kelly said she wants girls to be aware, and know their voice matters and that it's never too late to say something.
"Speak out," she said. "We're here. You're supported. We love you and we're listening."
R. Kelly is due back in court in late June on the current charges. Drea Kelly said she has launched the 12th Round Foundation to help raise awareness about domestic violence and sex trafficking.