I was so naive,'' says singer Deborah Cox, 29, lounging in her Aida dressing room. ''I saw guys in G-strings walking around with socks on their penises. That was a shock, but that's the nature of the gig now.'' Cox isn't referring to the starring Broadway role she recently inherited from Toni Braxton (just as Braxton assumed it from Destiny's Child Michelle Williams), but her 1996 debut at the Palladium, a now shuttered NYC nightspot that was home to a vibrant gay dance-music scene. Those same folks are now loyal fans, eager for the just-released Ultimate Deborah Cox, a set of hits, remixes, and hard-to-find alternate recordings.
Cox, a Toronto native with a titanic voice, cut her first record in 1995, boom time for R&B. But she tired of trying to fit the baby-diva mold that artists like Monica, Monifah, and Brandy were forging. ''The market was saturated,'' she recalls. Instead, she teamed up with producers such as Hex Hector for up-tempo remixes of her ballads, like ''Nobody's Supposed to Be Here.''
Pretty soon she was an icon. ''She's had eight No. 1 Billboard Club Chart records. [That's] Janet Jackson, Madonna, Cher territory,'' says Hosh Gureli, an A&R guy who championed Cox from day one. Still, Cox's label was slow to cater to her dance audience. In fact, J Records/BMG put out the first comprehensive collection of her remixes only last year -- just as she was leaving the label to spend time with her newborn, Isiah. Cox, still a free agent, doesn't begrudge the company its right to capitalize on her Aida buzz with Ultimate. ''It's a profitable time to put out Deborah Cox albums,'' she laughs. ''But, really, they'll see the profits. I won't see anything.'' At least she's no longer naive.<