The story of how a high-school poem launched a career.

The 1990s were a seachange for popular music. Almost overnight, acts that held the 1980s in a vise-like grip, from Iron Maiden to New Kids on the Block, vaporized in the face of Nirvana and Alanis Morrissette. Glam Rock and New Wave sank, Techno and New Age rose, and amid this game of musical chairs came “Finally.” Seamlessly blending R&B with House (possibly the only genres that survived the 80s-90s transition intact) this infectiously danceable tune chronicles how an old soul gets nuked by Cupid’s arrow — and it’s about damn time. That’s how the world got to know CeCe Peniston.

“And ‘Finally’ was a poem I wrote in high school,” she confides.

But who cares? “Finally” stuck to the charts for a whopping 33 weeks, had pride of place on the The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert soundtrack, and solidified Peniston as a club queen. Indeed, even in 2021, just try going to a dance hall or bar and not hear this song. High school poems rock.

Chillin’ With: CeCe Peniston

Chillin’ With: CeCe Peniston

Photo by Jimmy Star

“I remember walking down the street and some guy was like ‘Yo! CeCe! How you doin’!’ and I thought, is he talking to me? It was such an encouraging experience. They are happy that I am here; they came to a show just to see me, and I’m thankful as they are. This little poem that became a song has now become a career.”

What a career: in 2016, Billboard lists her among the 100 Top Dance Club Artists of All Time (she’s 52nd). It’s not every singer that can get Aretha Franklin grooving to her music, or can hold her own against operatic powerhouse Andrea Bocelli during a private audience with the Pope. Admittedly prone to a case of the nerves before going on stage, Peniston credits her days on the beauty pageant circuit for steeling her resolve. While she is decorously mum on any of the more savage chess moves she may, or may not, have seen during that part of her evolution, she credits the experience for teaching her how to keep her cool in the spotlight.

But Peniston is not just a pretty voice. As an ambassador to the National PTA and through her charitable organization LOTS (Lifting Voices To Succeed), Peniston is a do-gooder at heart, establishing the significance of placing constructive values on youth in the early stages of their lives. And, having been witness to the rise of the Internet and social media, she has embraced both; her cartoon, “The Petty Family,” is now on YouTube.

COVID, of course, has slowed creatives of all sorts, and Peniston is no different. Spare time is an unfamiliar concept for a person who has been singing from age 11 and has been on the go several months out of the year ever since.

“I’ve seen myself have more spiritual growth at this time,” she observes, “and actually had some peace and rest, because I’ve been traveling for years. I’m enjoying family and friends more, but still social distancing! And of course I’m recording music.”

And as the hub of her group of friends, she describes to Chilled how her kitchen, and wine bar, play a big part in keeping people together in a time when staying apart is the rule.

Chillin’ With: CeCe Peniston

Chillin’ With: CeCe Peniston

Photo by Jimmy Star

What do you do in your downtime?

I like to cook! I don’t know what it is about cooking, but something about it calms my spirit. I do a lot of healthy options; we’re going through hard times, and you gotta make sure you don’t come out with a few extra rolls on you.

What is your favorite restaurant?

My kitchen! For real, though? I love Fleming’s or the Ocean Club here in Phoenix, and I also love Lo-Lo’s Chicken and Waffles.

What are your favorite cuisines?

I do a lot of healthy cooking, and I’ve been trying a lot of plant-based foods as of late. I’m trying to keep it simple only because when you are meal-prepping, it’s more healthy stuff. Four to six ounces of meat, your vegetables. I do great soul food, I do great pasta dishes. Breakfast, too! I just cook a lot.

Chillin’ With: CeCe Peniston

Chillin’ With: CeCe Peniston

Photo by Jimmy Star

What are your favorite bars?

Because of COVID, I don’t really go out. I’m a homebody. I just used to go out to different places in the different cities I am in. But I do like Ocean Club.

What is your favorite drink?

I love a lemon drop.

Do you prepare drinks at home?

Occasionally. Not regularly.

Chillin’ With: CeCe Peniston

Chillin’ With: CeCe Peniston

Photo by Jimmy Star

What’s in your home bar?

I’ve been accused of being the “nurturer” of my friends and family, so I have white wine, some cabernet, champagne, vodka, and Crown Royal. Some ginger beer, too…

Have you ever been a bartender?

I am not a very good bartender, I’m going to tell you that right now!