Friday, 11 October 2013

Divine secrets of the Bootylicious Sisterz

Greatest hits from the vault dept: Some years back, I dashed down to Phuket to interview Destiny's Child - well, let's be honest, to interview Beyonce. Imagine my surprise at finding her incapacitated by a respiratory bug ... 


She's a survivor, sure. A diva, definitely. But Beyonce Knowles is also a super-trouper. While the merest tickle in the back of the throat is enough to send most pop stars swooning off in search of a health farm, leaving a trail of cancelled gigs and shattered fans, the brains behind this year's biggest female act on the planet, Destiny's Child, has proved she's made of sterner stuff.

Despite a severe upper respiratory tract infection which had literally left her speechless, Knowles refused to stay home in Houston and flew instead to Thailand with bandmates Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams.

The trio had been set to wow Asia's media and record company bigwigs with a showcase of their bootylicious ditties and hip-hop confections after a sell-out concert in Japan. Then the bug bit Beyonce (pronounced Beyon-say) and their gigs bit the dust.

Defying doctor's orders and unable to sing a note, Knowles hopped on the plane for the southern Thailand resort island of Phuket anyway. She's been told she can't say a word for three weeks, Rowland explains, as Knowles - usually the undisputed Child-in-charge - can only waggle her eyebrows, nod, frown, toss her hair and hold her thumbs aloft in agreement.

'It's been very hard for her. She did not want to miss the Asian trip, she was so excited about it. We were all ready to go, our crew was on the plane, we were about to get on board, but we had to get her to a doctor fast, because she couldn't say a word. It was right after we'd finished a very important concert and the doctor just said be quiet if you still want your voice.'

So here she is, for what may be a music industry first: the silent press conference. She sits centre-stage, regal and still, amber eyes ablaze, as her bandmates take up the slack and revel in this rare chance to hog the spotlight.

It's after 5pm and apart from a break for Thai massages, they've been at it all day. Tomorrow they'll fly back home to Houston. The two who can repeat for the umpteenth time the tale of their trouble-fraught but triumphant rise to chart dominance, all the while darting little sidelong looks at Knowles, as if for approval or to make sure they're on the right track. If they're bored or exhausted, they are hiding it well. They look dew-fresh and drop-dead gorgeous, each clad in painted-on denim, displaying lashings of decolletage and diamonds; Knowles with her trademark dyed-blonde corkscrew curls, Rowland sporting a blood-red bob and Williams pouting from under a wavy chestnut tangle.

'Survivor' twinkles in rhinestones from Knowles' belt-buckle, the letters almost as wide as her tiny waist. It's the name of their number one album, one of four recent number one singles, and it's also become something of a mantra for the band.

Like most of the songs on the new album, it was written and co-produced by Knowles. It was inspired by the spate of sackings and line-up changes which dogged the band after the release of its self-titled debut album in 1998, which included the hit No, No, No Part 2 featuring Wyclef Jean, of Fugees fame.

'There was this radio DJ trying to be funny who was saying that Destiny's Child is like the island from [the television series] Survivor,' explains Rowland, 'you know, who's going to get voted off next. He was trying to be negative and nasty, but Beyonce turned it into a positive thing.'

Indeed, you would have to be stranded on a desert island yourself to have missed the trio pouting and gyrating their way through the song in their furry, Flintstones-style bras and loin-cloths, on super-heavy rotation on every conceivable music video show.

Originally, the band was a quartet, comprising Knowles, Rowland, LaTavia Roberson and LeToya Luckett. Things looked peachy as their second album, The Writing's On The Wall, roared up the charts on its way to selling 10 million copies and winning two Grammy awards on the back of the smash single Bills, Bills, Bills. But behind the scenes, chaos and infighting reigned.

By the time the second single, Say My Name, came out, fans noticed Roberson and Luckett were nowhere to be seen on the video, replaced by Williams and Farrah Franklin. In late 1999, it was revealed that Roberson and Luckett had fired Knowles' father, Mathew, as their manager, claiming he neglected their careers while spending all his time promoting his daughter's. They filed a lawsuit, depicting him as a sinister svengali who stole their money. The case was eventually settled out of court.

Franklin was next to get the chop, after the band's label, Columbia Records, claimed she had failed to show up for several concerts.

Suddenly the band were being labelled the 'Bermuda triangle' of the R&B scene. Rather than sink amid the controversy, Knowles struck out furiously for the shore and turned the experience into a score-settling song: You thought I wouldn't grow without you/Now I'm wiser/Thought that I'd be helpless without you/But I'm smarter/You thought that I'd be stressed without you/But I'm chillin'/You thought I wouldn't sell without you/Sold nine million/I'm a survivor. It was sweet revenge. The song shot to the top of the singles charts and in April, the Survivor CD debuted on the Billboard 200 chart at number one.

'I wrote the song in five minutes. It was like, bam, bam, bam,' Knowles said recently, before her voice deserted her.


Williams and Rowland say the lawsuit was sour grapes and they have no complaints about their management. 'They are looking out for our best interests,' says Williams, of Mathew Knowles and his wife Tina, the group's hairdresser and stylist. 'Ain't nobody money-hungry or stealing money or doing any of that mess. Mathew was a successful businessman before Destiny's Child. Tina still owns one of the top hair salons in Houston. People have said Kelly is just riding the coat-tail of Beyonce and Beyonce is hogging everything. Beyonce has a God-given talent. It's just plain. It's not about her father managing the group. She's a great writer and producer.

'The whole member change was misunderstood. When you have an organisation and some people don't have the same outlook, it starts to clash and that's what was beginning to happen with the old Destiny's Child. It's stronger and it's more of a support system this time. We're sisters and I can definitely say that with a huge smile on my face.'

Adds Rowland: 'All the legal stuff is done, so we don't even answer any questions about the old members anymore. This is the new album. We're very excited about it, we're survivors as Michelle, Beyonce and Kelly.'

The one cover on the current album is the Bee-Gees' falsetto heartstring-tugger, Emotions, and the girls say although they'd never heard the song before Mathew Knowles suggested it, they'd now love to perform it with the wrinkly, bearded crooners. 'We have a number of artists that we'd like to work with,' says Rowland, as Knowles nods furiously. 'Michael Jackson is definitely a part of that list. Also we'd love to work with Stevie Wonder, and I'd like us to try different things in different countries, and collaborate with artists there so we can reach out to those markets.'

Bills, Bills, Bills saw the band dubbed gold-diggers and man-bashers, so they say they set out to correct that impression with Independent Women Part One, the sisters-are-doing-it-for-themselves anthem on Survivor that featured in the recent film version of Charlie's Angels. Now the pendulum has swung the other way, and they're finding themselves held up as feminists, another tag they disdain.

'We just got back from [a press tour in] Europe, and people kept saying, 'Are you feminists?' And I don't want to hear it anymore,' says Rowland. 'Destiny's Child are not feminists. The chorus in Bills, Bills, Bills was so catchy,' explains Williams, 'which is a good thing for a pop song. But you know, 'Can You Pay My Bills', that's what everyone listened to, but they didn't listen to the first verse, about how you let a man, some loser, borrow your car and it comes back on empty. You'd think someone would put some petrol back in your vehicle, or if you loan them five dollars they'll give it back to you.' She's on a roll now, although Knowles has turned her head to fix her with a steely stare, as if to say steady, girlfriend, don't go getting us any more headlines we don't need.

'The fact that we display such strength, that kind of intimidates men,' Williams says, having clocked Knowles' look and headed off on a tangent. 'We think it's very important for women to be strong, we shouldn't take just anything, we should always strive for excellence. We are all single, we have no boyfriends, and we're telling the truth. So if you know any single, eligible bachelors. But they have to be single, they can't be trying to run no game on us. They've definitely got to be successful, they've got to be clean. They've got to smell good. They have to be smart and definitely intelligent.'

Knowles has been linked with bad-boy rapper and sometime homophobe Eminem, although her bandmates snort with derision when I broach the topic. 'I was just about to get on that,' says Rowland. 'We could be sitting in a room right now with Eminem and a whole bunch of people, and they'll always single you out with the artist. You get tired of that sometimes. But it causes controversy, which sells records.

Funk godfather James Brown may not be too thrilled to hear Williams' description of Destiny's Child as 'the hardest working band in this industry'. She blurts this out, deadpan, without a hint of a referential giggle and I'm tempted to ask her to get up and do 20 sets of splits.

'It's hard on the road,' she says. 'You've got to smile when you feel like crying. You've got to open your eyes a little wider when you're tired so you don't fall asleep. And then the different time zones are very hard on your body.

'Last week Beyonce was in tears when she found she couldn't talk or sing. She was so scared as she thought she was going to hurt all the fans here. You don't want people to think you're faking, and Destiny's Child is not the type of group where we'll lie about being sick. We work hard, and we want people to know that unless we're sick or can't talk or something, we'll always show up. We're not no-shows at all, and it's horrible that we have to prove it all the time, because there are other artists that do that all the time. Our fans have been very loyal and we do the same thing in return.'

One of dozens of tape-recorders clicks off, and with a practised swoop Williams flips its tape and hits record without missing a beat. 'Don't say Destiny's Child never did anything for the press,' she laughs, to a roar of approval.

'I think the hardest thing about being in Destiny's Child is not getting any rest. We haven't had a day off for months,' says Rowland.

'You want to be normal, but you can't be. This job is a 24-hour-a-day job. You wake up, and you're Kelly from Destiny's Child. You can try to go to the grocery store and act normal, but you know when you get to the front of that line, people are going to ask you for your autograph.'

To drag things back on to a lighter note, I ask what bootylicious means, apart from being the title of one of their funkier tracks. 'You,' shrieks Williams, to more giggles. 'She's the biggest flirt,' sighs Rowland, rolling her eyes.

'I'm just trying to score some points with the press,' says Williams. 'Bootylicious means being confident, you're looking good no matter what you have on, what shape or size you are, whether you're big, small, tall, short, how your hair is, it's about going to work, going out to eat or out to the club and you are fine and boo-oootylicious.'

The trio are scarcely out of their teens, but the millions of records sold and millions of dollars raked in do not seem to have gone to their heads. So far there are no tabloid tales of tantrums, kiss-and-tells or Robert Downey Jnr-esque drug binges. They seem to have their heads screwed on straight.

'Our business manager helps us invest,' says Rowland. 'We definitely want to be in a position in 10 or 15 years where we can say, OK, I don't want to work anymore.'

'Beyonce's goal is to get US$20 million or US$30 million,' Williams starts, but then falters under a withering look from Knowles. 'But I don't think I want to go into that. We definitely invest our money, and I think it's cool for young people to invest. It's a smart thing to do with your money.'

What did you do with your first paycheck ?
"I put it in the bank."

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