The students of Millard North High School in Omaha, Nebraska, were trying hard to raise their hands in the air, but they were just a little overwhelmed. Many of them, in fact, looked like stunned mullets, for the entertainment at their school assembly in the gym was not the usual fare – a Doors cover band called Crystal Ship, say – but septuple-platinum, controversy-plagued, Grammy- collecting superstars Destiny's Child. It seems the kids won a radio contest by scraping together 1.6 million pennies to benefit underprivileged children and earned themselves a drop-in visit from the ladies. "They were kind of a baby band when the offer came to us," said school principal Linda Wyatt as the students filed into the gym. "Since then, they've been on all those award shows, and so our kids are really excited."
And, indeed, before Destiny's Child arrived, the audience of a couple of thousand white kids ping-ponging off one another was in a frenzy, even when Wyatt got up onto the specially assembled stage and scolded them. "You need to calm down and be quiet!" she said. "No one should be on anyone's shoulders! Feet on ground!" Well. You won't hear that at the Smokin' Grooves Tour. "This is probably the last high school concert Destiny's Child is going to be giving!" she said, in a futile attempt at invoking calm.
When the group hit the stage, however, the kids slowly lowered their YOU RULE signs. As the three members of Destiny's Child pranced onstage – with their tiny gold-lamé hot pants and gyrating backup dancers and glossy makeup and long, long legs clad in gold stiletto boots – it was as if they had just debarked from George Clinton's Mothership. The three impossibly tall glamazons – Beyonce Knowles, Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams – smoothly ran through their hits: "Independent Women Part I," "No, No, No," "Jumpin', Jumpin'." "How y'all doing over here?" hollered a radiant Beyonce, her golden hair in a ponytail. Fine, except for the kids who have the walleyed look of the Today's Catch section of the supermarket, clearly on funkiness overload. Forty-five minutes later, the trio sweeps out of the gym and onto its plush tour bus, the stage is disassembled, and members of the Millard North Mustangs soccer team arrive for practice.
Now it is time to meet Destiny's Child, a group that has, in the last two years, weathered a dizzying series of ups (a slew of awards, the very top tier of fame) and downs – litigious ex-members, endless rumors ("Beyonce's going solo!") – and endless whispers about Beyonce's dad, group manager Mathew Knowles, a man who is allegedly so controlling that if the Lord himself were in the band, Mr. Knowles would kick His ass to the curb if He wasn't giving no percent. The original Destiny's Child had four longtime members. Two of them, LaTavia Roberson and LeToya Luckett, were dropped in 1999 and promptly flied suit. Two replacements, Farrah Franklin, an aspiring singer-actress, and Michelle, a former backup singer for Monica, were brought in, and for a while, it was smooth sailing. Then the relatively inexperienced Franklin allegedly began missing engagements, a big no-no for a group that works harder than pack mules. Shortly thereafter, Franklin was out of the picture.
The group is well aware of all the talk, so much so that the title of their new album and single is "Survivor," thus named after Beyonce heard a radio DJ chortling that Destiny's Child was just like the TV show.
"They're in the back," says the driver, grinning when he nears an explosion or giggles. Huh? Here sit three young girls, barely out of their teens (Beyonce is nineteen, actually, and Michelle and Kelly are twenty), lounging in jeans and chomping on Cooler Ranch Doritos.
"I love to eat." announces Kelly, opening up a fresh bag of Chee-tos. "I love it. I stood up there onstage and, like, halfway tried to breathe, because I'm trying to hold my stomach in because I just had a big meal."
They all talk at once (ask about the bus, and receive simultaneously: "It has a shower, and the water gets really hot!" crossed with "We have a CD burner, you can burn CDs right on the bus!" and "You can completely sit up in the bunks!"). These are the Sophisticated Ladies from the stage? Readers, the disparity between the public and the private is surreal. To meet them in person is to understand a little better why Beyonce's folks keep a close eye on the three. They are not world-weary divas but sheltered young women who travel in a protective bubble of family (mom Tina Knowles is their stylist) and friends of family, sometimes doing three cities in a day. Beyonce recently filmed MTV's Hip Hopera: Carmen; she tellingly describes it as a growing experience and not just because it was her first starring movie role. "Besides Kelly and Michelle, I'm not around people our age for more than forty-five minutes," she says. "So I was around people my age for a month and a half, and I made friends. So it was way more than a movie for me."
Up close, all three are beauties. Michelle, lean and long in tan pants and a camouflage tank, is earthy and easygoing (as family friend Vernell-Jackson describes her, "one of them downhome-sister girls – you know, eating-corn-bread-and-red-beans-type girls"). Kelly is lively and funny, a formerly shy girl who, everyone will tell you, has come into her own with this album. Tasteful diamond jewelry winks on her neck, wrist and fingers. (The rocks she's wearin'? She bought them! "I got a good deal," she says.) Beyonce, who speaks in a honeyed drawl punctuated by frequent giggles, wears a sequined T-shirt with David Bowie's face on it. (The T-shirt she's wearin'? Kelly customized it!) The girl is just impossibly curvy, with luminous, tawny skin.
It is well-known that these three are very spiritual. When the Lord is invoked, which is often, they hold their hands heavenward, like a miniature wave at a stadmm. We are blessed, they will say solemnly. Indeed, they are bubbling over with goodwill, for it is a new beginning for the trio. The lawsuit against the group has been settled. "By the grace of God, it's all over," says Kelly, raising a hand. Survivor reflects that exuberance – it pops with giddy energy and positive vibes. "The lyrics to the single 'Survivor' are Destiny's Child's story, because we've been through a lot," says Beyonce "We went through our drama with the members, and everybody was like, 'Oh, well, no more Destiny's Child.' Well we sold even more records after all of the changes. Any complications we've had in our ten-year period of time have made us closer and tighter and better."
The, album, which was co-written and coproduced by Beyonce features for the first time, all three members singing lead on every song. "Which is something that Kelly and I wanted from the very beginning," says Beyonce "We couldn't do that for the first two albums." The single "Survivor" was the first song recorded for the album, and its theme informed the rest of the tracks. "We were like, 'All the songs from this point on are gonna be about surviving something,'" Beyonce adds. "I t wasn't talking about relationships as much, like the last album." Thus, there is a song called "Story of Beauty," inspired by a fan's letter to Kelly, in which the fan wrote that she was molested by a stepfather.
"It's letting her know that it's not her fault, and she can go on with her life," says Michelle, throwing her leg casually over Kelly's. There are lighthearted tunes as well, such as "Happy Face," a sunny track about having a positive attitude, as well as the bouncing "Bootylicious," an ode to the joys of having a big ol' butt. "If you've got a big booty, then it's OK," says Michelle, shrugging. "Put on some pants and be confident."
Another breezy track, one of the album's standouts, is the sassy, infectious "Apple Pie à la Mode," a juicy little number about, as Kelly puts it, "a dude who's just scrumptious." She reaches for another bag of chips. It is very warm back here in the tour bus, made a tad stuffier by the not-unpleasant smell of Chee-tos and Doritos dust.
While we are on the subject of dudes, here's a shocker. "All three of us are single," announces Michelle, grinning. "Honest to God," says Beyonce, holding up a hand. "I did have a boyfriend for a little while, but right now I have no boyfriend." For the curious, he was a guy named Lindell from her hometown. ("Oh, he's gorgeous," says family friend Jackson. "He looks like Maxwell, I'm serious. Really a handsome guy.") "We still talk all the time,"Beyonce says. "We're like childhood friends."
The three thrown themselves into singlehood with the same work ethic that applies to the rest of their lives. We're reading books to inspire each other," says Kelly, grabbing her foot to inspect her pink pedicure. One is a self-help tome called Knight in Shining Armor: Discovering Your Lifelong Love. "It's about putting yourself under construction," says Kelly. "Fixing yourself from the mind – how you feel about your body to how you look at guys. So you won't look at guys as just all dogs, because there are some good men out there. All of them nod.
"We bring each other reports every day," says Beyonce "Reports on people that we talk to every once in a while. I mean, we still go out to the movies, or go to dinner, but nothing is in stone."
Because you men out there still have a chance – well, theoretically at least here are a few tips on how to score yourselves a date with Destiny.
- Become a backup dancer or a tour bus driver. "When are we anyplace for more than forty-five minutes?" says Beyonce. "We've done four cities in a day. When are we around people? Unless they're a dancer on the road with us, or a DJ or something. It's just very difficult." Michelle agrees: "And we don't go out - we don't go anyplace." The prior evening, for instance, the three played a show, then ate pizza and chocolate cake and watched Forrest Gump on the tour bus. "Really, we're not exposed to a lot of guys," says Beyonce. "People just think that. They see us on TV, around all these people. But really, we might get approached, what, every couple of months?" Which leads us neatly into the next point.
- Make the first move. "I'm sorry, I am very old-fashioned," declares Kelly, who says that she has never been in love. "I would never approach a dude. I will never ask a dude to go on a date. I am stuck in the whatever century. But also, some guys are, like, intimidated, and you could be giving this dude eye contact from across the room, and y'all are just feeling each other, and you're welcoming each other with your eyes, and you're like, 'C'mere, apple pie a la model' But you know he's intimidated in some way." She sighs.
- Don't bother sending that bottle of Cristal over to their table. "In ROLLING STONE, it said that I was at Wyclef's afterparty, sipping on champagne," says Beyonce "I don't drink." "We're rote models, so we warch ourselves," says Kelly. "And not just when we go to parties." "Because, you know, we're underage still," Michelle points out.
- Pickup lines such as "I'll pay your bills, bills, bills" will not work unless you are Tyrese. And you aren't.
- Do not assume that the girls think they are all that. "One day, I counted the blemishes on my face," says Beyonce. "Got up to thirtyfive. It's so irritating to read in articles people saying, 'She thinks she's beautiful.' There's a lot of days that I wake up, and I hate how I look." A particular sore spot is her ears. "When I was little, my head was smaller and I looked like I had big Dumbo ears," she says darkly. "I still do not wear my ears out, and that's why I wear big earrings, because they camouflage your ears." Don't even get them started on muscle tone. "We're gonna start jogging and doing sit-ups, so by the next video we can have big muscles," plans Beyonce "We want to be like Tina Turner." She lifts up a leg. "My legs are kind of muscular, but the rest of me is not." "Oh, hush, Beyonce," says Kelly. "She a brick house."
- Acquaint yourself with He who made the Earth and the Heavens, and every plant of the field before it was in the Earth, and every Herb of the field before it grew. "God has a plan," says Beyonce, "and God is in control of everything." "Yes, he is," Kelly testifies. "There is no way in the world that you can tell me that this was not meant to be - three people with the same dreams, the same goals."
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