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."
In order to better understand Destiny's Child, we must head to Beyonce and Kelly's hometown of Houston and drop by the two places where the girls spent the most time: church and the Headliners Hair Salon. Tina Knowles is actually the owner, but as she is on the road with the girls most of the time, her best friend, Vernell Jackson, presides as manager. It's a Friday night at 7:30, and the joint is jumping: Rick James is on the speakers, a pigtailed little girl runs around the shop, and five stylists are hard at work on customers. One stylist is tall and stately, with long, lush blond hair, exactly like . . . Beyonce? He turns around. It's Beyonce's second cousin, Kenric. Dang. The resemblance is uncanny.
There are two posters of Destiny's Child in the window, and by the register there's a glass case displaying Destiny's Child T-shirts. As customers leave, some of them say, "I'll see you Sunday," meaning church. There is a direct path from Headliners to the church and back. Jackson, a warm, pretty woman in dark red braids, hurries over. She has known Beyonce and Kelly forever and is very patient when the calls come into the salon. "From all over the country," she says, laughing."'I want to speak to Beyonce! Is Michelle there? I want to speak to Miss Tina!' " They send photos, pleading letters, tapes; they ask about Beyonce's latest hairstyle. Back in the day, the girls (Beyonce, Kelly, plus original members Roberson and Luckett) used to try out routines in the salon, when it was on Montrose Boulevard. As Tina recalls, "They used to go in and perform, and make the customers sit there." She laughs. "The customers couldn't leave, because they were locked under the dryers."
"Sometimes we would collect tips," recalls Beyonce, "and go to this theme park called AstroWorld."
"They were about nine or ten," Jackson recalls. "They would do their little routines, and Mathew would ask us to critique: 'Well, what do you think? What needs to be worked on?' And they would start all over again. Beyonce particularly always had that thing about, 'I want to do it right.' She wanted to work on it, like her singing and her voice lessons and her dancing. She always wanted to be maybe like Janet Jackson or Michael Jackson – those type of people." Destiny's Child was always a family affair – Tina Knowles designed the girls' costumes, while Mathew quit his job selling medical equipment to manage the quartet. During the school year, they performed local gigs – schools, even a day-care center: "It had a little stage," says Beyonce, and before the performance, we were trying to figure out the name of our group." (Oh, there have been many: Cliche, GirlsTyme, Somethin' Fresh.) She laughs. "It was about fifteen little kids in the audience, who didn't know what was going on."
When summer breaks came, Mathew formed a kind of structured summer camp for them, filled with dance and vocal lessons and exercise. "There was a lot of stuff they had to sacrifice," says Jackson, "and that was basically the friendships that they would have formed outside. But they were determined. And people think that parents push your child to do this, but Mathew and Tina weren't ever like that. The way they were was, 'My daughter wants to do it, and this is the one thing that she wants to do.'"
When Beyonce talks about the bad press her dad gets, her voice catches. "I don't even like to talk about it," she says haltingly. "He is so protective of all of us, and he's a great father and a great manager."
Kelly considers him a father, too. Early on in the group's career, when Kelly was nine, she moved in with the Knowles family, with the blessing of her mom, Doris, then a nanny. (Kelly's father is not in the picture. "Who's he?" she says dismissively.) "I'm just so blessed to have Beyonce, who is like my sister, and the Knowleses in my life when I was growing up," says Kelly. "I am telling you, I couldn't dance. You know, it took some work on Kelly to get to where she is today."
"They were always like sisters," says Jackson. "When Kelly started out, she was this little shy person who wouldn't open her mouth. And when I see her now - she gets up and she talks. And I'm like, 'Where did this person come from?'" She laughs. "Her and her little dog." She yells to someone, "What's Kelly's dog's name?"
"Jacques," someone hollers back.
"Jacques. I think he walks like Kelly, too."
There were a series of setbacks in the early days, including a loss on Star Search. "Even when it hurt so bad, we're still smiling," remembers Kelly, "and when we walked offstage, everybody just broke down. Imagine ten- or eleven-year-olds just breaking down and crying." She shakes her head. "Now that I'm thinking about it, I want to cry."
In 1996, the quartet got its big break and put its debut album out on Columbia two years later. The group's career really ignited with 1999's hitpacked The Writing's on the Wall, which turned out to be a prescient title. Around that time, it seemed as if the four were splitting into two different groups. Tensions steadily mounted along with the band's fame, and in March of 2000, Roberson and Luckett charged Mathew with, among other things, breach of contract and favoritism (the lawsuit against Mathew is still pending).
After the split, Beyonce was so upset she stayed in bed for weeks. She prayed, wept and sought spiritual guidance at St. John's United Methodist Church in Houston. Let's pay a visit, shall we? Beyonce and Kelly have been attending services since they were kneehigh, and their devotion is so complete that they will often take a Saturday red-eye flight from wherever they are in the country, attend services and then climb back on the plane. "It's a real special place," says the girls' pastor, Rudy Rasmus. "We started with nine folk nine years ago; now it's 4,600. Even though it's a large community, it's really like a small town." Pastor Rasmus is a charismatic man, generous with hugs, crackling with good-humored energy. He wears jeans and a baseball cap. "We don't do suits here," he says, picking up a kid who scurries by and giving him a hug. It is early Saturday morning, but the church is in full swing – the daycare center is jammed with children, and a boisterous group of volunteers is gathering in the lobby to work in the adjacent soup kitchen.
A woman runs into the lobby. "Quick, y'all," she tells the group. "My brother's outside in the car. This is the closest he'll ever get to church." Whooping, they all run outside.
"The girls grew up here," says Pastor Rasmus. "Beyonce sang in the choir. They come to church here – Mathew, Tina, Beyonce, Kelly and Michelle and there's no spotlight on them. Folks leave them alone." He reconsiders, then laughs. "Well, it's kinda hard for a fourteen-year-old boy or girl to look at 'em this close and not be affected. And it's kinda funny, but our attendance in that age group exponentially increased."
Pastor Rasmus, for one, is unsurprised by the group's success. "These girls have always had the desire to do this thing," he says, settling into a pew. "And when we met 'em as children, you could see that: 'We're gonna do it.' And Mathew is a very determined guy, so I had few doubts that he was gonna ultimately do it. And I've seen the sacrifices that he and Tina have made to see this happen." He leans forward. "And that's one thing I really admire about them – they're taking no prisoners as it relates to someone messing with their kids. I mean, just because the kids are making money doesn't mean you just release them to the wolves. Who are circling."
The congregation of St. John's has had the group members on its prayer list for the last seven years. "There are many times that we know they're gonna be going through something, that we pray extra, and they've had those times during their careers," he says. "You know, lots of transition."
After the two original members left the group, Farrah Franklin, then eighteen, stepped in, as did Michelle, nineteen. Five months after joining, Franklin, who had allegedly missed a series of promotional appearances, was gone. "She had some issues," says Michelle, who we find primping in a New York dressing room for a photo shoot. "Apple Piea la Mode" is cranking on a boombox, and everyone in the room is dancing as they work. "She just couldn't handle the stress and the work that comes with this. I don't know if she thought that it was gonna be all fun and games, but it's not." As Michelle herself found out: During the first two weeks she was with the group, she rehearsed twelve hours a day, every day.
At the time, Michelle was also battling insecurity. "I mean, many tears were shed," she says. "I was comparing myself to other members, and the pressure was on me."
Michelle, the daughter of a nurse and a car salesman, grew up in Rockford, Illinois. Her family was primarily composed of healthcare professionals ("Everyone's sitting around the table at family dinners, talking about medicine"). Michelle originally wanted to be an obstetrician, even enrolling as a pre-med student at the University of Illinois. Then, through a series of friends, she got the gig singing for Monica. Shortly thereafter, a choreographer friend hooked her up with Destiny's Child. She was flown to Houston, where she stayed with the Knowles family. "They didn't take me to a hotel, where they're in a conference room and say, 'Dance! Sing!' "says Michelle. "They welcomed me into their house."
"And she slept in our beds," adds Beyonce, getting her hair done by her mom. Right away, the friendship among the three clicked into place. Beyonce and Kelly offered support, in fact, when Michelle experienced a pivotal first event in a girl's life. (You female readers will understand.) "I got my mustache waxed for the first time," says Michelle. "Beyonce's mom was there to hold my hand, because I didn't know what was going on." They all smile at each other fondly, lost in the moment.
Michelle, it is clear, is here to stay. (The girl is already press-savvy. When asked whether Destiny's Child played at the Republican inauguration because they are Republicans, she says crisply, "We're not gonna discuss our political backgrounds here.")
With the trio solidified, says Beyonce, "my life is perfect now. People want to read about us and the old members, and how we didn't get along," she adds. "Who cares? It's done. We do get along, we do love each other and support each other."
They try to ignore the haters, they say – although Kelly did lose it not too long ago, when a fan approached and said he was happy Beyonce "let her sing" on the Charlie's Angels soundtrack. "I got ghetto and ignorant," she declares.
Beyonce grins. "She was like, 'What did y'all say? She didn't let me sang? That is my sister that you're talking about!' I was like, 'Kelly, calm down.'"
Yes, there are plans for each member to have a solo album, but that is in the distant future. "It was a rumor that I had a $3 million solo deal," says Beyonce, inspecting her eye makeup in a mirror. "And I was like, 'What?' As soon as you get successful, they want to make you Diana Ross. We're not even planning on recording those albums until, like, a year from now."
"We're not rushing into it at all," says Kelly. They can't, anyway. They've got a big summer tour right around the bend. They haven't been home in months ("Beyonce was laughing and crying the other day," says Kelly. "That's when I knew it was time to go home"), but this is what they have always wanted. They are well aware of the ADD-afflicted nature of pop music, so they pray. They strategize. They consult Billboard. And they work. "You can't get a big head, because it will be taken away from you in a second," says Beyonce "A lot of artists don't understand that. They think if they get a record, they'll be here forever. We have seen people that stopped being hungry, who have no career right now. We have worked, worked, worked, worked, worked."
Kelly holds up a testifying hand. "As long as we love each other, stay positive and, more than anything, don't take our eyes off God, we're gonna be fine." And they probably will be, God bless 'em.
This story is from the May 24, 2001 issue of Rolling Stone.