A Woman Possessed

Offstage, she's a shy, quiet girl who talks about the family she wants to raise (two boys and a girl). But when she steps onstage, Beyonce Knowles is gripped by a spirit so powerful, it even has a name: Sasha!

March 4, 2004
Beyonce on the cover of Rolling Stone issue #943.
Beyonce on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Ruven Afanador

From the moment Beyoncé lands in London, she's treated like a princess. A British Airways agent meets her at the door of the plane and whisks her and her four-person crew down an almost hidden set of stairs and into a waiting British Airways car. Other passengers making connections at Heathrow Airport have to slog between terminals on a bus, but the twenty-two-year-old Houston native, who says she's really a New Yorker now, zips through the airport's back roads, trying to figure out whether her final destination – Cannes – is pronounced can or con. She wears no necklace and no rings, but she's still dressed very girly, in big, chunky earrings, a pink off-the-shoulder cashmere sweater with a sort of bow in the front, a brown fur-lined wrap, fuzzy pink boots, jeans and a hot-pink baseball hat with embroidered sparkles on the front forming a cat and more sparkles on the back spelling out BEYONCÉ. Her shoulders and neck flow gracefully out from under her sweater, recalling old French sculptures that romanticized the curves of the female form. She has golden skin, three small birthmarks on her face, perfect teeth and a dancer's posture that makes her seem much taller than five feet seven. And her tight jeans reveal her to be a healthy girl, someone the brothers would call thick, with a booming system in the back.

The last six months have seen a sort of Beyoncé explosion, where she went from the most popular singer in a hot group, Destiny's Child, to a ubiquitous solo megastar whose Dangerously in Love has been bought by more than 2 million people, earned her six Grammy nominations and spawned two of the hottest songs of last year, "Crazy in Love" and "Baby Boy." Beyoncé has become a crossover sex symbol a la Halle Berry, a black girl who's not so overwhelmingly Nubian that white people don't appreciate her beauty. She's what Janet Jackson used to be: the tasteful sex symbol who's giving you R&B-flavored pop hits and state-of-the-art videos, tours and movies, too. This year will see still more Beyoncé: In March, she starts a five-week tour with Alicia Keys and Missy Elliott, then she plans to record a new Destiny's Child album and finish the year with a Destiny's Child tour. But offstage, the girl is careful to maintain a distance between the person who's famous and the person shaped long before fame. "I don't want to get addicted to fame," she says. "Then when I'm no longer famous I won't know what to do, and I'll just seem desperate and lose my mind." She has been training to be famous since age ten, when her father would make her run one mile in the morning while singing, to build up the ability to sing and dance at the same time. The first Destiny's Child album came out when she was sixteen, in 1998, a year before Britney Spears and the teen-pop supernova (she and Spears are the same age); Beyoncé has worked relentlessly since. "You lose touch with who you are," she says. "When you work so much like we did, it's just too much."

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When she lands in Nice, France, she's met by an agent who takes her to a special, empty line at passport control. But nowadays even princesses sometimes hit potholes. While she's at the baggage carousel, tired, hungry and running on empty after a long trip from Newark, New Jersey, to the south of France, someone from British Airways runs up and says two bags are missing. Beyoncé mumbles that the missing bags are surely hers. She's annoyed. Anyone would be. But she says not one more word. "You wanna think she's a bitch because she's so fine," says her choreographer, Frank Gatson Jr. "But I've never seen someone so sweet. It trips me out. Knowing she wants to go off on somebody because somebody's pissed her off, she catches herself. She knows that humility is important. I think it's her upbringing in church." At the airport, she just rolls her eyes and grins. It's a fake smile, but it's polite, professional. She lives like a princess but doesn't have airs.

Every princess must have a prince, and Beyoncé's is the recently retired MC Jay-Z, who's more than a decade older. "I know the dude a long time," an insider says of Jay-Z. "I've never seen him sprung like this. He cares about her, gives her great advice, he wants his woman to look right. They adore each other." Jay and Beyoncé both refuse to discuss the relationship. "I don't say I'm single," she responds. "People are like, 'Why does she say that they're just friends?' I don't say that. I just don't talk about it. I just wanna protect my private life."

She does, though, talk about what sort of girlfriend she is. "In relationships, I think a lot like a guy," she says. "If I do something wrong, I don't get emotional. I think about it, and I change it and fix it. I've always been very logical." Still, she can find herself overcome by emotion sometimes: "When I do anything, I do it. If I fall in love, I'm there." She says she'd like to have children one day. "If it was a perfect world, I would have two boys and a girl," she says. "I love little boys, and girls are so much drama."

And she does talk about Jay, though not by name. She's very free with "we." Asked where she was during the blackout of 2003, she replies, "We were at the 40/40 Club," the Manhattan sports bar Jay-Z opened last year. There was a generator at the club, so the party never stopped. "At 4 A.M. we took a plane to Italy," she says. "We got to Rome, and they had a blackout there."

Beyoncé and Jay's movements around the globe are well documented by the paparazzi. A recent photo from their New Year's vacation in St. Barths shows Beyoncé jumping into the water off the bridge of a three-story, 14-foot yacht while Jay captures the moment with a video camera. It was a long way down. "Yeah, it was," she says. "I don't know what's wrong with me. I looked at the picture and said, 'That's really dumb.' I do it every year. That's my jump. It's a ritual. That's my let go, start over, this is a vacation and I'm-a be free.' I have to jump off something so I can let go of everything that happened before the last vacation and start over. It's like bein' baptized."

Before Beyoncé was baptized, her father, Mathew Knowles, was an executive in medical sales at Xerox, selling multimillion-dollar pieces of equipment and making six figures. "I was blessed to be the number-one sales rep in the medical division of Xerox for years," he says. Mathew is Beyoncé's manager, the one who negotiated everything from her initial record deals with Elektra and Columbia to her recent endorsement deals with L'Oréal and Tommy Hilfiger, and who executive-produced all of her albums. He's pleasant, though self-serious, with an easy laugh. There's nothing like massive public success to make a man feel good about himself. You talk about laughing all the way to the bank; Knowles laughs like a man who just got back from the bank.

His wife, Tina Knowles, has light skin, long, wavy hair with blond streaks, and green eyes. Mathew says, "Beyoncé's not as beautiful as her mama." Whereas Beyoncé is underaccessorized, Tina visited Beyoncé in New York wearing a giant diamond ring on each hand, a diamond tennis bracelet and a diamond watch on her left wrist and what looked like another diamond watch on her right wrist. She owns one of the top beauty salons in Houston, called Head-Liners, where Beyoncé says she grew up. "She got a lot of influence from my clients," Tina says. "We catered to the professional woman, so we had judges and attorneys, and I really credit that to her having that drive and ambition. She had a lot of great women around her who inspired her to work hard and do great things."

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The Knowles family lived in a large house in Houston with all the accouterments of the upper-middle class. Beyoncé grew up perhaps more well-off than any other current black superstar. "We lived in a house the same size as we do now and in a neighborhood as nice as I do now," she says. In 1981, while Tina Knowles was pregnant with her first child, she realized that her family name, Beyince, was dying. Tina is the youngest of seven, but only one of her brothers had had a son. "I said, 'Oh, God, we'll run out of Beyinces,'" Tina says. So she gave her daughter a variant of her maiden name. Grandpa Lumis Beyince, a Creole who lived in New Orleans and spoke French, was unimpressed. "My family was not happy," Tina says. "My dad said, 'She's gonna be really mad at you, because that's a last name.' And I'm like, 'It's not a last name to anybody but you guys.'"

Beyoncé was a shy, quiet kid. When she was seven and in the first grade at St. Mary's, a Catholic school in Houston, a dance teacher, Miss Darlette Johnson, pushed her to join the school talent show. "I was terrified and I didn't wanna do it, and she's like, 'C'mon, baby, get out there,'" Beyoncé says. "I remember walking out and I was scared, but when the music started, I don't know what happened. I just . . . changed." Both of her parents were in the audience. Tina recalls, "We both said, Who is that?'"

That was Sasha. It was many years before Beyoncé's stage persona got her name, but from that first time onstage it was clear that when the shy, humble girl got onstage, she became someone new. "I don't have a split personality," Beyoncé says, "but I'm really very country and would rather have no shoes on and have my hair in a bun and no makeup. And when I perform, this confidence and this sexiness and this whatever it is that I'm completely not just happens. And you feel it, and you just start wildin' and doin' stuff that don't even make sense, like the spirit takes over. That magic, that's what I love. If you see me on TV, I'm not a humble, shy person, but it's a transformation into that. It's a job. In real life I'm not like that."

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