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!

Beyonce on the cover of Rolling Stone issue #943.
Ruven Afanador
Beyonce on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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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."

Choreographer Gatson says that when she goes onstage she gets the Holy Ghost: "She's fearless. Something powerful takes her over, and in that time onstage she's gone. On VH1 Divas she threw her $250,000 earrings and later she said she didn't know why she threw them. That's losing yourself. I've been in shows where people booed Beyoncé. And she'd be right in their face dancin', lettin' 'em have it like it was nothing. Most people would panic. But Beyoncé has learned to dismiss fear."

Actually, Beyoncé knew how to dismiss it when she was in the first-grade talent show. At the end of her performance, she got a standing ovation and won the show. "I was like, 'Oh, Lord, this is amazing,'" she says. "So I knew I wanted to be a singer. I think I knew before that, but I'd never been on a stage before that."

Mathew began taking her to local talent shows, where she won thirty-five times in a row, and he soon formed a group. "I was nine the first time we performed," Beyoncé says. "It was at a day care. We didn't even know the name of the group 'cause I remember we were backstage, well, not backstage, but in this little room on the side." She laughs. "And we were tryin' to write down names and logos. There were kids out there cryin' while we performed, but I realized how much I loved bein' in a group. Because I was always so nervous, and to have those girls with me before the stage, during the stage and after the stage — and we could talk about it, it was even more exciting for me." The group became the entirety of her social life. "All her friends basically her entire life have been her group members, whoever they were at the time," says her cousin and personal assistant, Angela Beyince.

When Beyoncé was ten, the group, then called GirlsTyme, earned a slot on Star Search. It would be a turning point, but not the one they were expecting. They lost. As his daughter sobbed backstage, Mathew vowed to leave his job and manage them full-time. "Him leaving his corporate job was very scary for me," Tina says. "I don't know many people who would give up a job making the kinda money he made. I thought he had gone a little nuts. I was like, "What are we gonna do?' I had a large salon and it was generating good money, but we were accustomed to two incomes. All of a sudden we had to totally alter our lifestyle. But he's just like that about whatever he does. He's just really passionate."

Mathew took a class at Houston Community College on the business of music but found his corporate background gave him most of the training he needed. "Quite frankly, when I came into this, I was more qualified than seventy-five percent of the managers out there, who have no business background and don't know how to move inside of a corporation," he says. "Coming from corporate America, I understand how to navigate through those political issues at the record label that have nothing to do with music." He says the mechanics of selling high-level medical supplies is ultimately the same as selling Beyoncé to America: "When you're a good salesperson, then you're a good salesperson." He's been called a stage dad many times and was sued in 2000 by two former members of Destiny's Child who'd been fired. (The suit was eventually settled.) But he brushes all this aside, saying he simply used his expertise to help his child achieve her dream, just as any parent would. "It never mattered to me if my kids did music," he said. "If Beyoncé came to me and said, 'Dad, I wanna be a doctor,' I would find a way of buying a hospital."

Mathew created his own artist-development program that Beyoncé suspects was modeled after Motown's, which schooled its acts in everything from choreography to etiquette. "I'm sure he got it out of reading Berry Gordy," she says. In the summers, Mathew led a sort of R&B boot camp where Beyoncé and whoever else was in the group at that point would start their mornings by jogging while singing. They had choreography lessons, vocal coaching, media training and walking lessons from a model. And they watched lots of videos of the great performers — Michael and Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Tina Turner, Madonna. "We'd study those tapes like football teams study their competitors' tapes," Mathew says. Tina was pressed into styling and then designing their clothes.

When Beyoncé was thirteen, the group, now called Destiny's Child, signed a deal with Elektra Records. But it was the beginning of a streak of bad luck that tested the Knowles family. Things quickly went sour at Elektra, and the group got dropped. "Then we got hit with some tax problems, and everything kinda came crashing down," Tina says. "We had to sell our house for way less than we could've gotten if we'd had time to sell it right. It was very emotional, because my kids grew up in that house, and they were not happy at all. They didn't know it was because Mathew gave up his job for them. You really don't explain it. You just say, 'Listen, we gotta scale down.' " They bought another house, but after the sale, Mathew went in and found the previous tenant dead in the bathroom, a suicide. Then Mathew and Tina's relationship began to fall apart. "At that point we were just not getting along," she says. "I felt like Mathew was obsessed and should go get a job. So we separated for maybe about six months. The lowest point was when I moved out. I moved into an apartment, which my kids had never lived in in their lives. That was really difficult for them. We were just miserable without each other, because we'd been together forever." They'd married in 1979. "He was always like, 'I'm gonna make this happen,' " she says. "I just thought that something had to wake him up."

Even after his wife and children moved out, Mathew kept working his contacts at Columbia Records, still chasing the dream. "Well," he recalls, "I had this vision, and when it doesn't happen right away and your friends are saying, 'What is wrong with this guy?' and that's bringing on some personal issues, that's pretty difficult. Your husband is focused on music rather than his job, and the bills are there. We had a lot of success, so we had a pretty hefty lifestyle. There was a point when Tina thought I should reconsider this dream, and I didn't wanna give up on it."

Beyoncé didn't really understand what was going on until several years later, but she said the group had become the center of the family. It wasn't succeeding, and she could feel pressure building on her. "The group is where we get everything," she says, "so if the group doesn't happen, then my life is over, and I felt like it was my fault. Until I realized that my mother owns a hair salon, one of the best ones in Houston, and my father made great money and still has many degrees and is gonna go out and do many things. They didn't give up everything because that was our only hope to get us out of the ghetto. So I realized I don't have to have that pressure, because they're going to be successful regardless of what they do."

When Beyoncé was fifteen, Columbia offered Destiny's Child a record contract and Mathew and Tina reconciled. Both say that one had nothing to do with the other. "It was an exciting time," Tina says. "It wasn't about the money, it was just that they finally got to do what they wanted to do, and they were on their way."

It's Saturday night in Cannes, and backstage in a small, bright room at a European-radio awards show, Beyoncé is waiting to go on. She says matter-of-factly that her wisdom teeth are bothering her, that they've been bothering her for a while now, and she wants to get them pulled, but can't afford two weeks with her face blown up. And her nose is stuffed, and it won't unclog. And her back is killing her, so as showtime approaches, she runs through a series of back, calf and ankle stretches, like an athlete warming up before a game — if an athlete wore chandelier earrings, a tight peach and gray Armani short-skirted dress and Giuseppe Zanotti three-inch heels dripping with bangles.

She takes a moment to trade ideas with her crew about her upcoming Grammy performance. "I'd love to win," she says of the Grammys, "but it's more important for me to have an incredible performance. Because people remember the performance." They go through reference photos that she has pulled from various magazines to explain the direction she's considering. She seems to be constantly brainstorming some aspect of her career. She says she's already thinking of video treatments for the upcoming Destiny's Child record. It's frustrating to her that people still consider her a pop puppet, that she doesn't seem to get credit for producing or co-producing every track on her solo album. "I work really hard," she says. "I'm a perfectionist. I'll go into a studio and figure it out. If my video is wrong, I'm-a fix it." It was her idea, she says, to re-edit the "Me, Myself and I" video so that the story unfolded backward. "This is not something anybody planned for me," she says. "I had the help of my family, I don't do it all by myself- but I write my songs, I write my treatments, I help with my clothes. Anybody who, every time they're seen they're right — it's not other people. You can't be that consistent without the artist being involved."

As showtime nears, her intensity grows. She stares at herself in the mirror, eyes burning. She becomes restless, her foot shaking with nervous energy. She bounces around a bit to see if she'll leap out of the dress when Sasha! arrives. Her back still doesn't feel right.

At the edge of the stage, just before she goes out, she stands alone, eyes closed, head down as if in prayer. She's introduced in French, the music leaps from the speakers, and Sasha! explodes. If Beyoncé was sick and ailing, Sasha! is a tiger who attacks the crowd. They stand and applaud from their first glimpse to their last. She runs through half of "Baby Boy," then half of "Crazy in Love," singing and dancing full out, then struts offstage with a smile. The dancers look dour, upset that they missed a few moves, but Beyoncé is beaming and invigorated. Now that she has performed, there's a new spirit inside her. "It's funny," she says. "Whatever hurts, when you get onstage, it don't hurt no more."

This story is from the March 4th, 2004 issue of Rolling Stone

From The Archives Issue 943: March 4, 2004
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