It's about 30 minutes until SWV take the stage at Manhattan's Madison Square Garden on a freezing night in February, and the three members of the 1990s R&B trio — best remembered for their massive hits "Weak" and "I'm So Into You" — can hardly believe their long-shot comeback bid has brought them to this point after grinding it out for so long on the casino and club circuit. It's been 21 years since they last played MSG, back when they were on the star-packed Budweiser Superfest bill alongside MC Lyte, Big Daddy Kane, Bell Biv Devoe, Tag Team and a pair of young rappers named Biggie and Tupac.
All the other acts on that bill are either dead or decades past their prime, but SWV are experiencing one of the most unlikely revivals in pop history thanks to their new hit reality show SWV Reunited on WE TV, which has managed to outdraw Project Runway, Millionaire Matchmaker, Couple's Therapy and most every other show on cable despite very limited promotion. Over the past two months, millions of viewers — many of whom probably haven't thought about SWV since the first Clinton administration, assuming they've even heard of them in the first place — have tuned in to watch Cheryl "Coko" Clemons, Tamara "Taj" Johnson-George and Leanne "Lelee" Lyons, all in their early forties, fight like actual sisters over everything from whether or not to fire their longtime manager to the wisdom of having a highly invasive Brazilian Butt Lift operation days before launching a tour. (The consensus? Not the best move.)
The cameras have been gone since last fall, when the show finished filming, and the ladies have actually resolved some of the differences that tore them apart in the Nineties (how to split the money was an issue), but they're still far from close friends — they stay in their separate dressing rooms until immediately before they walk onstage. "I didn't think anyone still gave a damn about us," says Lelee, as she applies her own eyeliner between frantic phone calls from an old friend looking for tickets to the show. "I can't be any happier. This shows that it doesn't matter how old you are, you can still follow your dreams."
Lelee wasn't always so sure about that. Back in 1999, one year after the group's highly acrimonious breakup, she found herself without a dollar in her pocket, unsure how she'd support her two young children."I was a suicidal wreck," she glumly reveals a few days after the show. "I was staying at the Marriott on 42nd Street in Times Square. I was on the eleventh floor and I climbed onto the balcony of my room, about to jump. Instead, I called my sister and we both just started crying for 30 minutes. Eventually, she said 'Leanne, come home. Just come home.' I then looked at myself in the mirror and just cried. I said to myself, 'What the hell were you thinking?' I really was one phone call away from killing myself."
Just a few years earlier, SWV seemed poised to become the Supremes of the New Jack Swing era, complete with massive hit singles, a mercurial frontwoman and two backup singers increasingly unhappy about being pushed out of the spotlight. It all started in New York City in 1989 when Lelee — then 19 and working at Toys "R" Us in midtown Manhattan — called up her friend Coko to ask about forming a group, even though they'd rarely sang anywhere outside of church. "She was like, 'Stop playing,'" says Lelee. "'Call me back when you're serious.' I finally convinced her and we went through a bunch of other girls before we found Taj. She was extremely shy and would only sing if we turned out the lights. When we finally sang together we sounded really beautiful and we knew we had something."
Things happened very quickly from there. En Vogue blew up in the summer of 1990 and major labels were racing to sign similar acts. "We originally called ourselves TLC for Tamara, Leanne and Cheryl," says Taj, speaking by phone a few days after the MSG show. "Within six months we got a cease-and-desist letter from Epic claiming they had a TLC and they've claimed the name. Our manager suggested SWV for Sisters With Voices. We thought it was corny at first, but now I can't imagine calling us anything else."
RCA A&R Director Kenny Ortiz got ahold of their demo tape, and was blown away by the power and incredible range of Coko's voice. He teamed the girls up with Brian Alexander Morgan, a struggling singer/songwriter who has gone on to work with everyone from Mariah Carey to Ariana Grande. "I got chills when I heard Coko's voice," says Morgan. "I had written this song love song 'Weak' for Charlie Wilson, but I gave it to them. Coko was real cold to me at first and not very nice. She didn't like the song and gave me real attitude when we recorded it."
The label, however, heard a hit and sent SWV to California to record an entire album with Morgan. "I played them 'I'm So Into You' and then Coko warmed up," he says. "I remember her calling her mom on the phone and saying, 'Mommy, Brian just wrote a smash!'"
Their debut single "Right Here," a New Jack Swing dance tune that sounds like it could have been cut by Bobby Brown around the time of "My Prerogative," hit the radio in September of 1992. "I was sweeping the floor of my apartment when it came on," says Taj. "I just lost my mind and started jumping up and down. The neighbors below me started to hit the roof and scream, 'Cut it out!'"
It was one of the few times the song got airplay, and the album stiffed when it hit stores a month later. The girls travelled the country by van, sharing hotel rooms and playing promo shows in tiny clubs, but it wasn't until a Seattle station began playing "I'm So Into You," their second single, that things began changing. The song spread all down the West Coast and finally across the country, eventually reaching Number Six on the Hot 100. Their third single, "Weak," was even bigger. It hit Number One on the Hot 100 in July of 1993, knocking off Janet Jacket's "That's the Way Loves Goes."
Success like this should have propelled SWV into superstardom, but a series of baffling decisions by RCA and manager Maureen Singleton, who worked with the group during their Nineties heyday, severely hurt the trio. "They weren't imaged properly," says Morgan. "They were fencing in the video for 'I'm So Into You.' Fencing! Then in the video for 'Weak,' a multi-million selling hit, they were in a boxing ring. What the hell! None of it was relatable, and it didn't even make sense."
At the same time, their competitors were making a huge impact. En Vogue were presented as glamorous models while TLC came off like the fun, sexy girls next door. Most SWV fans didn't even know the girls' names. "I kept living in my old apartment and nobody bothered me," says Taj. "Even at the height of it, nobody knew who I was if I wasn't standing next to the other girls."
SWV's poorly defined public image suggested that the girls had virtually indistinguishable personalities, which couldn't have been farther from the truth. Lelee, the only member of the group to never marry, is boy crazy, extremely goofy and lives to party. Even today, she loves to dance on bar tops and visit the strip clubs in her new hometown of Atlanta. Taj, meanwhile, is a fiercely determined businesswoman and self-marketer who co-authored the book Player hateHER: How to Avoid the Beat Down and Live in a Drama-Free World. The Nashville mansion she shares with her husband is so massive it has it's own elevator. Coko is equally ambitious, but she has severe trust issues and, as an only child, has trouble compromising.
They were barely out of their teenage years when the group broke, and since they had absolutely no business experience they signed over power of attorney to their accountant. "When you do that, you don't see your money," says Coko. "He was paying our bills, but he didn't pay our taxes. We ended up owing a ton."
Making matters worse, Coko and Taj started fighting like crazy, barely speaking offstage. "That happened right when we blew up," says Lelee. "It was always something with them. The industry just does something to you. I was always stuck in the middle. To be honest, I never had a great moment after we were signed. The best moments came before we got the record deal, before people knew us and we were just walking down St. Nicholas Boulevard in Harlem singing gospel tunes. That's the only time it was fun for me."
Just when it seemed like things couldn't get worse, Coko gave Taj and Lelee and ultimatum: she wanted half the money or she was going to quit the group. "I can remember being like, 'Get the fuck out here!'" says Lelee. "I knew that was the beginning of the end." An agreement was reluctantly struck, but the move brought group relations to an all-time low. "We'd go onstage and do the best for our fans," says Coko. "But we we came offstage, nobody said anything to anybody. We'd just go our separate ways. If we had a manager with common sense, they would have sat us down and forced us to work this out. But that didn't happen."
The group somehow limped ahead and began work on a second album, but when Coko suddenly got pregnant the whole thing stopped. "We were almost done when that happened," says Taj. "But she wasn't really able to travel and she gained a ton of weight. She was huge! Everything got pushed back as we waited for her to have the baby and then slim down. We lost some momentum."
SWV's second album, New Beginning, landed in stores in April of 1996, nearly four years after their debut. It featured the Top Five hit "You're The One" as well as some of the first-ever music by the Neptunes on second single "Use Your Heart," but it was also hobbled by poor decisions. Brian Alexander Morgan — the one behind all their hits — was brought in only at the last moment and given very few songs to write and produce, none of them singles. "That was a complete slap in the face to me," says Morgan. "I think it was a punishment because I made so much money from the first album. Also, there was so much negative energy in the studio. You could just feel it."
The girls were photographed wearing fur coats for the cover. "What the hell was with that?" says Morgan. "I mean, what the hell! This is when TLC had CrazySexyCool and they looked amazing with 'Waterfalls.' They took the condoms off their glasses and got really sexy, and SWV are in fur coats. Also, their videos, again, were just terrible."
SWV tried to rebound the following year with the appropriately named Release Some Tension, featuring guest spots by Puff Daddy, Foxy Brown, Redman, Timbaland, Lil' Kim, Snoop Dogg and many others. "I hated that album," says Lelee. "It was ridiculous, just poor judgment. I'm not taking anything away from the great artists. But I felt like the album was all of those great artists featuring SWV."
With an R&B scene now dominated by new acts like Brandy and Aaliyah, SWV seemed like dinosaurs. Release Some Tension sold poorly and the money dwindled to the point where Lelee was forced to quit the group she had started so she could stay home and take care of her children. "We did two shows where it was just me and Coko," says Taj. "Then after the second show, which was actually in St. Maarten, Coko quit. I was the only one left."
The three members of SWV barely spoke over the next few years, going off in three radically different directions. Taj married NFL great Eddie George and starred on the TV One reality series I Married A Baller. After getting over her deep depression, Lelee earned her GED and took a job at an Atlanta accounting firm and began piecing her life back together. Coko launched a moderately successful gospel career. "It was boring," she says. "I just never enjoyed being solo. Despite everything, I missed my girls."
Any sort of reunion seemed impossible until the very same force hit in 2005 that saved Mr. Big, Extreme and many other downtrodden groups over the years: a shocking groundswell of interest from Japanese fans. Lelee had just quit her desk job when she heard that Japanese promoters had put together an offer that was simply too big to turn down. Humbled by years out of the spotlight, Taj and Coko were able to put their egos aside for the sake of the group. SWV even carried on after the tour ended, sometimes on the same bill as other New Jack Swing acts like Blackstreet and Jodeci.
Meanwhile, Taj's husband Eddie George had retired and became a broadcaster for the Tennessee Titans. Money was no longer an issue for Taj, meaning she no longer relied on SWV to support herself. "That is such a relief," she says. "But I've never thrown that in their faces." The group also took plenty of breaks, allowing Coko to pursue outside projects like performing in a touring production of The Vagina Monologues in 2009. A couple of years before that, Taj found herself off a tiny island in Brazil filming the 18th season of Survivor. She came in fourth place, and never revealed her fame to the other contestants. "I was literally out there naked with nothing," she says. "It taught me I could get used to just about anything"
In 2011, they signed a deal with indie label Mass Appeal and released their long-delayed fourth album I Missed Us. It debuted at Number 25, but quickly sank down the charts due to virtually nonexistent promotion. It was a disappointment, but not long afterwards their then-manager, Cory Taylor, started pitching networks on a reality series about the group. "We're always looking for strong, bold, independent characters," says Lauren Gellert, SVP of Original Production & Development for WE TV. "We shot a pilot and the girls just popped. They were really funny, especially when we put the three of them together. We also realized there was so much unresolved stuff from their past they had to address."
Cameras followed them all over the world for six months, catching endless fights, makeups, health scares, therapy sessions and much more. Unlike The Real Housewives and other such shows about feuding middle-aged women, none of the drama came across as phony. "Everything is 100 percent real," says Taj. "The therapy scenes were 400 percent real, and they were the best thing to ever happen to us. It forced us to address our issues because we never sat down and talked about things that happened to us, ever."
Sitting in her dressing room with her husband and young sons shortly before showtime at MSG, Coko admits that she's less than thrilled with the show. She comes across as the villain in most episodes, frequently threatening to walk away from the group and getting into vicious battles with Taj over everything from her secret meetings with producers about reviving her gospel shows to canceling concerts with little notice to spend more time with her troubled son Jazz. "For me, these past few weeks since the show began airing have been terrible," she says. "If I could do it all over again, I'm not sure that I would. It's been awful. I really need to pray before I agree to a second season. I'm nervous to walk onstage now. I don't want people to boo me."
That doesn't happen. The concert begins with clips from SWV Reunited, and the audience explodes when the stars walk take the stage. During their 25-minute set opening for headliner Charlie Wilson, the sold-out crowd screams along to every word, nearly drowning out Coko's voice during "Weak." The three exit beaming.
A few days later, an energized Coko has some new thoughts about the reality show. "I guess every show needs a villain," she says, speaking over the phone. "And for this season, it's me. It comes with the territory. If there's a second season, I'll definitely be there."
The group has met with Sony about a new album, but they owe one more to Mass Appeal under the terms of their last contact. Claiming the group was never paid for I Missed Us, SWV's lawyers feel the contract is null and void and they're going to take the matter to court. Whatever the outcome, SWV are booking bigger shows than they have in years and ratings for SWV Reunited continue to rise. A second season hasn't been green lit yet, but odds seem high that it's gonna happen.
"We're growing," says Taj. "But we're three women with completely different personalities and we gel onstage. We still have our ups and downs. Hopefully, success won't pull us apart this time. But if it does, it'll make for a great second season."