To understand how good Destiny's Child looks right now--the three of them standing there, all glossed lips and honeyed limbs--you need to know what a smelly mess the rest of this city is in.
A malicious tropical storm has pounded the coast twice in recent days and left behind sagging bridges, collapsed buildings and swells of sewer water downtown. Humidity and shock have much of the populace lurching around in a soggy sleepwalk, not even bothering to step around the deep puddles anymore.
Against this brackish backdrop, the young women of Destiny's Child look criminally glamorous.
Their wattage is even more dramatic considering it's a Tuesday afternoon and they've been smiling for six hours during a marathon fashion shoot for a teen magazine. The trio is perched arm-in-arm-in-arm atop a lavish staircase in the family home of their leader, Beyonce Knowles. The man-made lake behind the house may be licking at the back door, but these ladies are the high ground of Houston, not to mention the pop music world.
The question, though, is the firmness of their footing. Can Destiny's Child survive the storms that surround it?
The group, groomed here in Houston, has sold more than 8.5 million albums in the U.S. with the high-sheen R&B; groove of "Bills, Bills, Bills," "Say My Name," and "Independent Women Part I." The latest album, "Survivor," debuted at No. 1 on the pop charts.
The members are Knowles, 19, and Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams, both 20, and all are adored by the same youthful fans who have made Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys famous pop pinups.
Unlike the youth pop platoons, though, Destiny's Child enjoys major respect from music industry insiders, the same insiders who dismiss most teen-dream acts as flavors of the week.
Destiny's Child picked up two Grammys in February and, when it lost the song of the year trophy to U2, listened as Bono included the group's name on a short list of competitors for the title of biggest act in the world. Two months later, when The Times polled top record executives to rank today's most coveted acts, Bono and his mates were beaten out by Destiny's Child, who, at No. 6 on the list, also topped Celine Dion, Shania Twain and Limp Bizkit. One exec gushed that Knowles, who writes and produces songs, is the "next Diana Ross."
Music reviewers are also warming to the group. Early on, the group was lumped in with an anonymous gallery of R&B; acts, but with "Survivor" the trio earned critical praise as well. "The great pop group of the moment
All this for a group that on July 18 in Albany, N.Y., kicks off its first national tour as a headlining act. It is also lining up movie and soundtrack projects, solo albums, modeling gigs, a Christmas album, sponsorship deals ... the list goes on and on. "So many people want a piece of the group right now," Williams says. "There's always the overexposure thing. I know it seems like we've done a lot, but we could have done a lot more." The media coverage rarely fails to mention the hectic schedule--and it never omits the group's wrenching and fascinating penchant for firing members.
"Drama, drama, drama," Knowles moans when asked about the group's assorted lineups. Three young women have been ejected from the group since the release of its self-titled debut album in 1998. That's a fired member every year, suggesting that Diana Ross may be a career model for young Knowles after all.
The carousel has created major spin-control problems--lawsuits, harsh media coverage, scathing "Saturday Night Live" skits and an ever-churning rumor mill. The typical whispers: The haughty Beyonce sees herself as the real star and the other members are more or less Pips sent in from a temp agency. That view goes on to paint Mathew Knowles, Beyonce's father and the group's manager, as a controlling stage parent who keeps the spotlight on his daughter and drops a hammer on anyone who crosses him.
There are some elements of truth to all that. Beyonce Knowles is, undeniably, the star of the group, and her father is demanding and tough. But, up close, the family of Destiny's Child does not seem nearly as dysfunctional as advertised.
Instead, chatting with the members and their circle is like touring the Houston landmarks that map their success story--their church, the Headliners hair salon where they played as young girls and the century-old house that will soon become their headquarters. Each has this big city's small-town congeniality, but there's also ample evidence that, lately, the weather has been pretty stormy.
Destiny's Father is fuming.
Mathew Knowles is a tall, youthful-looking 49-year-old who has the charismatic habit of tilting back his head a bit, arching his brows and greeting speakers with an interested smile. That smile, though, is nowhere to be seen at the moment. "This stuff is ancient history, I don't get it," he snaps. "Do you want to talk to Beyonce's great-grandmother too? When does this stuff go away? I don't want them in our story."
Them are LaTavia Roberson, LeToya Luckett and Farrah Franklin, the unwanted children of Destiny. The first two were original members with Knowles and Rowland, but now their names are tied to the group only by the breach-of-contract lawsuit they filed following their March 2000 firings. In interviews, they have referred to the Knowles patriarch as a suffocating force who did not treat them fairly either personally or financially, and who created a cult-like environment around the group.
Franklin and Williams were brought in as ready-to-go replacements, but when Franklin was judged undependable amid the demands of the group's intense schedule, she was cut after five months and the quartet became a trio.
"There has been some damage, I can't deny that," Mathew Knowles explains as he steers his Jaguar through the latticework of Houston freeways. He's already dropped off a $5,000 donation for the flood relief fund today, but the damage he's talking about now is to the credibility of the Destiny's Child franchise.
"Obviously, we had always marketed Destiny's Child with the individuals. Some groups you don't know their names--can you name the members of Dream, for instance? But with groups like TLC or the Supremes or Temptations, you know the names and that's how we went. So some of the fans were disheartened when those people changed."
The title of the group's hit "Say My Name" summed up the challenge to pop fans who were not keeping a scorecard of the member changes. The group's managers, though, say the bottom line in pop is sales, and the group's robust commercial success undercuts all controversy. The group's fortunes look bright if it can avoid the travails that eroded the Supremes' career, cut short En Vogue's run, and left TLC grappling with dissension and money woes.
On the money issue, all three current members say they are enjoying the wealth of their labors, unlike the exploitation claimed in recent years by young stars in 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys. And the wealth of Destiny's Child will be increasingly visible in the landscape of its hometown.
The new headquarters in downtown is a stately, two-story house that looks more like Tara than a hit factory. It will house Music World Music, the new label that will put out the solo albums by all three members and the upcoming Destiny's Child holiday album. Mathew Knowles is modeling the company on Berry Gordy's Motown formula--a self-contained shop with songwriters, producers, image shapers and, from the top, firm creative control.
The new office is a few blocks from St. John's Methodist Church, where members of the Knowles family are celebrities. Longtime congregation members, the Knowles and Rowland will see their names on a new youth center behind the church thanks to a $500,000 donation. The church is geared toward helping the disadvantaged and distressed in the surrounding inner-city neighborhoods, with free meals, HIV programs and homeless outreach. The church and its choir will be featured in the planned Destiny's Child Christmas special for NBC, and Pastor Rudy Rasmus says MTV is planning to visit to do a show on the fans who share pews with the international pop stars.
"We started praying for this group years ago, there's a sense of ownership in the congregation," Rasmus says. "It's like a frog in a kettle. You can put a frog in and turn up the heat slowly and it won't realize it's boiling. Drop it in hot water and it'll jump out. The girls being in the congregation for so long, the heat turned up slowly."
The curious outsiders drop by now on Sundays, and they also cruise by Headliners, the beauty shop long-owned by Tina Knowles, Beyonce's mother and the group's image styler. The modest storefront salon was an early, informal stage for Destiny's Child.
Long before they had a record deal, they performed for a captive audience of women beneath curlers and hair dryers. Now Destiny's Child memorabilia shares shelf space with hair-care products. "People come from all over to see the place and find out the secrets of Beyonce's hair," salon manager Vernell Jackson says. "The secret is she has great hair."
The new office was sold to Music World Music by Larry Joe Doherty, an attorney who is giving up his practice to become a daytime TV personality on a syndicated Fox courtroom show called "Texas Justice," which might be called a mix of "Judge Judy" and Judge Roy Bean. The show is recorded at a lavish studio Fox built in the city with an eye toward a bigger and better local entertainment industry.
"This town is thirsty for something national, and what [Mathew Knowles] has going is international," says Doherty, a raconteur with pressed blue jeans and a drawl. "I bought 'Survivor,' but I wonder who the real survivor is. I've listened to the words and those kids ain't old enough for those lyrics. I think they may have inherited the benefit of his lessons."
You thought that I'd be helpless without ya
But I'm smarter
You thought that I'd be stressed without ya
But I'm chillin'
You thought I wouldn't sell without ya
Sold 9 million
I'm a Survivor
The title of "Survivor" and its words of empowered endurance come from Beyonce Knowles, who has a writing credit on every song on the disc. But the idea didn't come to her from her father, it came from a Houston radio DJ who compared the local celebs to the popular television show. With so many members discarded, the DJ said, the group was going to become a game of last singer standing. The comment rankled the group but, with a wink, it instead took the criticism as its new mantra.
Tina Knowles says that kind of humor has helped salve the pain of watching two of her daughter's childhood friends get pushed away from Destiny's Child just as it was ascending.
"Those kids were like family, so it was devastating," she said. "It was really hard to separate the love from the other part. But looking back now--it's such a relief. It was not a pleasant situation for the last year .... Now we have peace. We pray together, everyone talks to each other, works hard. It's like night and day. It happened for a reason, and I'm happy that it happened, to be honest. That might sound a little cold but it's the truth."
The Knowles family has always been the bedrock of the group, and its confident patriarch has been a man on a mission since he detected talent in his young daughter's husky voice.
Young Beyonce had begun to win talent shows in the late 1980s, and a local music manager envisioned building a vocal group around her called Girls Tyme. The success of En Vogue and TLC, not to mention the legacy of the Supremes and other great female harmony groups of past generations, was a clear template, but Girls Tyme never got off the ground. The group's name became Destiny when Tina Knowles' eye fell on the word on a page in her Bible, then the name was lengthened to avoid confusion with an existing group.
Mathew Knowles, intrigued by the idea of music careerism, enrolled in music business classes at Houston Community College. He had already spent a decade in corporate America as a leading salesman, first of photocopiers and then of high-tech medical equipment. "I've been successful at everything I've done. If I could be the No. 1 sales rep at Xerox, if I could be a specialist in neurosurgical equipment, why would I fail at this?"
That confidence had come from a childhood of challenge. Knowles grew up in Gadsden, Ala., during the segregation years and cites a sermon by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a defining memory. Knowles was the first black student at Litchfield Junior High and later among the first black students at the University of Tennessee. He later met a Galveston native named Tina Beyonce and they married in 1980. She gave up a maiden name that would become her daughter's famous first name.
Tossing aside his corporate career to recast himself as a music manager was hardly a smooth transition. The family shed many of its upper-middle-class comforts and, when Elektra Records nixed the group's first deal in 1996, times got tight. The family had to move into a cramped apartment and sell the house. "Another month," Mathew Knowles recalls, "and we would have lost it to foreclosure."
By that time, Rowland had become an unofficial sister to Beyonce Knowles, and not only in spirit.
When Rowland was 9, her single mom signed off on her daughter moving in with the Knowleses to pursue opportunities. The other two members, Luckett and Roberson, were also close to the family. All that began to disintegrate with the group's success on Columbia Records, and the membership juggling began. "A lot of people were starting to realize that it was two members over here and two over here," Rowland said of the tense times. "Michelle now is the perfect fit."
Williams, an Illinois native and former backup singer for teen R&B; star Monica, says she was instantly in tune with the personalities of her fellow members, but some of the refined harmonies of friendship took awhile. "People wanted us to be best friends overnight, but that doesn't happen. The other day I came into [the Knowles] house, kicked off my shoes and ran upstairs. This feels like home now. And the musical talent of the group has never been stronger."
And how did the fans react to the musical chairs? "We have more people that love us than hate us," Rowland says with a sly smirk. "They love our music. And the themes of the new album have surprised people. They're mature stuff. But we went through a lot. You probably saw most of it on TV."
The magazine shoot is done and the crew is clearing away a mountain of shoes lugged in for costume changes. Beyonce Knowles is debating what to do tonight. Get some rest? Go to the studio to work on the Christmas album? Go across town to the special screening at a theater of "Carmen," the hip-hop musical on MTV that marked her acting debut? She looks exhausted. In the days to come the group will go to Philadelphia (where it will perform at an NBA Finals halftime show and get booed by 76ers fans for wearing Los Angeles Lakers colors), Japan, London ... she lets out a deep sigh.
"As far as my health, sometimes I wonder if I'm doing too much. You get stressed and crazy and can't even enjoy the blessings, you can't soak in what's going on. You can't say, 'Wow, I just won a Grammy' because the next night you're on a flight to the Brit Awards and then another flight the next night."
Beyonce Knowles is bright and well-spoken with a warm Houston accent. Her pal Rowland is the fun-loving joker in the group, but Knowles is the spiritual center. She's sensitive--she said she "cried for days" during the membership shuffling and she often tears up during Sunday services.
She has her mother's Creole features and her father's resolve and stamina. A loss on "Star Search" during her childhood bruised but did not discourage her.
She recently watched a videotape of herself, at age 11, listing her goals. Instead of vague, rosy dreams of success, they were specific: a gold album, a follow-up album that went platinum and a writer-producer credit on the third album. All three have been accomplished.
The big speculation surrounding her is the solo career that will inevitably come. She and her fellow members all have plans to record solo albums for their new label, but Knowles' will arrive at stores with far more expectation and viability. She says that won't pull her away from Destiny's Child.
"It's cool to love somebody you're in a group with," she says. "I love to see them do well. The group we have is so good now I feel less pressure. We're a team."
A team that gets more exposure than the Lakers.
With the group ubiquitous on MTV, in magazines and on the radio, the question of over-saturation is an obvious one. Mathew Knowles says there is no such thing, that the group will pounce on any deal that makes sense and money. And on this Tuesday there is no dearth of new offers. Will Beyonce consider joining Whitney Houston, Celine Dion and Faith Hill for an all-star song? "Yes," he tells the caller. "If they are in, she is in." Will Destiny's Child sing a song in Spanish for the overseas market? "No," he says, "that's a stretch for them, a risk." Will the group consider a sponsorship relationship with Canada's MuchMusic channel? "No," he says, because that would conflict with the deals with MTV, the marketing behemoth that is sending Destiny's Child on the road on a summer tour.
The tour is weighing heavy on Beyonce Knowles' mind. She says the scope of the show is exciting and intimidating all at once. Sitting on a low kitchen tabletop with her bare feet dangling and bronzed hair in her eyes, Beyonce looks even younger than 19. The house is buzzing with activity as the group, the Knowles family and assorted friends and handlers carry on a half-dozen conversations. A tall pot of homemade gumbo is simmering on the stove, and a birthday cake for her little sister, Solange, 15, is hardening on a counter top.
"I hear all the things people say and sometimes I just can't take it," she says quietly. Her father is a dictator, her fellow members are bit players, her own studio talents exaggerated--"All of that. It's crazy. It drives you crazy if you listen."
How does she cope? By collecting the airplane napkins and receipts she jots her lyrics on. As with "Survivor," she tries to scoop up the negative thrown her way and spin it into hit records.
"I take home with me, I take the church and the hair salon, the Southern hospitality and realness. They shape the way I look at people and look at life. It keeps us all grounded. This life can make you very happy but it can also make you very sad and lonely. Lonely in a room full of people." She smiles and pushes back her hair. "Maybe there's a song in that."