Beyoncé : Before

“Scorpions were crawling on a woman’s crotch! Can you believe it?” asks Beyoncé  Knowles – lead singer of Destiny’s Child, burgeoning movie star, and pop culture’s latest full-fledged diva – holding court in the privacy of her dressing room in a downtown Manhattan during a break from ELLE’s photo shoot.  Swathed in the unfastened see-through organza of Givenchy couture, she kicks off her nasty-girl haute high heels.  Crinkling her eyes, she begins to regale the room of makeup artists and fashion stylists and publicists (the most steadfast of audiences in a star’s increasingly insular life) with her rendition of a Fear Factor episode she watched while stuck in yet another hotel room. 

“They had this woman in a pit, and they filled it with a bunch of scorpions.  The host was saying, ‘Think about what the money you’re gonna win will do for your children.’ So this woman started saying her kids’ names.” Knowles says, her voice morphing expertly into the contestant’s mournful whimper.  “She was fine as long as those scorpions were crawling all around her private parts, but the minute they started to crawl into her ears, she freaked out.  Couldn’t stand them in her ears, but was fine with them on her crotch.  Lord Jesus!” 

Knowles gives the room a wide-eyed, can-you-believe-that take reminiscent  of the many reaction shots – eighty-nine, by my count – she delivered as Foxxy Cleopatra in Austin Powers in Goldmember.  “These reality shows …” she says, moaning extravagantly before starting in on The Bachelorette’s Trista.  Knowles tears up like Trista rejecting another bachelor and mimics her perky sincerity.  “I wanted to punch her,” she says, forming a careful fist with a freshly manicured hand and knocking out an imaginary bachelorette.  With the unsentimental certainty of a showbiz veteran, Knowles purr in her most Texan of timbres, “‘Gurl,’ I wanted to say, ‘that’s what o’show’s about.’”

Beyoncé  Knowles life has, at times, itself resembled a reality show.  At eleven, she started he professional career by losing on the original Star Search, and the trials of tribulations of Destiny’s Child have played out like something on Court TV. 

The original group, put together in 1993 by Knowles’s father, Matthew, consisted of Beyoncé , Kelly Rowland, LaTavia Roberson, and LeToya Luckett.  After their eponymous debut album, the group fell apart when Roberson and Luckett sued Matthew Knowles, accusing him of financially favoring his daughter and Rowland, for whom he had become legal guardian.  (A settlement was reached before the case went to trial.). Two new singers, Michelle Williams and Farrah Franklin, joined the group, and Beyonce created a multiplatinum hit out of all the turmoil – a song that took its title, “Survivor,” from the biggest reality show of them all.  Roberson and Luckett sued again – for libel – claiming that they lyrics Beyoncé  had written for “Survivor” violated the terms of their earlier settlement.  Again the case was settled.  In the middle of all of this, Franklin left the group because of professional differences, leaving DC3, as Destiny’s Child is now called by its ardent fans, a trio.  But audiences don’t seem to mind all this tsuris; through it all, the group has racked up three Grammy awards and sold more than twenty-nine million CDs and singles worldwide.

Though Knowles swears that DC3 is still intact – they’ll be playing a few overseas dates in March – she is determined to strike out on her own.  She has contracts to promote L’Oreal and to succeed Britney Spears as the pop-princess face of Pepsi, which will likely sponsor an upcoming solo tour.  Moreover, it was she alone who performed with Carlos Santana during this year’s Super Bowl pregame show. 

Like almost everything involving Destiny’s Child, even the Pepsi deal came with complications.  In February, Def Jam records founder Russell Simmons threatened to lead a Pepsi boycott because the company fired foulmouthed rapper Ludacris as a spokesman but continued to air spots with the equally profane Ozzy Osbourne.  Simmons has publicly asked for Knowles to disavow the company, but Knowles offers a terse “No comment” when I ask her about the controversy.  She’s rather talk about her first solo CD, tentatively titled Dangerously in Love  and due out in May, which she says will answer critics of DC3’s last album, The Writing’s on the Wall, who found it too full of male-bashing lyrics.  And she recently finished shooting her latest film, The Fighting Temptations, a love story co-starring Cuba Gooding, Jr., and due in theaters this summer. 

“There is no question that she is going to be a big movie star,” says Goldmember producer John Lyons, who initially alerted Mike Myers to her title performance in MTV’s 2001 hip-hop adaptation of Carmen.  “She holds the camera.  She’s like Lucille Ball – she’s hugely funny.  And she’s got that diva strength that will take her far.  But on top of that she’s a kind person, just very well brought up.”

Beyoncé cites her mother, Tina Knowles, as “the strongest person I know.”  Matthew Knowles is a combination of Richard Williams, the Svengali-like father and coach of tennis aces Serena and Venus; Berry Gordy, the Motown marketing genius,; and Cliff Huxtable,  Bill Cosby’s good-naturedly cranky upper-middle-class paterfamilias.  Beyoncé  Knowles did not have a hard-knock life.  Her father was, for years, a top sales executive for Xerox, specializing in neurological surgical equipment.  A native of Gadsden, Alabama, he was the only Black kid in his junior high school and was one of the first African Americans to enroll at the University of Tennessee.  Once he realized how talented his opera-trained elder daughter was – there’s also sixteen-year-old Solange, on the verge of her own musical stardom – he quit his job and focused his sales acumen on creating a multimillion dollar musical phenomenon. From Destiny’s Child’s inception in his Houston kitchen, Knowles has built his six separate companies within his Music World Entertainment corporate empire, which has recently – with powerful and poetic irony – moved its headquarters into one of Houston’s most ostentatious, Tara-inspired ersatz antebellum homes. 

Alabama, 1963. Photo by Bruce Davidson/Magnum.

“My dad’s whole family marched in Alabama,” Knowles says.   It’s a few days after the fashion shoot, and we are at the International Center of Photography on Sixth Avenue in midtown Manhattan, walking through photographer Bruce Davidson’s exhibit of images from the early Civil Rights movement.  Knowles expressed interest in seeing it before she heads off for a month of studio time in Miami, where she has bought a house on Millionaire’s Row. 

“I’m very moved by this,” she says softly, stopping to study the black anger Davidson captured.  “Because of the people in these photographs, I’m able to have the life I have and perform for an audience that encompasses so many cultures.” 

Channeling her inner-Josephine Baker who was the inspiration for Philippe Ferrandis’s Sherrer Haute Couture

Did she ever have to deal with racism growing up?  “I’ve had to deal more with sexism than racism.  But even though I had a great childhood, it wasn’t always so perfect.  At the beginning of Destiny’s Child – when there was a lot of stress going around – my parents separated for a while,” she says, staring back into the defiant eyes of a woman in one of the photographs, taken precisely at the moment she is arrested in front of the Birmingham’s Carver Theater.  On the marquee above her proud but badly hot-combed head: SUSAN HAYWARD IN BACKSTREET.

“My parents couldn’t live away from each other, and my dad finally moved back in with us after a few months,” Knowles says, turning to a photograph of a more carefully coiffed figure, that of Coretta Scott King.  “I definitely learned what it was like for two people to fight for their love.  My dad is very gentle but also tough when he needs to be.  It’s not going to be easy to find a man in my life – it’s going to be hard to live up to my father.  Because of him, I have standards.”

Her Gucci heels (“My mama got’em for me”) click atop the museum’s wood floor, and she arranges her Dolce and Gabbana jacket about her shoulders. Before her is an array of faces caught mid-march on a lonely stretch of blistering Alabama pavement, Gucci and and Gabbana as alien to them as they very idea that a young Black woman could command the kind of cultural power that Beyoncé  Knowles is just beginning to wield.  As the museum’s other visitors start to recognize who is in their midst, whispers waft her way, that unswattable, gnatlike swarm that buzzes about a true star’s head.  And like a true star, she ignores it. 

Football jersey ball gown and ribbon-trimmed python platforms by John Galliano for Dior Haute Couture

“My dad’s mama went to school with Coretta Scott King,” she says before catching  a quick glimpse of reflection overlaid in the glass atop the photograph of the marchers, the well-trod blacktop scarring her cheek and emerging from her mouth.  She offers her own whisper: “My generation is so spoiled.” 

So does rapper Jay-Z meet the standards set by her father?  “I’m not opening that door,” Knowles says, when I tell her that some mutual friends witnessed their closeness on financier Ron Perelman’s yacht off St. Barth’s on New Year’s Eve.  She been photographed with Jay-Z at a Knicks game and spotting dining with him at Manhattan in-spot Jimmy’s Downtown.  Before her stay in New York, she was with him in Mexico, shooting the video of this  song “’03 Bonnie & Clyde.”  “Let’s just say I have a life.  We do go out together, so if someone sees us, they see us.  Whatever interpretation you want to put on it, that’s fine.” 

She falls silent, refusing to comment on the last times she was kissed.  Would she talk about the first time?  “It was the summer of ninth grade, and it was right in front of the Jack in the Box,” Knowles says, her laughter unraveling into a raucous giggle.  “It was terrible.  Kelly [Rowland] was in the Jack in the Box watching.  She couldn’t believe I had never kissed a boy before.  Lord Jesus – she had only kissed one two weeks before.  I was gritting my teeth shut so he couldn’t stick his tongue down my throat.  I went back into the Jack in the Box and told Kelly that it was the worst thing in life.  What were people talking about?”

“She always been a cutup.  Everybody thinks she’s a diva, but she’s still just like she was when she was runnin’ round this shop gettin’ under everybody’s feet and singin’ along with anything that came on the radio,” says Vernell Jackson, the manager of Tina Knowles bustling beauty salon, Headliners, in Houston.  “Beyoncé ’s always been a star in my eyesight.  It’s like the name says – this is all part of God’s destiny for her.”

Sequined lace dress with origami folds by Christian Lacroix

Indeed, Knowles’s use of the expression “Lord Jesus” is not an exclamation of irreverence, but an invocation of belief.  Some of her detractors have expressed cynicism about her religious fervor, which she displays with the same ease that she displays her pierced belly button and tawny cleavage. 

“Going to church is like therapy for me,” she says, as she wanders into the museum’s other galleries.  “”When I go to church back in Houston, I can cry and release everything that’s in me.”

In fact, when she goes home to Houston, her sense of fashion is as relaxed as she is.  “I got to Walmart with no makeup and in jeans a t-shirt and walk around my mom’s shop with no shoes on.”  While she may revert to her childhood wardrobe when back home, she has cut the glitzier apron strings of her stylist mother and has begun to wear a more fashionable wardrobe – call it Donatella Mama.  She combines the best of the runway with the best of Run-DMC, transforming it into a kind of signature haute hip-hop.  “I love my Paper jeans,” she tells me, as she closely inspects the early photographs of William Henry Fox Talbot in the next gallery.  “And I love to go shopping in vintage stores wherever I am so I can pick out some top to go with my collection of vintage bags.”  She also tells me that along with Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana, her favorite designers are Marc Jacobs, Balenciaga, Versace, and Prada.  That she’s determined to win an Oscar someday, but if her career does vanish, she would like to be an art teacher at a middle school.  And that – and draw your own conclusions here – her favorite movie is the Diana Ross camp classic Mahogany. 

Upstairs, she halts abruptly at a wall of Weegee’s experimental trick shots of show-biz divas.  “This is crazy,” she says as she squints at the wavy fun-house-mirror quality of the photos – Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, et al. – and tries to decipher the identity of each warped icon.

“When I’m on a stage, yeah, I’m a diva,” she says when I ask her about her own reputation.  “When I am in front of a camera, I am a diva.  But when I’m not performing, I leave all that behind.  I would never guarantee anything else in my life – especially when you’re only twenty-one, that’s not smart – but I can guarantee you that my mom would lock me up until I came back to earth if I acted like a diva in my real life.” 

It’s time to head out to her real-life chauffeured SUV, which has been idling outside this whole time.  Before she can reach the revolving door, one of the museum guards asks for her autograph.  “You were so good in that Austin Powers movie, ma’am,” he tells her, breaking out in a sweat.  “What was that line of yours?”  He raises his voice a pitch or two to mimic her character..  “‘I’m Foxxy Cleopatra!’” the burly man minces.

Knowles cackles and finishes the line for him.  “And I’m a whole lotta woman!” she exclaims, before turning on her Gucci heels.  The guard eyes her as she makes her bootylicious exit.  Murmuring to himself, “You sure are, baby,” he walked to the window to watch how her SUV, heading up Sixth, can slink, big-bumpered, through a honking crowd. 

  • Kevin Sessums is the author of two New York Times bestselling memoirs, Mississippi Sissy and I Left It on the Mountain.

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