This article originally appeared in the July 2006 issue of SPIN
There are shoes, all sorts of shoes, lining the far wall of the studio. Many of them have the kind of heels for which only the adjective precarious will do, and some of the more glittery ones look like they’ve come straight from the set of Austin Powers in Goldmember (which, when you consider it, is kind of apt). Then there are the dresses, racks and racks of them, each noteworthy for its brevity (they finish where most dresses begin). An attentive fashion person is running a brush through a wig that the superstar will not need to wear, and somebody else is making haste with a needle and thread through a piece of sheer material that the superstar will don at some later stage. On a table in the middle of the studio sits five million dollars’ worth of jewelry, and surrounding the booty protectively are three goons with fat necks and, very possibly, hidden firearms. The mandatory super-star bodyguard, meanwhile, six feet five inches of pure beef, is stationed by the door, a permanent scowl on his face. He isn’t paid to smile, and so he doesn’t. And then there is the superstar herself, Miss Beyoncé Giselle Knowles, at this moment being fussed and fawned over by her makeup artist, hairstylist, and manicurist. For a woman as beautiful as she—up close, she is Bambi in human form—Beyoncé has been going through the kind of rigorous makeup routine you would normally expect of Joan Rivers. So surely this is unnecessary? Does she really need the foundation, the rouge, the fake eyelashes? But then Beyoncé is here in downtown Manhattan today doing something she has never done before, possibly never even considered: a cover shoot for Spin. She wants to look her best.
Three hours later, and she finally emerges from her dressing area, clad loosely in purple silk, her hair cascading around her shoulders like something out of a shampoo ad. Her earlobes are weighed down with diamond-encrusted earrings that boast an invisible price tag of $59,750, and she shimmies over to the podium where she will throw provocative shapes for the photographer’s benefit for the next 120 minutes.
It is safe to say, then, that her objective has been achieved: The woman looks her best. Achieved and noted, too. One of the fat-necked goons leaves his post at one point to look her up and down. He whistles through a gap in his teeth.
“Wow,” he says. “Nice.”
Beyoncé shouldn’t be here at all. After Destiny Fulfilled, the purportedly final album from Destiny’s Child back in 2004, she wanted to take time off. She had been working ceaselessly since the age of nine, and having sold, in her understated words, “a bunch of records” (actually nearly 50 million), she wanted to put her feet up. She craved fried food and doughnuts, daytime TV, and no more taxing fitness regimes, but rather a never-ending vacation.
That, at least, was the plan. The plan didn’t last. It rarely does.
“You know what I think the problem is?” she says now, moments after the photo shoot’s conclusion. We are sitting in the studio’s kitchen area drinking warm soda. “I’m unable to sit still. I’m easily bored. Maybe after I’ve gotten married and had kids, I’ll have something else to occupy my time. But right now I’m no good at doing nothing. It’s true to say, though, I certainly didn’t feel this way two years ago. Two years ago I’d just about had enough.”
If Destiny Fulfilled sounded like a rushed album, that’s because it was. It had come hot on the heels of 2003’s Dangerously in Love, the solo album whose flagship single, “Crazy in Love,” had effectively established Beyoncé as R&B’s answer to Madonna. Around the same time, she had also been making her name in Hollywood with parts in Goldmember and The Fighting Temptations. While she had been busy straddling—and slaying—all media, her bandmates, Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams, were also busy, but less visibly. Rowland’s pop-soul album, Simply Deep, sold only 500,000 copies, while Williams made gospel music and appeared on Broadway in Aida. The group’s manager, Mathew Knowles (Beyoncé’s father), deemed a Destiny’s Child reunion overdue, and the record company felt similarly. And so the trio promptly reconvened in the studio to fulfill expectations, irrespective of their own wishes. Beyoncé has mostly always done what she was told.
“If I can be honest with you, and I hope I can,” she told me in 2004, “I hate doing these things, I really do. Don’t take it personally, but my whole life right now feels like an endless round of promotion. I’ve only just finished working on my solo album, I’ve done a new ad [for Pepsi]…and now here I am with a new Destiny album that will keep me busy for 12 months. I’m exhausted.”
Beside her, Michelle Williams concurred: “How would you like it if you had to face the same questions and give the same answers and have your photograph taken a thousand times a day? It’s enough to drive you crazy.”
They spent the next year completing a grueling world tour. At its conclusion, Beyoncé finally put her foot down: No more. It was time to relax.
“Secretly, I live for vacations,” she says now, smiling guiltily. “Not the beach so much—because of the paparazzi, but boats. I love being on boats. I love the waves, the feel and the smell of the ocean. It’s like being in your own world, like being truly free. If I want to eat at four o’clock in morning, I eat. If I want to jump in the sea and swim, I can. There is no one to tell me what to do. For me, that’s perfection.”
But then came the offer of the lead role in Dreamgirls, a big-screen adaptation of the Broadway musical about a trio of soul singers battling to maintain their success. Beyoncé leaped at the chance.
“It was a big deal, this movie,” she says. “Not only did I love the story, but I’d be starring alongside people like Jamie Foxx, Danny Glover, Eddie Murphy. The moment I was offered it, I knew I had to land it.”
She finished filming in late April. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” she says. “It’s going to be life changing for me, I can feel it.”
Dreamgirls writer/director Bill Condon (who scripted the Oscar-winning Chicago) echoes his leading lady’s prediction. “She has an amazing ability to master things,” he says from the Cannes Film Festival, where a 20-minute preview was to be screened. “And the way she adapted here, carrying a movie when she’s only ever been a supporting actress before, was deeply impressive. Plus, the role could have been written for her.
“I’ll never forget this one scene where her character had been spotted by some fans and so she starts waving to them,” he continues. “At the same time, some passersby wandered over, saw Beyoncé and started screaming, so she waved to them as well, still in character. It’s like art mirroring real life, and Beyoncé handled it all beautifully. I’ve little doubt she can do anything she wants in Hollywood when people see her in this.”
After six months on set, the woman was exhausted once more and craving that elusive vacation. She flew to Miami for some sun but promptly changed her mind. “Okay, so this is what happened,” Beyoncé says. “I had planned to take a month off before recording the Dreamgirls soundtrack. But then, three days into my vacation, I started to have all these ideas for a solo record, and so without telling anyone—my manager, my record label—I called up [regular collaborators] Sean Garrett, Rich Harrison, and Rodney Jerkins. I set up three studios around town and banged out 20 songs. Just like that, in a matter of days.”
This feat of almost superhuman creative power suggests that Beyoncé is prodigious beyond belief. In the time it takes, say, Pearl Jam to retune their guitars, Beyoncé writes an entire album. But in R&B, she explains, things are a little different. The instrumental tracks are already done, having been previously churned out by a team of producers, ready for Beyoncé to cherry-pick her favorites. “Crazy in Love,” for example, was all ready to go when she came in to add her defining uh ohs to it.
“Same thing happens in hip-hop,” she explains. “Part of being a great hip-hop star is to be able to spot those great tracks from all the others. And that’s what happens with R&B, too. So all I had to do was add the words.”
The new album has a working title of B-Day, because she hopes it will be released on her birthday (September 4). It will be composed almost entirely of up-tempo numbers, which will come as a blessed relief to anyone who dismissed the ballad-heavy Dangerously in Love. When Beyoncé does a love song, she could be anyone; when she’s upbeat—see “Survivor,” “Independent Women Part I,” and “Crazy in Love” for proof—she is untouchable. The first single will be a hyperactive duet with Jay-Z called “MA Vu” and is, she promises, “a classic, the type of song you can hear 52 times in a row and still not get tired of it.” She smiles her fabulous smile. “Trust me on this one. You’ll love it.”
Although she has been around for what seems like forever, Beyoncé is just 24 years old. In the past decade she has spearheaded probably the most successful girl group of all time and has become, in the process, perhaps the defining superstar of her era. She is a singer and an actress, the face of colossal advertising campaigns (Pepsi, McDonald’s, Tommy Hilfiger, L’Oreal), and even runs her own fashion label (House of Dereon). And unlike so many of her peers, she has achieved all of this so cleanly. She should have developed a drinking habit and a fleeting addiction to at least one narcotic. There should have been tantrums, diva-esque demands, and all kinds of shameless public behavior caught on camera. Instead, none of this has come to pass. Even when she was Punk’d, not a single expletive passed her lips. Meanwhile, she maintains a work ethic that would shame Bill Gates and has the ability to appeal to all people equally in a manner the president would kill for.
“I take after my mother,” she says. “She is a very calm and collected person, and so am 1, I guess. I think it’s important to keep hold of my energy; it’s simply not in my character to get angry, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get cranky every now and then, because I do. I’m human, after all.” Really?
“Really.” She grins. “Although my crankiness occurs mostly in private. I think it’s better that way, don’t you?”
Beyoncé was born in Houston. Her father, Mathew, was a salesman and her mother, Tina, a hairdresser (she’s now her personal stylist). Despite what she describes as a crippling childhood shyness, she still managed to perform at talent shows, and by the time she was 13, the quartet that would become Destiny’s Child—Beyoncé, Kelly Rowland, LeToya Luckett, LaTavia Roberson—was born.
In 1998 they released their self-titled debut album, Beyoncé quickly proclaiming them “the hardest-working group in history.” By 1999’s The Writing’s on the Wall, their success had been tempered by intraband acrimony. Luckett and Roberson were subsequently forced out of the group and later sued Mathew Knowles for favoritism and breach of contract (they eventually settled out of court). Knowles didn’t mourn their departure and quickly replaced them with Farrah Franklin, who lasted just five months, and Chicago-born Michelle Williams, who managed to stay the course. While much of the ill will appeared to stem from Mathew Knowles himself—he was reputedly a hard taskmaster and clearly preferred his daughter—Beyoncé suffered the public flak and was saddled with a reputation for having an aggressive ambitious streak, a reputation that she has been trying to deflect ever since.
“I am not a diva and never have been,” she said in 2003. “I would never say that I was grateful for the controversy, because it really was hell, but it certainly kept us newsworthy. I just remember being unable to get out of bed while it was all happening, and just crying the whole time.”
Ever since, she has been careful about how she has presented her public face. “I’m very conscious of what I say to people and how I treat them,” she says. “Maybe it’s the Virgo in me, but I tend to analyze myself a lot. After this talk with you, I will walk away and immediately recap it. I will try to work out what your intentions were with your questions, and what my intentions were with my answers. I’ve met a lot of horrible and nasty celebrities—and, no,” she adds with a sly smile, “I won’t tell you who—but I don’t ever want to become one myself.”
And she insists that she will maintain this facade no matter how much strain fame brings. Back in 2003 she bought herself a house in Miami but has been unable to move in because the paparazzi attention there is so great. “I can’t walk anywhere in Miami without attracting a media circus,” she laments.
But while it upsets her, she says that remaining upset has never gotten anyone anywhere, and so she simply bought herself another property, this one in Manhattan, “where people could care less who I am.”
Here in New York, she leads as normal a life as possible. She goes shopping with her mother—for antiques, for furniture, for drapes. She goes to the coffee shop; she takes walks around the park.
“I pretty much know my limitations now,” she says. “I know where I can go without security and when security is required. I’ll sometimes misjudge a situation, and things can get a little out of hand, but then I just jump into my car, smile politely, and drive off.”
The “smile politely” detail, presumably, is crucial?
“Sure it is. I understand why people would be interested in me, and I never want to be rude to my fans. I just hope that sometimes people understand I need my space, that’s all.”
But does she ever want to break out of her self-imposed constrictions? To be more like Pink or Christina Aguilera, who speak their minds and to hell with the consequences?
“You know what? No, I don’t, because I know there will be repercussions. You and I are not having a casual conversation here; we are having an interview. When I say something to you, you will print it, and it will stay written. I could have an opinion about something today that may change tomorrow—in a week, whatever. But if you print it, it could stay with me forever, and I wouldn’t want that.” She pauses now, and instantly softens. “Okay, sometimes I’d like to have the…the independent streak my sister [20-year-old Solange, a mom, songwriter, actress, and, according to her sibling, something of a live wire] has, but as I said before, that just isn’t me.”
She’d make a terrific diplomat.
“Hey, maybe I would!”
Three years ago, this most saintly young woman began dating Jay-Z, former drug dealer and hardcore rapper. It seemed an unlikely union: God-fearing, middle-class entertainer stepping out with a self-professed bad boy who, in “Money, Cash, Hoes” (from Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life), raps: “Only wife of mine is a life of crime.” Because she is Beyoncé, she has never spoken about him in the press (“It’s my private life, and it should stay that way”), but some feared that his influence would lead her astray. Ask her now whether his past has ever been an issue for her, and she will afford you full, penetrative eye contact for the first time this afternoon, her demeanor now abruptly serious.
“No, it hasn’t,” she states. “[His past] has never worried me. Why? Because I know him, I know who he is. He is the president of a record label, a businessman. He is a good guy.”
She draws an invisible line under this last sentence and bats her eyelids seductively until the subject is changed. And it duly is. We try politics next but don’t get very far here, either. “I don’t speak of politics publicly,” she professes.
But five years ago she performed at the presidential inauguration of fellow Texan George W. Bush. Wasn’t that tantamount to speaking publicly of her political leanings? “Not really,’ she says. “I played at the inauguration because there were a lot of kids in the audience that I wanted to reach, that’s all. Who knows, maybe one day I will speak of my political beliefs, but only when I know what I’m talking about. Right now, I don’t.”
Yet another subject that quickly hits the soft shoulder is the school of Beyoncé imitators she has unwittingly spawned these past few years. Rihanna, Ciara, Amerie, and Christina Milian are all, in their own way, products of Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women,” but Beyoncé fears that by mentioning those she likes she will also imply—accidentally, of course—that she doesn’t quite like all of them equally. And she wouldn’t want that, would she?
“Like I said, this isn’t a conversation, it’s an interview. What I say here could have repercussions.”
In Dreamgirls (which opens this Christmas), Beyoncé plays Deena Jones, a character loosely based on Diana Ross, who battles her demons in the face of escalating success. Deena Jones, of course, could also be Whitney Houston, somebody else who has dealt with her fame badly. Does Beyoncé herself ever worry that her own megastardom is destined to end grubbily within the pages of the National Enquirer?
Once again this afternoon, the uncomfortable smile returns to the beautiful face. She chooses her words carefully here, wary of offending anyone but keen to express herself nonetheless.
“Sometimes I do worry about it, yes. The more successful you get, the more removed from reality you are, I suppose. The good thing is that none of this has happened to me overnight. It’s all been gradual, and I’ve had time to get used to it and to adapt accordingly. And so all I can do is pray. I pray every night that whatever has protected me this far will continue to do so. I want to age gracefully in this business, and I want to know when to stop before—well, before things go wrong.”
She looks terribly sincere now. Biting her lip, eyes downcast, she says this: “I don’t want things to go wrong.”