It’s raining in New York. A hot, muggy, gray rain that splashes in heavy sheets off the line of black Escalades parked outside a photo studio on the West Side. Just a few weeks ago, Hurricane Ike brought far more relentless rains to Houston, destroying the neighborhood where Beyoncé Knowles grew up. Oddly, her favorite memory is tied to a similar meteorological disaster almost 20 years ago. “I never told anyone this story, but we lived by the bayou, and it flooded,” she explains. “My father came to pick me up from school. I thought he was so strong. And he protected me. We had to get out of the car because the water was flooding the streets. He was carrying me around and it was the most fun thing in the world. My arms were around his neck and I was laughing and it was raining, and I was like, this is great! Even though, looking back, I know he was terrified.”
Two decades later, that little girl has grown up. She still spends a lot of her time with her father, Matthew Knowles. But no one has to carry Beyoncé these days. Having sold 100 million records with Destiny’s Child and another 25 million as a solo artist, she’s built a career that continues to defy even the darkest predictions about the collapse of the music business. This month, as she prepares to release her third solo album, Beyoncé herself seems to be a force of nature.
Given that she was lead singer of the best-selling girl group of all time, is married to Jay-Z, and was listed by Forbes as the second highest-earning music personality of the year in 2007 (she took in $80 million), you hear her name all the time—so it’s natural to feel like you know her. But meeting Beyoncé in person is disarming, surprising. Today she has a large blue swath of makeup across her eyes, superhero style, which will eventually be joined by bands of red and white to complete her American flag getup—just one of five countries she’ll be representing in photos at this shoot. She’s also wearing nothing but a terry-cloth robe. And finally, she’s smoking hot. Radiating fire. Blazingly gorgeous, like Brigitte Bardot in a steam bath.
She giggles frequently. Looks you in the eye. Her skin is flawless; her large, golden-brown eyes are calm and steady. Though New York is her home now, she still speaks with a soft Houston twang. Her hair is tied up in a ponytail, like a cheerleader, and she seems genuinely cheerful, as if she’s so used to being upbeat that it would take effort to be otherwise. When she’s not on the red carpet or being bombarded by the flashes of paparazzi cameras, Beyoncé comes off as down-toearth— an around-the-way girl with an irrepressibly optimistic spirit.
Family is central in her life. Her mother, Tina, is her stylist and business partner. Their fashion line, House of Deréon, was named after Beyoncé’s grandmother, Agnéz Deréon, a former seamstress. And her father is still her manager, although that relationship hasn’t been without its difficulties. In 1995 Matthew Knowles quit his job as a medical-equipment salesman to help guide his daughter’s career. (The move cut his family’s income in half and resulted in a separation between Matthew and Tina.) He was strict. He established a “boot camp” to train Destiny’s Child in vocals and choreography, and his own relentless approach to hard work seems to have been matched only by his daughter’s.
Still, as Beyoncé grew out of adolescence and became an “independent woman” (as the title of one of Destiny’s Child’s biggest hits put it), the conflicts with her dad grew worse. “My father and I had a tougher time years ago,” she says, “but there’s been a gradual transition, a power struggle. I’ve never had a problem standing up to my father when it’s come to my business. He taught me the importance of business. My mother is very creative and designs clothes, and she taught me to express myself. So I had a great balance of those two opposite sides. But it’s difficult because I started out young. And when I was 21, I was still the baby to him. So we’d fight. But after a few years of that, it got better and now we have rules. Like, when we’re having family functions like Christmas or birthdays, we’re not allowed to talk about business.”
The line between family and business wasn’t so clearly demarcated back in 1999, when dissension arose between two original members of Destiny’s Child—LeToya Luckett and LeTavia Roberson—and Matthew Knowles. The two singers left the group, and lawsuits were filed. Fans turned on Beyoncé, attacking her personally on message boards. She spent days locked up in her room, crying. “It was definitely difficult because I was so young, and my father was my manager and the group was like family,” she says. “I felt like, what are we gonna do? We weren’t making any money yet. I was the lead singer, so I got the blame. And I’m just a naturally sensitive person. If someone in the room is crying, I’m gonna cry even if I don’t know them. And that was the first time I had to deal with rumors and people attacking me. I was an 18-year-old kid, so I didn’t understand it was just a part of this life and it wasn’t personal. I didn’t have a thick skin yet. I was so embarrassed and wanted to defend myself and please everybody.
“Years ago, I was definitely headed for a breakdown,” she continues. “Just way too much work—my life was my career and I had no other life. It started when I was 15 and I hadn’t learned the importance of balance, making sure I took a day off. I didn’t know what ‘no’ was, what boundaries were. At this point, I know that after a certain amount of time I have to go home. I know what I like now. It just takes life experience to get a good balance. When you’re young, you don’t know what relaxes you.”
These days to relax, Beyoncé enjoys painting, unwinding with a blank canvas and a glass of red wine when she can find the time. Of course, her greatest masterpiece so far hasn’t been a painting or a song or a movie, but her public self: Beyoncé the brand is a global entertainment entity, one that she’s crafted with painstaking effort and relentless energy. So it’s been surprising recently to see her stepping outside the lines of the carefully constructed image the world has come to know. She’s done this in baby steps, moving steadily from church-going good girl to sultry siren, and now seems to be at the threshold of unveiling a new, more complex persona.
It’s an open secret that contemporary R&B, despite outward pretensions of modernity, is an extremely conservative musical format; with few exceptions, its formula goes unchallenged by the most successful artists. So it’s pleasing when she tells her cousin and assistant, Angela, to play a few new tracks for me from her upcoming album, I Am. . .Sasha Fierce, including “If I Were a Boy,” which is far from expected. It features a folky acoustic guitar played over a simple beat, while Beyoncé sings with understated (and therefore very believable) pain, about trying to imagine how she might treat a woman if she were a guy. The lyrics start out simply, as she muses about the ease of the opposite sex, talking smack about how she would “drink a beer and chase after girls.” But soon she’s digging a bit deeper beneath the surface, suggest- were a guy she’d be more sensitive than most men, and perhaps not take women for granted—but manages to get in a few digs: “If I were a boy, I’d put myself first/make the rules as I go,” she sings, then addresses the man directly at song’s end: “But you’re just a boy.”
Her voice is simpler, more straightforward, with almost none of the ghettofab melismatic fireworks she seemed unable to resist on her early hits. Instead, Beyoncé is now singing with a more sophisticated, confident complexity and depth—she’s still talking about the war between the sexes, but in a smarter, gender-flipping way. “The first time I heard it, I didn’t think it sounded like me, because it’s really folk, alternative, not the kind of music I sing,” she explains. “But I was reading the lyrics and I said, ‘Wow, this is powerful.’ I felt like I was singing for every woman in the world. I feel like I say a lot of things in my songs that women need to hear or want to say.”
Although Beyoncé’s earlier acting endeavors—opposite Steve Martin in The Pink Panther and Mike Myers in Austin Powers in Goldmember—were lighthearted, she’s been tackling more ambitious parts. She earned two Golden Globe nominations for her role in Dreamgirls, the 2006 adaptation of the Broadway musical loosely based on the story of the Supremes. And next month she’ll portray blues singer Etta James in the Chess Records story, Cadillac Records. The role takes her outside her comfort zone, exploring behavior that’s far from what we’d expect from the smiling celebrity we see in L’Oréal ads. “Etta James had a darker side,” she says. “And with the profanity I use in the movie, and being addicted to heroin, and having a scene where I’m strung out, I’m sure audiences are gonna be extremely shocked. But I’m an artist and I’m playing a character. When I’m doing a movie, Beyoncé is nowhere on film. “One thing playing Etta James taught me is to be fearless,” she adds. “And it taught me I can’t be afraid or ashamed of the things that I like, even if it’s shocking to people. I know it’s time to take a chance. I don’t have a need to do another record to make more money or become a bigger superstar.”
Through her relationship with and marriage to Jay-Z, Beyoncé has moved into the epicenter of a gritty hip-hop world, and as she’s matured, her sex appeal has played an increasingly central role in her public image. For years she’s had an alter ego she calls Sasha (a name her cousin came up with) that takes over onstage, allowing her to explore the more untamed aspects of her sexuality. “I still have the values I grew up with. But when I’m performing, I’m able to be whoever I want to be,” she says. “I have Sasha, and it’s kind of like a character, but I leave it on the stage. And I don’t walk around being over the top, the way I am onstage. It’s just a part of my artistic expression.”
And what has become of Sasha as Beyoncé has grown up? “I’ve learned to use Sasha for other things. Sometimes I have to be strong in meetings or in my everyday life. And I’ve learned how to use that side of my personality and merge the two. Definitely, when I was younger I was very sheltered. I never tried drugs. I was never out at clubs. I didn’t have boyfriends. So I kind of used Sasha to separate my sexual freedom onstage from my everyday life. And I still use Sasha to protect me.”
Beyoncé is notoriously tight-lipped about Jay-Z, whom she dated “secretly” for six years before “secretly” marrying him in April. “This is like my first relationship,” she says. “I’m very private and, of course, I don’t talk about it, but I’m very, very happy. That’s all I’ll say. We were together for a really long time before we got married; we were in no rush. We don’t have a normal relationship because of our careers. But celebrity or not, you go through the exact same things. We’re not perfect.”,
In some ways, Beyoncé’s appeal lies more in her normalcy than in her largerthan- life sexiness. It’s her “realness” that allows her to relate to her fans, and vice versa. Her mother owned a hair salon, and Beyoncé hung around the shop after school, earning extra money by sweeping up hair and performing for customers. “I’d eavesdrop on these women’s conversations, which is why I have such a connection to the everyday problems of women, even if it’s not something I’m going through,” she says. “Everyone would come in and they’d have their problems and talk about them, my mom would give advice, and they’d leave feeling glamorous and confident, with the weight off their shoulders. That’s what I try to do in my own way with my music.”