Beyonce: The Golden Grrrl in Goldmember
Remember when Beyoncé still used her surname? Fifteen years ago, Beyoncé Knowles was the lead-singer for a chart-topping girl group. She was successful by any reasonable measure, but she had not yet conquered the world. In this cover story from the July/August 2002 issue of Movieline magazine, Beyoncé was still telling people how to pronounce her name. At the time, there were rumors that Destiny’s Child was breaking up and that Beyoncé’s acting career was off to a rough start with her supporting role in Austin Powers.
Most people expect Beyoncé Knowles to be a diva. She is the lead singer of the chart-topping, finger-wagging, hip-shaking, Grammy-winning Destiny’s Child, which became big when their song “No, No, No” went to number one in 1997, then exploded in 2000 when they contributed ‘Independent Women Part 1″ to the Charlie’s Angels soundtrack and released the top-selling album Survivor.
But Knowles is not a diva. The-Houston, Texas, native does attack those take-charge, take-no-guff anthems to do right by women with a smokin’ self-assuredness that belie her age–20. But past those sinewy curves, whiplash body moves and teasing delivery, there is an endearing, almost innocent character inside that sets her apart from today’s horde of narcissistic. nasal, midriff-baring divas.
I meet Beyoncé Knowles at a swanky Beverly Hills restaurant during the off-hours so as to avoid autograph hounds. She arrives early and alone. She’s dressed casually in jeans and a T-shirt and with little makeup on. She comes off as unaffected and unguarded. Now and then she breaks into a fit of giggles. Her wide-set eyes seem to drink everything in. She catches the interest of nearly every waiter, most of whom seem nervous in her presence. One poor soul even accidentally calls her Bernice before retreating to the kitchen where he, one suspects, will slap himself silly.
Knowles laughs it off. “My name is pronounced like fiancée, “she says. “Growing up I got called Be-yo-NEE-chee. Bee-YO-nee. For years I hated my name and thought it was made up, which most people think it probably is. But it’s really my mother’s family name.”
Beyoncé has been telling people how to pronounce her name since age seven, when she made her auspicious singing debut at a talent show. She was a shy girl, but once onstage, her ruminative nature vanished and she became a blazing, full-on showboat. The transformation so shocked her parents. Mathew and Tina, that they half-jokingly wondered. “Who is that child?” Mathew, a successful salesman, had the good idea to form a group with his daughter and five other girls. They rented old Supremes and Jackson 5 videos to study the singers’ moves. Beyoncé’s mother, Tina, designed costumes for the girls, styled their hair and did their makeup. Mathew got them bookings at local civic events, malls and grocery stores.
By the time Beyoncé was a teenager she was a full-fledged performer. But according to her, it was not an especially daunting time. “Sure, I watched ‘Punky Brewster,'” says Knowles, “but when other kids were out playing, I wanted to be inside writing songs and practicing dance routines. It got so people didn’t want to come to the house anymore because we’d make them buy two-dollar tickets and then do shows for them.”
In the mid-’90s, the group, which was now a foursome comprised of Beyoncé, Kelly Rowland, LeToya Luckett and LaTavia Roberson, was signed to Elektra Records, then dropped. Next Columbia Records signed them, and the band took off. Their single “No, No, No” shot to number one and the song “Killing Time,” featured on the Men in Black soundtrack, became a hit. In 1999 their album The Writing’s on the Wall propelled them into the stratospheres. That year, no gym or nightclub could afford not to heavily rotate at least a couple of the diabolically catchy singles from the album.
Trouble in paradise brewed, though, when group members Roberson and Luckett reportedly asked Mathew Knowles for a bigger slice of the pie. Knowles replaced them with Farrah Franklin and Michelle Williams. Just months later, Franklin also left, spurring speculation that nepotism ran rampant in the band. Whatever the truth is, the press got wind of the bad blood and some of the members ended up in court. This year, just after Destiny’s Child won a Grammy for the title song from their multi-platinum third album, Survivor, Roberson and Luckett filed a federal lawsuit claiming that song lyrics referred to them. Sample lyric? “You thought I wouldn’t sell without you/[But I] sold nine million.”
These days, everyone in Destiny’s Child (current members: Beyoncé, of course, Michelle Williams and Kelly Rowland) will tell you things are completely copacetic, even if they are all branching out in different directions–temporarily (Beyoncé insists the band has no plans to split up). Williams recently released a solo album and Rowland is set to follow suit anytime now. Beyoncé is also releasing a solo album, but she’s taking an extra step away from Destiny’s Child by getting into acting. Last year, she made a not-too-shabby small screen debut as the fiery temptress of MTV’s Hip-Hopera: Carmen, a funky update of Georges Bizet’s classic 1875 opera. This summer she’s starring opposite Mike Myers in the third installment of the enormously successful Austin Powers franchise, Austin Powers in Goldmember. She plays Foxxy Cleopatra, who runs into Austin when he time travels back to 1975 to face off with Dr. Evil and Goldmember. Sporting a mile-high Afro, spangled eye makeup, funky togs, and spouting peppery jive talk, Beyoncé certainly makes an impression.
For a while it was whispered Jennifer Lopez was up for the role. “Jennifer was a rumor, nothing more,” says the film’s producer, John Lyons. “But we did see a lot of women you could call household names. When Beyoncé came in she was very nervous, but she had authority. Some of the other women seemed to be trying on an attitude and many even came wearing Foxxy Cleopatra-type clothes. Beyoncé got to the heart of it.”
“When John, [director] Jay Roach and I met with Beyoncé,” says Mike Myers, “we thought she was tough, smart and sweet, all at the same time.”
And it was the Austin camp who called her, not the other way around. “When my mom told me I had been offered this meeting with the Austin Powers people, I had no idea what they wanted to see me about,” says Knowles. “My mother went to the meeting with me, which was a good thing because she did a lot of the talking. Jay and John explained the script and I was so honored that they had thought of me. After that, I got a call saying they wanted me to read with Mike Myers and, oh my Lord Jesus, I was so nervous. But I did my homework.”
She must have needed to. After all, Knowles was born well after the ’70s–how could she possibly have been familiar with the excesses of that era? “I watched Foxy Brown a bunch of times,” she admits, “and Cleopatra Jones, The Mack and Shaft. But I’d seen a lot of them before because my mother is a big fan of Pam Grier’s–she’s legendary. The women in these movies were sexy, but also smart and strong. They had attitude, but they weren’t so overconfident you couldn’t relate to them. The day I met Mike, I watched Foxy Brown over and over.”
Mike Myers is considered one of the most adept comedians around, but he’s also rumored to be not so easy to work with. Beyoncé reports to have had no problem with him. “He made me feel comfortable,” she says. “It was good that Mike was there when I was auditioning, but it was scary too because I was nervous. My palms were sweating. He’s so brilliant, I was intimidated. But I didn’t try to be funny. When I try to be funny, I just act dumb and corny.”
During the first day of shooting, Knowles had to film the scene where she sings the title song “Goldmember,” a rowdy, raucous ditty which was cowritten by Myers. “When Beyoncé got up and performed it,” says producer Lyons, “you could just feel–everybody on the set knew she was something special.”
“Jay and I just looked at each other,” says Myers, “and said, ‘A star is born.'”
When I relay these comments to Knowles, she seems thrilled. “Filming that scene broke the ice,” she says. “Basically, the song lyrics are all about a gold member. Now, a gold member is not a topic I would normally sing about, but when Mike asked, ‘How do you feel about singing a song like that?’ I said, ‘I’m not singing it. Foxxy is.”