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Beyonce´: Portrait Of A Lady

originally published December 2, 2008 / GIANT

She Is…A World-Class Entertainer.

“You have to understand,” Jay-Z told me in 2003, before Beyonce’ was his wife, when they were still getting to know each other, while they were negotiating their relationship with the public. “I don’t even like for people to know what my girl looks like…and now I’m in a relationship with Michael Jackson!”

At the time, it wasn’t clear if Jay had a case of love goggles. Sure, led by Beyonce’, Destiny’s Child had hit the stratosphere in 2001, picking up Grammys, breaking Billboard records and churning out fun, girl-power R&B dance hits. (They wouldn’t be named bestselling girl group of all time until 2005, after they’d reunited in 2004 to record Destiny Fullfilled). But MJ? The greatest of all time? This was when you couldn’t read an article on the group without Beyonce’ being described as “bootylicious.”

Midway through 2003, of course, she’d release her solo debut, Dangerously in Love, and that’s when I, for one, became a believer. I was in the studio with her future husband one night when she arrived, by herself and by cab, to his session. He was laying down his denouement, The Black Album, and, as is his custom when he is recording, was in need of a haircut. She was wearing a $1200 pair of jeweled Jimmy Choos, black, cropped nylon track pants and a fitted white tank top. She was smaller, yet taller, in person and as beautiful without makeup as she’d ever been in photo spreads. Her heart-shaped face was small enough to fit into one of Jay’s hands. She flashed her disarmingly warm smile when we met. When I said something funny, I learned she has this adorable habit of closing one eye when she laughs, like it’s stuck in a wink. A Beyonce’ hater I could never be. She offered an impromptu listening session of her solo CD when I asked about its progress, and I was, quite simply, blown away.

The single she was considering, “Crazy in Love,” hinted at her Mike-like pop instincts, but meandering sexy ballads such as “Yes” and “Speechless,” with Shuggie Otis samples and Prince-inspired open-ended vocal arrangements, were completely unexpected—a departure from the syncopation and tightly choreographed radio hits of Destiny’s Child. I played Dangerously as much as My Life by Mary J. Blige. It was like Mary’s sophomore album inverted. Instead of a twenty something in the throes of pain, Beyonce’ writhed in ecstasy. The closing song, “Daddy,” let us know what little girls could become if they were never abandoned, but loved right, encouraged and protected from the beginning.

Each show in support of that album was a revelation. For the 2003 BET Awards in June, she rocked “Crazy in Love” in the silk halter mini dress from the video and performed a dangerous live version of the “Uh Oh” dance. Jay had her back, emerging on stage to spit a few bars on their biggest collabo.

She didn’t mean to do it, just like she never meant to outshine her Destiny sisters, but that night other R&B singers disappeared.

She bodied the MTV Video Music Awards that August, arriving upside down in a harness and harem pants to perform “Baby Boy.”

It was clear that with Beyonce we were witnessing something we’d never quite seen before in pop. She didn’t have the range of Mariah, but she had considerable chops. She didn’t go for the perfect, big, back-lot choreography of Janet, but she was a committed, passionate dancer. She had the focus and drive of a professional athlete. She was as much a feminist as Michael Jackson was a black militant, but she was clearly a womanist, demanding respect in her songs. She was old-school glamorous, whether in sequined boy shorts her mom had sewn around her thick thighs or in Cavalli chiffon, performing at halftime at the NBA All-Star Game and bending the couture gown to her bodacious body’s will. She connected with her peers, giving young girls something to aspire to, the same way the biggest rap stars served the boys. At Motown 25, Michael Jackson’s historic performance cemented his legacy as one of the world’s greatest performers in a single night. But in a six-month run kicked off by awards season, Beyonce’ delivered half a dozen epic performances.

The same February night Janet had her infamous nip slip at the 2004 Super Bowl, Beyonce’ flawlessly belted the national anthem in a cream pantsuit with belled sleeves and made her hometown of Houston proud of its rising superstar.

Weeks later, she murdered the 2004 Grammys by collaborating with her longtime production designer Kim Burrell to stage a bit of modern dance and mini framed theater as she unpacked the album’s technically complicated title song, “Dangerously in Love 2.” Parading her perfect pitch, her powerful Wagnerian mezzo-soprano voice, she climbed three and a half octaves in the ballad she’d penned as a tenth-grader, scaling from a low C to a high E. A white dove landed in her outstretched hand as she completed her landmark performance. When the cameras cut to the audience, Prince was on his feet, rapt in a roaring standing ovation.

“During rehearsals the bird had flown right into my hair. I had an up-‘do that I guess looked just like a nest to him,” she says today, sitting in a Manhattan hotel suite, a few blocks from the penthouse apartment she shares with Jay. “So we put this rhinestone in my palm because they love shiny things…I stretched the end of that song a good ten seconds so that dove would come to me!”

The evening had begun just as memorably. She opened the show partnering with Prince for a Purple Rain medley. The timeless, mysterious legend lending his endorsement to pop’s next great. “I’ve had shows where I performed with a broken heel, or when I went into a back bend and tried to catch-and missed- Jay’s belt buckle during ‘Déjà Vu’ at the BET Awards…but that night with Prince, I was in a trance,” she explains. “I don’t remember anything after I walked through the smoke onstage. I was definitely Sasha that night, completely free.”

She Is…A Daughter

“I met Sasha when Beyonce’ was six years old at her first performance at St. Mary’s Elementary talent show,” her daddy, Mathew Knowles, remembers. “She was competing with fifth-and sixth-graders.”

“She got on that stage and became a different person,” Tina Knowles agrees. “My husband and I looked at each other like, ‘Who is that?’”

On the night of the first official listening session for her third solo album, it was Mr. Knowles who had the job of introducing Beyonce’/Sasha to an audience of music journalists high on free sushi. It was the kickoff to Beyonce’ season, and Mathew Knowles, president and CEO of Music World Entertainment, his daughter’s label home, was unveiling the double concept album I am…Sasha Fierce, I am…Beyonce’.

Incredibly, in the cynical eyes of Beyonce’s haters, even her relationship with her parents is suspect. Mathew Knowles is cast as a modern-day Joe Jackson, minus the boys and the abuse. And Tina as a controlling southern doyenne who lives out pageant dreams through her oldest daughter. The truth is a little less exciting. I’ve visited, with Jay, their home in Houston. It was decorated with the tasteful restraint of upper-income black folks who’ve had money for decades: Cosby Show-like figurative black art framed around a white baby grand piano and an enormous chef’s kitchen that led to a patio, a pool and a barbeque pit. The entire spread sat on a lake. Over ears of blackened corn, cousin Angie told us that a storm had hit the area the night before and an alligator ended up in the neighbor’s pool. Solange, who at the time was asserting her independence with a curly, chopped, natural ‘do, watched as her teacup dog, Sugie, lost a wrestling match with a stuffed bear. Beyonce’ shared a reclining patio chair with Jay, and Tina and Mathew Knowles took turns at the gas grill.

Mathew Knowles was a Xerox salesman when his eldest daughter came to him with dreams of becoming a singer. He was by no means Will Smith’s character in The Pursuit of Happiness. “I was the top salesman worldwide,” he says of this time. “I was fortunate to have a six-figure income, and my wife had a seven-figure income with the hair salon. So we didn’t need our kids to make money. We still don’t. When Beyonce’ came to me saying this was her dream, I was already planning to move into the music industry. My first artist was a Houston rapper named Lil’ O. I got him signed to MCA. Destiny’s Child was the second group I signed.”

Still, the image of Knowles as a drill sergeant who made his daughter and her friends run laps around the local park in high heels and practice until they passed out persists.

“As a supportive father of my kids, if they’d said, ‘Daddy, I want to be a doctor,’ my response would’ve been, ‘Work hard, get your medical degree, and when you’re finished, I’ll buy a hospital for you.”

It’s enough to trigger the primal envy of every fatherless girl who has ever craved unconditional daddy love. I suggest as much to Tina, whom I catch on the phone in between fittings at her Manhattan House of Dereon office. I tell her that there’s the perception that Beyonce’ has lived an incredibly protected life and been passed from her father’s home to her husband’s.

“I don’t dispute that she’s lived a protected life. People think that I’m the one who’s telling her, ‘Don’t do this, and don’t do that.’ I was always trying to get her to go out, socialize,” says Tina. “I tried to drop her and Kelly [Rowland] off at parties, and they didn’t want to go in—they wouldn’t even get out the car! Beyonce’ begged me to go back home to the studio. That’s just who she’s always been.”

“When Kelly and Beyonce’ were twelve or thirteen, they met [R&B group] SWV when they were in Houston, and those girls took them under their wing….They’d pick them up, take them to shows. [SWV member] Lelee pulled me aside—she was only seventeen, eighteen years old herself—and she said, “Ms. Knowles, stay with them because I have seen things and been in positions with older men and whatnot that I should’ve never been in.’ After that, I realized I had to be there, and I don’t apologize for protecting her as a girl in this business. But who Beyonce’ is as a person has protected her more than anything. Even now, when I hear some of the things that are said about my family, I get into mama-bear fight mode. But Beyonce’ is more methodical. She decides what to react to and what to ignore. I’ve actually learned a lot from her because I’m from Gavelston [Texas]…a country girl. I fight.”

She is…an Actor

It was her mother who Beyonce’ turned to when she was offered the role of the great blues singer Etta James in the film Cadillac Records. “I thought she could do this,” says Tina, “be someone who was totally different than who she is…Etta was the bad girl, the tough one…I thought she could kill it. She was like, ‘I don’t know if I can do it…I don’t know if I have the time.’ I said, ‘Well, you said you wanted to do something dark and different.”

“She was the dream to play Etta. I wrote it for her,” says the film’s director, Darnell Martin. “Beyonce’ has a quality where you want to protect her. There’s a feeling of deep sensitivity and, as cliché’ as it may sound, of goodness.

So when you start with that, the character becomes accessible as opposed to someone who already reeks of addict. She started with this incredible innocence, but she went there, down to the rawest place. I told her, ‘I need you to gain weight for this.’ And she did it. She had her mascara running. Her makeup was messed up. The glamour was gone, and it was just a woman addicted to heroin.”

To prepare for what, up to this point, is the role of her lifetime, Beyonce’ visited the Brooklyn location of Phoenix House, an addiction-recovery treatment facility that offers programs in nine states. The plan was to sit in a circle with the women for 60 minutes. Four hours later Beyonce’ was still in the therapy session, completely transformed.

“In the beginning I didn’t want to offend anyone and ask too personal questions,” she says of the visit. “But a few hours into it, it was just real talk….The saddest thing was when they talked about their children. There was a lot of crying. They talked about their lows—the lowest things they did for drugs—and the stories of their lives before they became addicted. It was just one tragedy after another so that I understood how they came to be addicted.”

“The women were so moved,” says Karen Sodomick, VP of communications for Phoenix House. “She made them so comfortable. She came in with no entourage, and her comfort level and her openness created a warm, safe environment for the women. She sat there and was sincerely interested. At one point she had to leave the room and regroup. For those women it was a great reminder that they’re not disposable. She and her mom suggested cosmetology for our skills-training program. We’re working with them now to make it happen.”

Martin says that Beyonce’ donated her salary from the film to Phoenix House. “I just can’t say enough good things about Beyonce’, about her family,” Martin says. “This film would not have been made without her. The incredible thing is she went from a grueling six-day shoot, and the next week she was in the papers getting married.”

She is…a Wife

For us spectators, their affair began in pictures. In the south of France, in the summer of 2002, their first real date was captured by paparazzi. Yachting on the Mediterranean in the early summer months became their annual ritual. And even though the paparazzi showed up just as religiously, the couple took a vow of silence.

“We made a decision then to remain private about it,” Jay says. “There are only a couple stories for the tabloids to write: ‘They’re A Couple!’ ‘They’re Married!’ ‘They’re Divorced!’”

The wedding was inevitable and happened six years later on April 4 at Jay’s Tribeca penthouse. An online gossip vampire published the address, and the paps circled like buzzards, snapping arriving guests such as Gwyneth Paltrow, but no wedding pictures ever ended up in the rags. There was no public confirmation, until six months later, that the private ceremony even happened.

One of the most telling details about the wedding was the absence of decadent catering. Tina Knowles and Jay’s grandmother lovingly prepared the couple’s favorite dishes. “We cooked all the food,” says Tina proudly. “I cooked all my Creole stuff, and his grandmother cooked her oxtails. My favorite part was when we put all of this home cooking on that fancy china. It was special.”

My money is on their success. Jay doesn’t often make mistakes, and B is a pragmatist.

“Watching my parents, I learned that marriage isn’t a fantasy,” Beyonce’ tells me. “My parents are tighter now than ever, but they’ve been through it all. There were times they were together, times when they were apart. I learned that it’s a lot of hard work, that it’s more than a dress.”

She is…an Icon

A dozen years at the top of the game, three solo albums in, more than 60 million records sold, every music award collected, Beyonce’ was recently quoted as saying that she wants to graduate from pop star to icon—like Tina Turner, who she famously shimmied with at the 2008 Grammy Awards and whom she often appears to channel onstage. Giorgio Armani—he who pals around with iconic siren Sophia Loren—cast Beyonce’ as a 21st-century Marilyn Monroe in the campaign for his fragrance Emporio Armani Diamonds and considers the elevated status a done deal.

“Beyonce’ is a modern-day icon combining so many talents with soul and style,” says Armani. “There is no one today who transcends music, film and fashion in the way that she does.”

Beyonce’ is the biggest pop star in the world. But for all her fame, fortune and success, her humanity remains untouched. “A lot of people don’t realize Beyonce’ was sixteen years old when her first number-one record came out,” says Mathew Knowles. “And all these millions of records later and trophies…What I’m most proud of is what a good person she is, how she’s as good to the janitor in the hallway as she is to the president behind the desk. For me, that’s what matters.”


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