Eternal: God's girls?

Eternal dress to kill, sing about the plight of humanity and give thanks to the Lord. A typical touch of pop hypocrisy? Not at all, argues Emma Forrest. Like other divas, they're just praying to keep body and soul together
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The Independent Culture
See that Toni Braxton? The very thought of you makes her want to get undressed: she said so in her last single, "You're Makin' Me High". You know, the one where she was poured into a white lycra jumpsuit zipped low to reveal cleavage as generous as Mohammed Al-Fayed in search of a friendly MP. The same Toni Braxton who was banned from wearing so much as clear nail varnish or lipgloss until the age of 16, because her family were such strict Methodists. "The Church we used to go to was very tough. We had to wear dresses buttoned to the neck and couldn't own open-toed shoes."

On her brilliant debut "Ill Na Na", Brooklyn rapper Foxy Brown is quick to thank "Almighty God for making this possible", before inviting her lover to "twist my body like the Exorcist'. Read the sleevenotes written by any soul diva, and no matter how sexually uninhibited their image may be, they always lay their trust with one man. TLC, the silky voiced imps behind "Red Light Special", take up a good half of "Crazy Sexy Cool" thanking God. SWV offer "Thanx 2 God 4 his mercy". En Vogue, whose latest single advocates "the right to lose control", and who spend the video writhing semi-naked on a four-poster bed as a home video enthusiast films them, did it all with the support of the Almighty.

Then there is Britain's own Eternal, with their three tattoos, one pierced eyebrow and four blue contact lenses between them. Stage school graduate Kelle stated on the first album "Lord you are my life". Vernie and Easther's mother is a Pastor. Vernie, who dropped out of a law degree to become a pop star, does not feel there is a conflict.

"In most religions, women do not get to become heads of churches. Our pa died when we were very young, but our mother and her position has made us so confident. We know that our private life and our beliefs do not have to conflict with our on-stage presence. Our managers know we're religious girls."

Like all the most successful soul stars, from Aretha Franklin to Whitney Houston, Eternal's roots are in gospel. They sang in the Church choir and at all the local weddings and christenings. If you grow up with gospel, then you become aware, from an early age, of the fusion of sensuality and spirituality. Passion, in any form, is transferable. It therefore makes perfect sense that someone who has spent their life singing such passionate music is going to be a passionate performer. If that involves wearing cropped tops and push-up bras, then so be it.

"When we first started out we were so innocent," laughs Vernie. "Everything was 'Uhhh! Uhhh!' [mimes hyperventilating]. But half the people we were shocked by at the start, we're now friends with."

Easther adds: "We do our own styling for videos now. If anyone made me wear something or do something that I didn't feel comfortable with, I would just stand still and it would be a rubbish video. From the very start, we've never once done something or worn something that we weren't perfectly comfortable with."

White pop stars are fairly lousy at interpreting the sensuality inherent in Christianity: Cliff Richard, Sam Fox, Pat Boone, The Osmonds. The list, unfortunately, is endless. Probably the only white girl to make Jesus seem attractive is Madonna. Her religious beliefs have been a constant theme of her lyrics and videos, but worked to most intoxicating effect in "Like a Prayer". Singing with a gospel choir, she danced around the church with her bosoms popping out of a black slip dress, before developing stigmata and then making love to Jesus, who was six feet tall, black and incredibly gorgeous.

The very notion of believing in God is sexy. You have to be an imaginative and artistic person to put your faith in something so unbelievable. The religious have a certain pulse and a certain madness that the cynical atheists among us often don't. To believe in God so flies in the face of where we are now, that you can't help but be impressed. At its best, you get a song as astonishingly brilliant as Donna Summer's "State of Independence" which is, at its core, a hymn with a disco beat.

However, it is a very delicate balance. In concert recently, Summer displayed a bizarre God / Jezebel look (gold sequins on a tight lycra dress, but the skirt came down to the floor and the neckline went up to her nose). There was too much God and not enough sex. Nowadays the only adrenaline Summer is likely to get pumping is that of angry homosexuals, outraged by her born-again-Christian outbursts. And public opinion says that Yazz has lost her edge since finding her faith.

Eternal's latest single "Don't You Love Me", although musically as funky as a Sean "Puffy" Coombs production, is too heavy on lines like "Why does granny have to walk the streets?". The post-apocalyptic video, dotted with businessmen breaking down on glass strewn streets, presents a potentially interesting dissection of faith after Thatcher and belief approaching the millennium.

Kelle acknowledges that the teen magazine reviews are wary of the pin- ups developing a social conscience. "With the second album we didn't have the time or the opportunity to talk about what really troubled us. We had a member leaving and it wasn't the time to give something to the public that we weren't ready for. We've got past that hard stage and this is what we want it to be about now. 'Don't You Love Me' and 'Grace Under Pressure' say, no matter how bad it is, there will be a helping hand - the Lord."

Maybe God's girls are a heavenly practical joke to rival the giraffe. The devil has the best tunes, but God has the raving beauties and sex queens. They say the body is divine. And, in the case of TLC, En Vogue, Toni Braxton and Eternal, they're absolutely right. The gorgeous Toni Braxton still runs all her work past her parents. Confronting her Methodist minister father with the ultra-lascivious video for "You're Makin' Me High", she was terrified of what he would say. His response? "It has a very nice beat." n

Eternal play Wembley Arena tonight Booking: 0181-900 1234