Dream Girl: Why Beyoncé Knowles is a 21st-century role model

Fame, wealth and glamour: at 25 Beyoncé's talents as a singer and songwriter have made her one of the most admired women on the planet. Now she has a Hollywood career in her sights. David Thomas salutes her ambition
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The Independent Culture

Beyoncé Knowles is in town. Tonight she will sashay down the red carpet at the Odeon Leicester Square for the UK premiere of Dreamgirls. She stars as a Sixties pop diva not a million miles from Diana Ross, in this musical about a girl-group remarkably reminiscent of the Supremes. It has already won three Golden Globes and picked up £35 million at the US box-office. A slew of Oscar nominations are expected to follow.

During the course of her stay in London, the 25 year-old, who has already sold 40 million albums as the leader of Destiny's Child, and at least 15 million more as a solo artist, will doubtless be followed wherever she goes by an eager posse of paparazzi, snapping her every move. So here are some of the shots you will not see in the papers over the next few days:

- Beyoncé looking worryingly skinny, like Kiera Knightley.

- Beyoncé totterering drunkenly out of a club, like Paris Hilton.

- Beyoncé nose-down over a line of white powder, like Kate Moss.

- Beyoncé flashing her vagina like Britney Spears

- Beyoncé eating too little, drinking too much, provoking rumours of drug-problems and exposing herself in public, like Lindsay Lohan.

Let other starlets scrap for headlines with online sex-videos, drunk-driving charges, stints in rehab, skanky boyfriends and a blithe disregard for their parental responsibilities. That's not Beyoncé's style. She doesn't do trashy. She's a sober, church-going, totally focussed showbiz machine. Likewise, she never, ever discusses her five-year relationship with Shawn Corey Carter, otherwise known as the rapper Jay-Z. He has shifted around 45 million albums of his own, but he also has a number of day-jobs including President and CEO of Def Jam and Roc-A-Fella Records, co-owner of the new Jersey Nets basketball team and co-owner of the 40-40 Club chain of sports bars.

Power couples just don't come any more powerful. Nor do they come much more symbolic. For his part, Jay-Z represents (along with entrepreneurs like P-Diddy, Russell Simmons and Damon Dash) perhaps the most economically and socially significant aspect of rap, which is that young black men don't just make the most innovative music of their age - they've been doing that for a century or more - they own it, too.

Beyoncé, meanwhile, is one of a group of young African-American women - for example, the model and TV presenter/producer Tyra Banks, or the musician-actress Alicia Keys - who are the inheritors of not one, but two liberations: equal rights and feminism. To my white, middle-class teenage daughters, these stars are iconic role-models, who combine beauty, intelligence, talent, achievement and independence in a way that elevates them far beyond the tawdry WAGs, reality TV "stars", silicone-enhanced glamour models and pop nonentities that comprise Britain's current crop of young, female celebrities. But then, if Beyoncé seems classier than your average British bimbo, that's because she is.

Beyoncé Giselle Knowles never had to fight her way out of the ghetto. Her father Matthew was a Xerox sales executive, who earned a six-figure salary before quitting to become her manager. Her mother Tina ran a successful hair salon, though now she runs Beyoncé's fashion label. (Tina came from a French-speaking Creole family in Louisiana. Beyoncé was her maiden-name.) The family lived in the smart suburbs of Houston, Texas. As Beyoncé told Vanity Fair in 2005, "I didn't grow up poor. I went to private school: we had a very nice house, cars, a housekeeper. I wasn't [singing] because I didn't have a choice, or to support the family. I was just determined: this was what I wanted to do so bad."

She is, in other words, part of the gentrification of pop, an American equivalent to all those public-school pupils like Dido, Will Young, Coldplay, Radiohead, Keane and so on (and on, and on) who now dominate the British music industry. But it would be reasonable to suppose that, coming from a black family in a Southern state, her sense of entitlement was less developed than those of the sons and daughters of the British bourgeoisie, her strength of ambition even fiercer.

Like many performers, Beyoncé was a shy, even nervous child. Her parents sent her to dance class in the hope of making her a little more confident and finding her some friends. There she began to blossom. Like so many soul legends before her, she learned to sing in her local church choir. At seven, she made her first solo appearance as a singer, performing John Lennon's "Imagine" at a children's singing contest. She would go on to win more than 30 such events.

When she walked onstage, Beyoncé became another person. She even gave her alter-ego another name, Sasha. Beyoncé remains, as she has always been, a good girl. But Sasha was a wildcat, right from the start. As her mother Tina later recalled, "When she got onstage she was just a different kid, she was so confident and she looked so happy. After that, there was no stopping her."

By her mid-teens, Beyoncé had formed a quartet, Girls Tyme with her then-best friend LaTavia Roberson and two other local girls, Kelly Rowland and LeToya Tucker. Matthew Knowles gave up his job to manage them. By the time she was 15, her group, now called Destiny's Child, had a recording contract with Columbia Records. Within two years, the quartet had their first Top 10 single. Their debut album went platinum.

Their second album, The Writing's on the Wall, released in 2000, sold more than 13 million copies and contained four hit singles, including "Say My Name", which won two Grammy Awards. At the end of 2000 - by which time Roberson and Tucker had left, replaced by Michelle Williams - Destiny's Child produced their biggest hit yet, "Independent Women, Part 1", which was also the theme to the film Charlie's Angels. A year later Beyoncé became the first black American woman (and only the second woman of any race) to win the Songwriter of the Year award from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers.

By now she had introduced a new word to the pop-cultural dictionary: "bootylicious", meaning curvaceous, sexy and generally dashed attractive. "Booty" specifically refers to that Afro-Caribbean combination of strong thighs, curvaceous hips and perfectly rounded backside that makes white girls go green with envy. Onstage, Beyoncé struts her stuff with the raw physicality of a young Tina Turner. Watching Madonna you are painfully aware that this is a middle-aged matron giving her sinewy old body a particularly strenuous workout. Watching Beyoncé, you are painfully aware that this is an unbridled force of nature.

Once again, white girls can't compete.

And yet, they can aspire. Beyoncé's beauty, like Tyra Banks, straddles the races. Thanks to her Creole ancestry, her skin is café-au-lait. Her hair is treated or woven into a long, Caucasian mane that contains, at any one time, varying shades of chestnut, ginger and dark honey-blonde. Though she can bling it with the best onstage, her offstage style is a combination of high-fashion style and ladylike elegance. She can do pretty just as well as she can do horny. A young woman whose impeccable manners and gracious demeanour are allied with a will-to-power of which Nietzsche would have been proud, like a female Tiger Woods, she offers the whole world something they can relate to and aspire to, even if they cannot remotely compete.

Her apotheosis of glamour came at the Oscars in 2005, when she sang three of the nominated songs, each time wearing some new confection of sequins and tulle, every one more ravishing than the last. It was a vital moment for Beyoncé, who desperately wants to make it in Hollywood. Her major credit up to that point was as Foxxy Cleopatra, Mike Myers's Afro-toting sidekick in Austin Powers: Goldmember, but she needed to prove that her range extended beyond playing the hot black chick into the realm of classic, big-time showbusiness.

When it was announced that Bill Condon would be writing and directing a film version of the 1981 Broadway musical Dreamgirls, Beyoncé decided that she must have the lead role. Who was better-qualified to play the role of Deena Jones, the ambitious lead-singer who dreams of becoming an actress? Beyoncé is represented by the immensely powerful ICM agency and it was made clear to the producers of Dreamgirls that she was very, very interested in their film. It was agreed that no one else would be auditioned until Beyoncé had shown what she could do and been given a definitive yes or no. The audition was held in New York the day before Beyoncé was due to depart for a tour of Japan. She was required to perform two scenes and sing a song with piano accompaniment.

Needless to say, she left nothing to chance. At Bergdorf Goodman she found a low-cut, Sixties-style black dress that she had re-tailored to fit. Though told not to worry about preparing any dance-moves, she spent a weekend watching videos of Diana Ross and the Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas and came up with a routine to go with her song. She found a perfect wig for that back-combed beehive, Supremes style.

Naturally, Beyoncé got the job. Naturally, she hired an acting coach to go through every line of the script and every line she'd sing to make sure that no trace of Noughties Beyoncé could be seen in Sixties Deena Jones. And naturally, when she'd finished her role in Dreamgirls and sung 16 songs (one of which she'd composed and produced) for the soundtrack, she scooted back to Texas to write and record another solo album, B'day. All of which activities, plus her fashion-label, ran alongside the formation of the Survivor Foundation, the charity she set up to aid homeless victims of Hurricane Katrina.

It all sounds as inevitable as it is triumphant. And yet life is rarely that straightforward, not even for the fiercest diva. For all her work on Dreamgirls, Beyoncé has found her performance completely overshadowed by that of Jennifer Hudson, a hitherto unknown actress whose previous career highlight had been appearing on American Idol, being eliminated in an early round and having Simon Cowell sneer at her backstage, "You only get one chance at Idol and the people who don't win will never be seen again." Well, the perma-tanned poltroon got that wrong. As the overweight, obstreperous Dreamgirl Effie White, Hudson has been a sensation, winning a Golden Globe and becoming hot favourite for a best Supporting Actress Oscar.

No one's talking about Beyoncé. Nor are many people - by her standards - buying B'day. It has shifted around 3.5 million copies worldwide, less than one-third as many as her first solo album Dangerously In Love.

So, as she steps down that red carpet in Leicester Square, doubtless smiling happily and looking ravishing, Beyoncé will be confronting what might almost be thought of as a minor professional crisis. If global conquest is to be maintained she needs to step up her game with a monster hit song or an even more stellar film role.

Of course, she could take the other route to happiness by marrying Jay-Z and settling down to motherhood. No doubt she would manage domesticity as brilliantly as she does everything else. And whatever path she chooses, it's safe to assume that my teenage daughters - and millions of young women just like them - will still idolize and envy Beyoncé just as much as they do now.

'Dreamgirls' is out on 2 February

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