The veranda view to the Nevada desert at sunset provides ample distraction, but LeToya Luckett is late. When the singer finally breezes into the plush Las Vegas suite that has been hired for the occasion, her small but surly entourage blames crossed wires. Anticipating a television interview, not one for a paper, LeToya has apparently spent the last hour being made up, designer-dressed and coiffured. Her gold snakeskin tiara, bangles and matching Giuseppe Zanotti shoes look pricey, but with Luckett reportedly charging $20 for her autograph these days, the cash flows both ways.
"Fire away and I'll answer five questions at once," she says, all can-do attitude and eagerness to "make this work". The 25-year-old Houston-born singer is a master of the meet-and-greet, and her vivacity and sexy Texan drawl soon take the edge off her lateness.
If Luckett seems buoyant, she has reason to be. Six years after being booted out of Destiny's Child, she has scored a US No 1 with her eponymous debut album. Released some six weeks before Beyoncé Knowles's latest album B'Day, Luckett matched the chart placing that her rival and erstwhile bandmate's debut solo album achieved in the US. Touché.
"Everybody thought I was going to give up after the Destiny's Child situation," says Luckett. "But I'm not one to say: 'Oh, poor me - it's over.' I knew that as long as I kept a strong prayer life, I would be able to fulfil my destiny. In groups, who sings this part or that part always turns into an issue. Eventually you get the courage to go out on your own."
Like many an R&B diva, Luckett began singing in church. She took the mike at Brentwood Baptist, Houston, aged five, cutting her teeth on gospel standards. "It was more about feeling than getting the notes right. That's why gospel singers are good at R&B: they've already learned how to let loose and improvise."
At elementary school Luckett first encountered Knowles. She remembers her as "a very quiet, private" girl who was "popular because she was beautiful". "Bey found out I could sing when we were both auditioning for Pinocchio," Luckett says. "We shared the lead part in the school play and learned the songs and the little dance routines together. It was [sings]: 'I got no strings to hold me down / to make me fret or make me frown.'"
With LaTavia Robertson and Kelly Rowland, Knowles, then nine, was already singing in a group called Girl's Tyme. In 1993 Luckett joined the outfit at the ripe old age of 11, and when Knowles's mother, Tina, found a phrase in the Book Of Isaiah that she liked, the vocal quartet was renamed Destiny's Child.
"It was demanding to be in a serious band so young," Luckett admits. "We had to go to singing lessons at 6am and we sacrificed part of our childhood. We were pulled out of school in the sixth grade, so we didn't get to go to the prom or do any of that homecoming queen stuff. It was exciting, though. We were very keen and focused for a bunch of kids."
It seems fitting that Knowles and Luckett first teamed up on songs from Pinocchio. The way that Luckett and Robertson tell it, Knowles's father, Mathew, was the puppet master of Destiny's Child. With Luckett and Robertson living chez Knowles for a time, Mathew's influence on them as guardian/manager was considerable. But it was Knowles, so the story goes, who got to sing the best lines and wear the prettiest dresses.
Any squabbles were innocuous, though, compared with those that arose once Destiny's Child became successful. When the group released their 1999 breakthrough album The Writing's On The Wall, Luckett and Robertson were seeking to free themselves from Mathew's management contract, claiming he kept a disproportionate share of profits.
Luckett and Robertson had not intended to leave the group, but the die was already cast. When the video for "Say My Name" premiered in February 2000, they learnt of their sacking. Featuring Knowles and Rowland lip-synching to a Luckett co-write, the promo also introduced new children of destiny Michelle Williams and Farrah Franklin. (Franklin would soon go the way of Luckett and Robertson.) Naturally, her sacking is not something Luckett is keen to talk about now but, when pushed, she says the saddest thing was losing such close friendships. "We were so young," she says. "If we'd been a little bit more mature, we could probably have talked things through, but these things happen for a reason."
At the time, Luckett and Robertson were less philosophical, suing Mathew Knowles and their former bandmates for breach of partnership, and eventually gaining a settlement in 2000. But tempers flared again when Luckett and Robertson heard the 2001 Destiny's Child single "Survivor", the aggrieved pair arguing that its lyrics breached the part of their settlement that decreed both parties should stop dissing each other in public. "You thought that I'd be stressed without you, but I'm chillin','' crowed Knowles. "You thought I wouldn't sell without you, sold nine million."
Was it a dig at Luckett? "I don't know. I would hope that it wasn't about the break-up, but if that was her way of venting her anger, so be it. I'm a fan of that song," adds the singer grasping at diplomacy. "I think we're all survivors."
Whatever one thinks of Luckett's Christianity - her posing in lingerie for King magazine while quipping: "I'm a born-again virgin!" raised eyebrows - it seems to have instilled admirable resilience. Post-Destiny's Child she and Robertson formed another vocal quartet, Anjel, but even the disappointment of their recording 22 songs that were never released was something Luckett shrugged off.
Moving to Los Angeles, she flirted with the idea of acting lessons, then had some pictures taken for the Wilhelmina modelling agency. "But I never really got into it," she says. "All the girls were, like, six feet tall and the agency was saying: 'Maybe this part of you needs to be smaller.' I got out of there and hooked up with a music production company out of Atlanta. They put me in the studio in LA with a guy called Dave Young and we started doing my album."
The first single from Luckett, "Torn", uses a sample from the Stylistics' "You Are Everything". The singer says the lyric concerns a one-sided relationship in which the short-changed girl doesn't know whether to stick or twist, but if it is about her time with Houston rapper Slim Thug, she isn't saying. Is there another man in her life now? "No," she says a little too quickly. "You know how difficult it is to meet people in the music business."
Stock answers aside, Luckett appears to be going from strength to strength. The woman who co-wrote the Destiny's Child hit "Bills, Bills, Bills" tells me she's taking "real estate classes", and when not singing or starring in the Black Entertainment Television reality show The H-Town Chick, she likes to drive her Mercedes Benz SL coupé or hang out with her white Pomeranian, Heaven. "Heaven is the baddest thing on four legs. She knows how to go in your purse and get your candy and your lipstick. She used to wear diapers and she had a pacifier. The diapers stopped her peeing all over the house, but then she started eating through them. How gross is that?"
Together with her mother, Pamela, Luckett also has her own clothing store, Lady Elle, which opened in Houston in 2003. "I buy all the stock," she says. "Girls will come in and go: 'LeToya, I have a date in 30 minutes! What should I wear?' I like being hands-on like that, but my mom does most of the day-to-day stuff."
At the time of writing, Lady Elle was still stocking Knowles's clothing line, House Of Dereon. After events at last month's Mobo awards in the UK, however, one wonders for how long. Mobos attendee Luckett was blamed for Knowles's audience-booed no-show, some claiming that Knowles was reluctant to re-encounter a phoenix-from-the-flames former bandmate she'd barely spoken with in six years. But a Knowles camp spokesman maintained that Beyoncé had never intended to be there.
With other reports now claiming that the release of Knowles's B'Day album was timed to dent sales of Luckett, the fur continues to fly. Still, that's the problem with one's destiny: it is often messily intertwined with other lives.
The album 'LeToya' is out now on EMIReuse content