Michelle Williams: Destiny’s child all grown up

Michelle Williams is heading for the West End. She's no longer the quiet one, says Matilda Egere-Cooper

Fans of Destiny's Child remember the group's messy changeover in 1999: out went school buddies LeToya Luckett and LaTavia Roberson under a cloud of management strife, in came Michelle Williams and Farrah Franklin, the latter told to hit the road only five months later over her lackadaisical attitude to the group and rumoured clashes with DC's ringleader, Beyoncé Knowles.

In the midst of the storm, the loyalty of Williams became apparent. She heartily declared she was something of a "Survivor" in the girls' 2001 chart hit and went on to enjoy platinum success as part of one of R&B's biggest-selling trios of all time before they parted ways in 2005.

Unbeknown to the faction who tended to view Williams as "the third one", the 29-year-old from Illinois has been quite the clever cookie over the last few years, shaping up a B-plan while brand Beyoncé has gone from strength to strength and ex-groupmate Kelly Rowland has become a fixture on the London club scene. Williams is now in the UK to star as Roxie Hart in Chicago in the West End, following in the footsteps of Ashlee Simpson, Denise Van Outen and Tina Arena.

There hasn't been much brouhaha surrounding the news of her casting, thanks, not least, to the greater interest in Jerry Springer's stint as Billy Flynn. But also, one suspects that DC's super-professional approach to their shiny R&B might have prevented their fans from connecting with anything other than their collective identity of soulful sass. Quite simply, nobody knows who Williams is – and it doesn't help that she shares a name with the better-known Hollywood actress.

"People just think I'm the quiet one. Or not talented," offers Williams. "Well, I wouldn't be in the West End if I wasn't talented, dummy! You know, it's just being stupid, or ignorant." It's the third day of rehearsals in London and what's obvious about Williams is that besides being gorgeous (today without make-up and wearing a simple flat cap and leather jacket), she doesn't mince her words. Destiny's Child is now simply referred to as "the group". Don't bother dipping deeper into Beyoncé, Mathew Knowles or her personal life, as she'll shoot that down with a steady glance and a snappy change of tone. She openly attributes her successes to God, while extolling the virtues of being a "homebody".

Still, she's got a dry sense of humour and is sassy enough to justify her casting as the racy Roxie. "The audition process was really fun," she gushes, revealing that Rowland had previously been up for the same part on Broadway a year ago, but had album commitments. "I don't want anyone thinking, 'she got the role because she was in the group'. No! I actually had to go and audition. They didn't just give it to me, so I'm happy that I did go for it."

Williams' latest outing is another attempt to distance herself from the good-girl persona she established after releasing her first gospel album, Heart to Yours, in 2002, followed by the similarly inspirational Do You Know in 2004. Come 2008, the singer went the secular/dance route with her third album, Unexpected. In the past year, she's chopped off her hair, started a YouTube series of video diaries littered with cheeky sister-girl advice and has taken on meaty Broadway roles such as Shug Avery in the 2007 production of The Color Purple.

"I'm a humble, down-to-earth, funny, smart, young lady," she says. "I didn't just want to be a pop star, thinking she could act. I wanted to be taken seriously. I don't want you to see Michelle from Destiny's Child when I'm on stage. I want you to see Roxie Hart." After the demise of the group, Williams went to LA to study for a year under Ivana Chubbuck, former acting coach to Halle Berry. She says she appreciates actresses like Charlize Theron, Halle and Renée Zellweger because "they know how to transform themselves and just go for it." So what kind of actress would she like to be? "Wow... I don't know yet. I've gotta do some more. I haven't put myself in a box."

Growing up with her parents and three siblings in Rockford, Illinois, she describes her former life as "country", revolving around church and family. "We'd get together all the time," she smiles. "My mother had eight brothers and sisters, so imagine that every Sunday. That's probably why I'm big on family now because we were big on family then." Although she always had a desire to sing, she studied criminal law at university for two years, before deciding to pursue music seriously. She landed a summer gig as a background singer for Nineties R&B poppet Monica before destiny came knocking. "I felt honoured that they chose me, because they went around the country looking for girls," she says. "I'm sure there were other girls who looked better, sang better, danced better and all that, but they chose me and I thank God for choosing me."

She doesn't regard herself as a diva, though. By the time DC went their separate ways, she wasn't desperate to cling on to her celebrity status. "You know, some things come to an end," she shrugs. "I don't take anything too seriously. If I took it so seriously, I'd be in a hospital somewhere not knowing how to deal with not being in a group anymore." She's even considering going back to university to finish her degree. "I still have a fascination with that side of things," she says. "But I still want to be able to work in the music industry, but with integrity. And I know that can exist."

Other plans include settling down, partly inspired by the Jay-Z/Beyoncé nuptials as well as by her strong family values. "You travel a lot, you do so much and it's like, 'who do I have to share with?'" she asks. "I go home, I'm by myself. I think I can handle a relationship. I would like someone who does what they do, and when they come home, they're themselves." She ponders the idea. "I want to have children by the time I'm 32 so that when I'm 50 they'll be 18, meaning they'll be out the house. When I'm 50 I want the house to me and my husband, ok?"

Williams is taking her time to carve her own niche and has no desire to compete with anyone other than herself – especially not with her fellow DC sisters. She played the judge on a couple of TV talent shows in the US and mentions that she's working as a producer on a pilot in LA and might record more albums. Other than that, she's quite content with whatever opportunities come her way. "I just want to let people know that I'm out here doing my thing, in the way that I want to do it," she says, finally. "I love to sing and I want people to know me for my music. But at the same time, you do have to get out there to build your profile. You know, if it's not how I want to do it, I don't do it. I think I've worked hard enough to say that."

Michelle Williams will appear in 'Chicago' at the Cambridge Theatre, London WC2 for a limited six-week run from 13 July to 23 August (0844 412 4652; www.chicagothemusical.co.uk)

Hart to heart: Who's been Roxie?

1. Renée Zellweger: Chicago, the film, 2002

Zellweger was nominated for an Oscar for her screen musical debut. Zeta-Jones took the Oscar but 'The Chicago Tribune' acknowledged that while "Zeta-Jones can belt out her numbers, Zellweger can purr hers".

2. Denise van Outen: Adelphi Theatre, London, 2001; Shubert Theatre, New York, 2002

Van Outen won the hearts of critics when she played Roxie. Her performance was hailed as a sassy triumph and she transferred to New York, where she became the toast of Broadway. The best-loved West End Roxie to date.

3. Melanie Griffith: Ambassador Theatre, New York, 2003

At 46 years of age, Griffith is among the oldest to take on the role. "She dances very little, and her baby-doll voice has only a casual relationship with melody", wrote 'The New York Times' critic Ben Brantley: "But Ms Griffith is a sensational Roxie, possibly the most convincing I have seen."

4. Brooke Shields: Adelphi Theatre, London; Ambassador Theatre, New York 2005

Shields had only nine days to prepare when she landed the role, aged 40, after successful runs in 'Grease' and 'Cabaret' on Broadway. Producers were so impressed at her West End debut that she took up the role on Broadway. The critics remained sceptical, however, 'The Evening Standard' noting: "While she possesses a goofy charm and a flair for comedy, her singing voice is no more than adequate and her dancing skills merely presentable".

5. Ashlee Simpson: Cambridge Theatre, London, 2006

Offered the role of Roxie in London and New York but plumping for the West End, Simpson is one of the youngest Roxies, aged 21. Though a little weak of voice, she was praised for the cheeky charm she brought to the part. On her opening night, Sharon Osbourne, Peaches Geldof, Coleen McLoughlin and sister Jessica were on hand to give her a tearful standing ovation.

Cindy Yau

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