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Beyoncé: Born to be a star

She's pop's biggest diva and a potent symbol of Obama-era America. Where might she take her dazzling talent next?

For a performer who had just rewritten the history books, picking up more gongs in a single night than any other woman ever, and wowing the crowd with a dazzling medley of the hits that made her one of this decade's most influential artists, Beyoncé Knowles cut a surprisingly underwhelming figure when she delivered her acceptance speech at this week's Grammy Awards in Los Angeles.

Tiptoeing to the lectern in her fourth dress of the evening, pop's superstar of the moment fluttered her eyelashes, affected a sweetly timid smile and spoke in a voice so tiny, and so shy, that you could scarcely believe that it came from the all-conquering diva who had only minutes earlier torn up the stage with one of her famously fierce dance routines.

"Wow ... Thank you so much," she said, grasping the record sixth trophy. "I'm sorry, I'm nervous ... I'd love to thank my family for all their support, including my husband ... I love you ... And I'd like to thank all of my fans for all of their support over the years .... Goodnight, and thank you."

And that was it: a bizarrely down-to-earth speech from a supposed global superstar who had just reached the very pinnacle of her profession, selling more than 120 million records, making two of the greatest and most boisterous singles of recent times, "Crazy in Love" and "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)", and giving pop culture its most delicious new word of the past decade: bootylicious.

It was also an oddly shy speech from a brassy entrepreneur who has built a $87m-a-year (£56m) business empire and, according to Forbes, has become the world's fourth most influential celebrity, behind Angelina, Oprah, and Madonna, and ahead of the (pre-scandal) Tiger Woods.

But Beyoncé has always been a creature of paradox. Despite her incredible fame and fortune, the 28-year-old megastar manages to maintain a closely controlled private life. Despite and her edgy and dangerous appearance on stage, she seems all prim and religious off it.

Though she draws from the traditions of black music, Beyoncé appeals to fans from across the racial spectrum. Though she's a bona fide pin-up, Beyoncé still gets away with cutely telling interviewers that she's embarrassed by her weight

She may be half of American show business's greatest power couple, with husband Jay-Z, yet she retains such an air of mystery and personal privacy that it took the show-business press six months to find out about their wedding in 2008.

She may also be close friends with President Obama, performing at his inauguration last year ("the most important day of my life"), but she's never actually voiced an actual political opinion that might upset any sectors of her lucrative fan base.

In perhaps the greatest example of having her cake and eating it, Beyoncé has somehow managed, since the days of "Independent Woman" to be pegged as one of pop's quintessential feminists. Yet her hit of the moment, "Single Ladies", suggests that women can achieve happiness only if they "stick a ring on it".

Oh, and she's succeeded in retaining that somewhat misleading yet lucratively wholesome reputation despite having built her fame squarely upon a series of seductive music videos, together with the ability to shake her ample derrière, at a very high speed.

But enough complaining: you can get away with an awful lot provided you also have a bit of success, and Beyoncé and extortionate success go hand in hand. Since going solo in 2003, she has made three astonishingly productive albums which have generated almost a billion dollars and helped her to win a total of 16 Grammys from 29 nominations.

She has also starred in six films, getting nominated for three Golden Globes in the process. And on the concert scene she has developed into a star who is generally accepted to be the most vibrant live performer of her generation.

In the light of this, interviewers often marvel at Beyoncé's bonhomie, and lack of apparent diva-ness. They offer readers a breathless account of how the star, who is nominally based in New York but has homes in Los Angeles, Miami and Texas, remains perky despite a comically hectic schedule that sees her continually hopping around the world.

This week, she went straight from the chaos of the Grammys to New York, where she promoted the launch of her new fragrance, which is called Heat, and will add to financial coffers already filled by sponsors such as L'Oréal and Mattel, who count the Beyoncé lookalike Barbie as one of their best sellers.

She also signed to appear with Russell Crowe in another remake of the classic Hollywood film A Star is Born. And she announced that, during tomorrow's Super Bowl, she will front a 60-second, $2.5m commercial for her latest corporate employer: the HDTV company Vizio.

"Everyone who's ever worked with Beyoncé will say that they are blown away by her, and by how much energy she has, on and off stage," says the singer's biographer, Janice Arenofsky. "When I first saw her live, I was just riveted by the work she put in. That's the way she does everything in life: she's committed, focused and incredibly professional. It's like she was born to be a superstar."

Actually, though, it took Beyoncé Giselle Knowles, who was born in 1981 and brought up in a four-bedroom house in Houston, Texas, exactly six years to decide that she wanted to be famous. As one of two daughters of Mathew, a successful former salesman for Xerox, and Tina, a hair stylist, she was "spotted" by a school dance teacher who persuaded her to enter a talent contest, which she won singing John Lennon's "Imagine".

By the age of eight, Knowles had joined to a six-member R&B group called Girlz Tyme which appeared on a TV show star Star Search, an early 1990s precursor to The X Factor. Soon afterwards her father quit his day job and took over management of the group, which was later renamed Destiny's Child.

Rehearsing for hours each day, performing where they could, the group taught Beyoncé a lesson that has perhaps helped her to remain at the top of her game: in an era where instant stars are thrust to easy fame via TV talent shows, lasting success needs to be worked at.

It took seven long, hard years for Destiny's Child to make their big break, signing to Columbia in 1997. They then made four albums, but disintegrated in a slew of ugly lawsuits between various bandmates and Beyoncé's father, who was constantly accused of favouring his daughter.

Today, Ms Knowles (as she sometimes asks to be called) describes Mathew as a "very driven" and "tough" dad but always politely declines to discuss finer details of his management style.

Pointedly, though, it was not until rumours began circulating of her romance with the hip-hop mogul Jay-Z in 2002, whose real name is Shawn Carter, that her solo career really found its voice.

Beyoncé's 2003 debut album, Dangerously in Love, sold four million copies and took five Grammys. Her second, B'Day, in 2006, made waves. And her most recent, 2008's I Am ... Sasha Fierce, made her the world's most valuable female star.

"I often feel that she married her father, and that's been central to what she achieved," adds Arenofsky. "Jay-Z is very much like Mathew Knowles: older, strong-minded and someone who knows his way round a bank. He's an entrepreneur, and you can see that streak in a lot of her success."

After a virtually uninterrupted run of hits, recent weeks have brought Beyoncé their hiccups. Her parents announced their divorce over Christmas, and days after, she attracted flak for taking part in a concert on New Year's Eve organised by one of Colonel Ghaddafi's unlovely sons.

But it will take more than that to dent her popularity, or stop fans from buying into brand Beyoncé. Whether she's give a speech or not, the one thing she's unlikely to lose in a hurry is the ability to sing, dance, sell records, win awards and generally be, well, bootylicious.

A life in brief

Born: 4 September, 1981, Houston, Texas, to Mathew and Tina Knowles.

Education: High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston.

Family: Married Shawn Corey Carter, aka Jay-Z, in April 2008.

Career: Came to prominence as a member of Destiny's Child in the 1990s. In 2003 she released her first solo album, Dangerously in Love, which sold six million worldwide. Launched her own fashion house, Deréon, and her film career got off the ground with Austin Powers in Goldmember in 2002. She has won nearly 100 awards in her music and film careers, including 16 Grammys, six of them this week, the biggest single haul in its history.

She says: "I'm not interested in the moment. I'm interested in how this is going to sound in 30 years' time."

They say: "People tend to think there's always an image-maker behind female pop stars. That's not the case with Beyoncé. There's no element of diva or difficulty about her; she takes control of the process and makes it happen." Rob Stringer, chairman, Sony Music