Beyoncé Knowles: Queen B

After leading the biggest girl group of all time, Beyoncé is now a Grammy-winning solo artist, with a burgeoning film career and a superstar boyfriend. Simon Gage discovers the steely ambition behind her Southern charm.
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"I would rather eat than go away somewhere on vacation," giggles Beyoncé , the woman who is always said to be healthily chunky - or "bootylicious", to quote one of her own songs - but who is really as slim as a biscuit up close.

"If I could stay home and eat whatever I wanted, it would be equivalent to me being on a beach and getting sun." She takes it further. "I'd rather eat than shop." The woman has clearly lost it. "Oh, absolutely!"

You'll never meet two more different people in your life than Beyoncé Knowles the person, and Beyoncé the performer. The woman dreaming of munching waffles in a cavernous New York studio wearing just a terry towelling robe with her feet pulled up under her and a pillow on her lap, as if for extra protection, has nothing in the world to do with the uncaged wild animal we see in the performances of the superstar Beyoncé. That's another Beyoncé entirely: one who regularly enters stadium arenas upside down attached by an ankle to the ceiling and thrashing wildly; one whose hips have a mind of their own; one whose Tina Turner-style show at a benefit for the grande dame made the real Turner - even in her heyday - look more like Dana at the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest. On video, live on stage, on record, to use a hip-hop expression, Beyoncé tears it up. Good and proper.

But not this Beyoncé . The one cuddling the tape recorder that I've had to put right up under her nose just to be able to catch her little-girl voice over the noise of the air-conditioning. The one without a scratch of make-up on, sipping some tea. The one so kind to everyone in the room that no one ever goes away without a hug (she once stopped a rehearsal at Wembley when she saw me leaving, just so that she could shout goodbye). This Beyoncé is a different kettle of fish altogether. Demure, in an old-fashioned way (at one point she even refuses to say the word "bitch", substituting it with "wench", and she's only talking about herself - she'd never call anyone else that), religious, coy even.

And she's always been like this. I've met Beyoncé on and off since she was a teenager in the group Destiny's Child (she's one of the few celebrities I've met who ever remembers journalists, by the way: most times if you do a return match, they look right through you, not a flicker of recognition) and she's always been the quietest person in the room. While Destiny's Child bandmates Kelly and Michelle would be joking with you, pinching you, trying to get you to dance and chasing their pocket dogs round the room, Beyoncé would always just smile sweetly. It was like she was on sleeper mode, saving every last kilowatt of energy for those stage performances.

"Something else takes over," says Beyoncé - known only as "B" to her friends - of the disparity between the nice Southern girl who loves her food and her family and that flaming minx with the hips and the thighs we see on stage. She even has a name for that other Beyoncé: she thinks of her stage persona as a woman called Sasha, and tells me how inspired she's been by the whole drag-house circuit in the States, an unsung part of black American culture where working-class gay men channel ultra-glamour in mocked-up catwalk shows. "I still have that in me," she says of the confidence and the fire you see on stage, "but there's an appropriate place and an appropriate time for things."

Born in Houston, Texas in 1981 to a medical supplies salesman and a hairdresser, Beyoncé was channelling Sasha while she was still in Start-rite shoes. With her best friend Kelly Rowlands - who would eventually move in with the Knowles family - Beyoncé would perform for the ladies under the driers at her mum's salon and was so single-minded, spending so much time and energy rehearsing that her parents decided to see how the girls - with friends LaTavia Roberson and LeToya Luckett - would fare on the talent show circuit. They fared well. So well, in fact, that Matthew Knowles, now one of the most respected managers in the business, decided to sell his house and quit his job and put all his money and energy into getting his teenage girl group started. Eventually, it paid off. After a first abortive record contract with Elektra, Destiny's Child were signed to Sony and teamed up with a production team that including Fugee Wycleff Jean for their self-titled debut, released in 1998. Their second album, The Writing's on the Wall, came out the year after and sold 12 million copies.

Then, amid accusations and lawsuits, Roberson and Luckett left the band (Luckett has, incidentally, recently had a number one album in the States, meaning that when Beyoncé's new album B'Day is released tomorrow the two former band mates will be going head to head). Michelle Williams joined the band with Farrah Franklin to replace Robertson and Luckett but, when Franklin failed to live up to the Knowles's notoriously strict work ethic, she was asked to leave, making Destiny's Child the highest-profile trio since The Supremes (they have since outstripped their 1960s counterparts to become the biggest-selling girl group of all time, with their own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame).

It was in part these "changes" in personnel that earned Matthew Knowles a reputation for being a rather hard-nosed businessman - a trait that is perhaps not too surprising in a manager who has risked his family home and security, to look after an artist who is also his eldest daughter (Knowles also launched a solo career for his younger daughter Solange but, after one unexceptional album, she settled down to start a family).

It was Knowles that drove the band into contracts with brands such as Pepsi, McDonald's and L'Oréal, and Knowles who has supported Beyoncé and her mother/stylist Tina's move into fashion with their label House of Dereon, a venture that has attracted more lawsuits, still pending, with designers who claim to have helped on the first collection. But it was Matthew Knowles' single-mindedness and his daughter's growing confidence that eventually led to clashes and rumours that she had fired her father from his role as manager.

"My dad was never fired," laughs Beyoncé , doing an impression of Donald Trump in the reality show The Apprentice. "But it took him a while to realise I was getting older. It was when I turned 19, and I started saying 'no' to things. It took him a second to adjust but if we hadn't gone through that phase, then something would be wrong."

There were rows and doors were slammed. "Because I'm so passionate and he's so passionate... people think that he tells me and I do it but I'm a grown woman and he respects that. He has his opinions and when we disagree we disagree... and we go at it. But we always agree eventually. It just took time to figure out how to get the balance between father and daughter, manager and artist."

Ask her if she felt she owed a debt of gratitude to him for risking his shirt on her teenage band and she shakes her head.

"That was his decision," she says, matter of factly. "I feel like we've been successful and I don't feel like I owe him anything. He did it because he loved me and I work with him because I love him. And because he does a great job. Not because I feel obligated."

The power of the matriarch in religious black communities, like the one she grew up in, is legendary and, revealingly, she admits: "My mom was usually the one to say 'no'. My dad's the good cop but, you know, a pair of shoes that were too expensive, a party with a bunch of kids and my mom was always, 'No!'"

It's obviously that strength of character - wrapped in a quite old-fashioned Southern sense of feminine delicacy - that has been passed on to Beyoncé. She will get what she wants but she will look every inch a lady while she's getting it.

Now, very nearly at the age of 25 (it's her birthday tomorrow, which is why her new album, released on the same day, has been called B'Day) Beyoncé is asserting her independence. She has just bought her first home in New York, which she's decorating with modern African-American art; she's just filmed her first starring role, in the musical Dreamgirls, which was enthusiastically received by the critics at Cannes, and she can certainly handle herself if you ever step into territory she's not comfortable with.

Ask her about her relationship with the rapper Jay-Z, with whom she has collaborated over the years, and she steadfastly refuses to go there. The pairing of arguably the most respected rapper in the world and the most beautiful R&B star is clearly commercial dynamite, and the paparazzi can't get enough of it. But Beyoncé has refrained from capitalising on it à la Posh and Becks. There are no his and hers fragrances yet; in fact, she has never even admitted to dating Jay-Z, though the relationship is now years old.

Her reasoning, she tells me, is that if she gives one person a little insight then the next person she speaks to will want a little more, until her whole life will be out there. And she employs the same stonewall treatment when it comes to controversial issues. She was recently ambushed by a protester from anti-fur campaigners Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) who bid in an auction for lunch with the star and then secretly filmed herself haranguing Beyoncé for using fur in her new fashion line. "I don't want to talk about it," she says flashing a "move on" kind of smile.

fter first solo album Dangerously in Love (which she not only sang on but also co-wrote and co-produced) won five Grammies, the pressure was obviously on for that notoriously tricky second outing. But, rather than spend months on it, Beyoncé went into the studio and did the whole thing in just a couple of weeks, without the knowledge of her father or her record company. Maybe it's like the fur thing: she doesn't want to discuss it. She wants to do what she wants to do and doesn't want to waste energy defending it to third parties.

Beyoncé says her quickfire recording was inspired by the character she played in Dreamgirls. The character in question is supposedly based on Diana Ross while she was in The Supremes, and plays up what is generally thought to be the manipulative, aggressively ambitious side of Ross (she was famously unhappy about the portrayal when the show opened on Broadway in the 1980s, but gave her blessing to Beyoncé playing the role when she called her during shooting).

So has Beyoncé had to be manipulative like the character of Deena Jones in order to get where she is today? She is shocked by the suggestion. "Absolutely not!" she says. "I know people like that, definitely. But I'm not. It's difficult for me to be mean."

Perhaps she has perfected the art of getting what she wants without having to resort to anything as crude as that.

Beyoncé's new album 'B'Day' (RCA) is out tomorrow