Beyonce Knowles is curving right out of her Roberto Cavalli dress. Her breasts are spilling out of the top, and her famously healthy thighs are inexorably prying the hemline up.
Settling herself on a couch in a suite at the Essex House Hotel, she grabs an oversize sofa cushion and hugs it into her lap so that it covers most of her body. The gesture suggests both the pillow-talk intimacy of a girls' slumber party and a kind of self-protectiveness. Now, sufficiently buffered, she is ready to talk.
It girls don't get any It-er than Beyonce, whose last name has become somewhat superfluous in recent months. She has sold approximately 33 million albums as a member of the R&B ensemble Destiny's Child, and her solo debut, "Dangerously in Love," has been at the top of the charts since its late-June release. Its first single, "Crazy in Love," a duet with rapper Jay-Z, was the hottest song of the summer. The second single, "Baby Boy," looks as if it's headed to No. 1. She's the face of both Pepsi and L'Oreal and just gave a dazzling performance at the recent MTV Awards (she won three). And now she stars in the new comedy "The Fighting Temptations" opposite Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr., and it's safe to assume that the film's excellent, largely gospel soundtrack will also chart well.
All of which she has accomplished by the age of 22.
"I have exceeded my expectations, but the second I accomplish one thing, there's another goal for me to set, usually," she says in a soft Texas drawl.
"I eventually want to do Broadway. I want to win a Tony. I want to eventually win an Oscar, but I know that I have a long way to go. I want to do a musical. I respect Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland, and all of the people who were triple threats. . . . Now people just do one thing, and there's nothing wrong with it, but that's why I was so in awe of 'Chicago' and 'Moulin Rouge' and all these people who were such great actors who . . . really could dance and really could sing. It was amazing to me, and that's what I want to do."
Giving In to 'Temptations'
In person, Beyonce gives off an impression of luminescence. Her skin is dark copper, her hair streaked with gold-blond highlights. Her makeup is iridescent. Even what looks like a mesh for a hair weave -- visible at her hairline -- is a golden beige.
She is friendly but reserved, bubbly in the way that many women her age are, but also wary. Soon after Destiny's Child achieved international success, the group splintered amid allegations that Mathew Knowles, Beyonce's father and the group's manager, promoted her interests above the rest of the group's. Beyonce, nearly always front and center from the very start, was widely vilified on hundreds of Web sites, portrayed as that show business perennial, the ruthless young woman determined to get ahead at any cost.
Destiny's Child regrouped and continued to make hit records, but perhaps this experience explains Beyonce's reserve as well as her insistence on a degree of privacy. She has never publicly said anything about her relationship with Jay-Z, who may or may not be her boyfriend.
"Being a celebrity, there are things about it that's really wonderful. I'm able to meet a lot of great people that I've always admired. I'm able to perform at these places in front of all these wonderful people," she says. "But it's hard to have privacy. In general, people have a tendency to judge people, to be critical. But it's 10 times worse when you're a celebrity. . . . And I grew up in this. When I was 17 years old, they had adults, grown people, who had such strong opinions about me. And I was a kid. That's a hard thing to have to go through.
"But it's worth it when you love what you do. And I love performing. I love writing music. And I do love making movies, so those moments outweigh the little things that I've now learned to get a thicker skin and deal with it."
As she talks, she momentarily forgets her reserve and begins cracking her knuckles. She hits three before she catches herself. "Oh, I'm sorry. That was gross!" she says with a laugh.
Her first acting gig in MTV's "Carmen: A Hip Hopera," a rather silly production in which Bizet's femme fatale was contemporized as a dyed-blond hootchy mama who taunts men with lines like, "See this is Carmen, curves like a cul-de-sac / Skin coffee and cream, your doughnut ain't dunkin' that." After that, she appeared in "Austin Powers in Goldmember," playing the Afro-wearing hottie Foxxy Cleopatra.
"The Fighting Temptations" is also a comedy, but not so broad, and requiring some real acting ability. Lilly, her character, is a small-town jazz singer who is spurned by the church folks because she is a single mother. "I told my agent the next role I played, I didn't even want to see the script if it was another glamorous diva," she says. "I wanted to play someone normal, with normal issues and real and natural."
Beyonce liked the script, and she was keen to play opposite Gooding. Most of all, though, she liked the director, Jonathan Lynn, perhaps best known in this country for directing "My Cousin Vinny." It was Lynn who persuaded her to take the part. "I'm still in the beginning stages of learning what I can do, so I have to trust the director who's gonna give me good direction," she says. "And I really liked him."
And because the film is driven by an ensemble cast -- including gospel and R&B stars Angie Stone, the Rev. Shirley Caesar, the O'Jays, Montell Jordan, Faith Evans and Ann Nesby as well as comedian Steve Harvey -- she didn't have the pressure of carrying the movie. "When I decide to be the star of the movie, I want to make sure that I'm really good at what I do," she says. "I want to make sure I know exactly what I'm doing, and I'm just gonna take my time because I wanna be here for a long time."
Lynn says Beyonce was highly motivated. "She's absolutely a perfectionist," he says. On the first day of filming, he recalls, she approached him with some direction of her own. "She took me aside quietly -- she's very much aware of the fact that she's a superstar in her own world -- and said, 'You do know, don't you, that I really want you to direct me. Don't ever finish a setup until you know that you've got what you wanted from me. Make sure that you get what you want.' "
After Beyonce had signed on, one of the screenwriters suggested removing Lilly's illegitimate child from the story. "We sent it to Beyonce, and she said, 'If you don't put that back the way it was, I'm not doing the movie.' So we put it back," Gooding says.
"She loved the idea of this character and the complexity of what this woman was going through, trying to raise this son and the implications of the fact that she had the strength to raise her son without the father and still give him a foundation that would make him an upstanding citizen," Gooding says. "And it works. She's wonderful, and she's got all the nuances."
And she's got something else, Gooding notes. "She's so fricking awesome and fine!" he crows. "So if you don't like the movie you just stare at her and be all right."
She was born Beyonce Giselle Knowles, daughter of Mathew Knowles, a Xerox salesman, and his wife, Tina, a hairdresser, in Houston. By the time she was 8, Beyonce was performing in an R&B group with friends and a cousin. The following year, the group made an appearance on "Star Search," which didn't go as well as they had hoped.
"We lost, and I remember being so hurt that I couldn't hide my expression. You see it. All of us, we've got the fakest smiles" -- she laughs -- "like we were fighting back our tears. And the second we stepped foot away from the audience they started rolling down. We thought it was over. We thought our life was over."
Afterward, she says, they all went to Disney World. "And the second we went to Disney World, we forgot about 'Star Search,' " she says. "It ended up being a learning experience, because it's reality -- you don't win everything."
Mathew Knowles eventually assumed management of the group -- Beyonce, her cousin Kelly Rowland and two other girls, LeToya Luckett and LaTavia Roberson -- and Tina Knowles became their stylist. They continued performing around Houston and eventually christened themselves Destiny's Child. In 1997 they signed with Columbia Records. Their self-titled debut album went gold. Their second, "The Writing's on the Wall," sold even better, spurred by the success of the singles "Bills, Bills, Bills" and "Say My Name."
But their success story was not to be a happy one. In December 1999, Roberson and Luckett sought to relieve Mathew Knowles of his duties as their manager. After that, they quickly were dropped from the group, replaced by Michelle Williams and Farrah Franklin. They filed a lawsuit accusing Mathew Knowles of breach of partnership duties and breach of fiduciary duties. Moreover, they alleged, "Any efforts by Plaintiffs or their parents to monitor or question Mr. Knowles were squelched through intimidation, threats or accusations."
News of the lawsuit was quickly followed by the development of a phenomenon that can be best described as Beyonce-hating. "It was really crazy because I was 17 and I had hate Web sites," Beyonce says. "I was just like, what's wrong with these grown people, they're like crazy. It was hard then. I'm not even gonna say it wasn't. It was very hard.
"I didn't take it personal -- well, I don't now," she adds. "Society doesn't want to believe that girl groups can get along. . . . They always blame it on one person. It's always a scapegoat."
The case was eventually settled out of court, but the drama wasn't over: Destiny's Child parted ways with Franklin less than eight months after she was brought in. The Knowleses claimed that she missed performances and rehearsals. In interviews, Franklin alleged that she had been instructed to go to a tanning salon and darken her hair in order to make Beyonce stand out. Destiny's Child was now a threesome, and after a radio deejay joked that the group's dwindling population was like the television show "Survivor," Beyonce co-wrote Destiny's Child's 2001 hit of the same name.
After that song was released, Luckett and Roberson again filed suit, alleging that its lyrics violated the settlement for their first suit, which bars all parties from making disparaging remarks about each other. That suit was also settled out of court.
Beyonce found that her faith in God helped her through the contentious times.
"The thing that keeps me centered and grounded is knowing that I'm always protected and that God is in control of certain things," she says. "Even the name of our group, Destiny's Child, we got out of the Bible, and 'Destiny' represents God, and 'Child' -- we feel like we're children of God's.
"We didn't say 'Children' because we feel like we represent one. I feel like I'm centered, and I know definitely God is protecting me and weeding out people that don't need to be in my life. 'Cause it is amazing how certain things happen. There's no other way of explaining it but God."
On Her Own
Destiny's Child's three members have all released solo albums since the group's last collaboration. When the time came to record hers, Beyonce left most of her family behind in Houston and set herself up in a Miami hotel. "I wanted to be around the ocean. And I basically stayed at this hotel; downstairs was the studio, and that's what I did. I went from upstairs to downstairs to around the corner to work out, back to the hotel. And I had the best time.
"With this album, I wanted to grow artistically as an artist and as a writer," she says. "It really was experimental. . . . Everything I wanted to say, any chord I wanted to play or sing, I did, any weird, strange minor harmony. Every weird lyric that didn't make sense I sang. And eventually after I finished doing all of these songs, I picked the ones that I wanted on my album."
Her collaborators included reggae dancehall crossover sensation Sean Paul -- "He's really a great performer, his voice and everything," she gushes -- as well as Luther Vandross, OutKast's Big Boi, and Missy Elliott. She has been working with Elliott since she was 15. "When you get two women in the studio that are both producers that admire each other's work, it's really a great experience," she says.
But the person who had the biggest impact on the album is the guy who may or may not be her boyfriend. Jay-Z appears on two songs, "Crazy in Love" and "That's How You Like It," and co-wrote two others.
"I worked with Jay-Z on his album, so I asked him to do the same," Beyonce says. "We work really well together in the studio. Hip-hop and R&B always is a great collaboration. . . . There's a male point of view, and a female point of view. Men relate; women relate. He's one of the best rappers, I think."
That's about all she'll say about Jay-Z.
"I feel like because I sing and because I dance and act and I write music doesn't mean things that a stranger would ask me I have to tell them," she explains. "But I'm very comfortable with everything in my life. I just like to keep certain things private."
And you can't blame her, particularly in the wake of an interview Jay-Z gave to Playboy last April. Asked about his relationship with Beyonce, Jay-Z said: "We're not engaged or anything, by the way. We're just cool. We're just friends. We don't really, ah, know each other like that."
Which was not too bad. Then, asked whether his friendship with Beyonce is comparable to his friendship with rapper Memphis Bleek, he replied: "No, Beyonce's a woman. A very attractive woman. But we're just friends for now. Me and Bleek, we're tighter. . . . He's been with me since 1994. Between Beyonce and him? Beyonce's got to go."
Asked questions she doesn't want to answer, Beyonce is more diplomatic. Is she in love? "I'm in love with many things," she says with a gentle laugh.
Certainly, her solo album is about love. "Because I'm older now, I just talked about something that everybody feels, and that's love," she says. "I wanted to do something timeless. And I wanted to do something more vulnerable. Because I wrote so many songs that talked about strength and being powerful that I think people lost touch with [the fact that] I could get hurt, and I could fall in love, and I can feel things that everyone else goes through."
Planning a Reunion
While recording the soundtrack for "The Fighting Temptations," she got to spend some time in the studio with legendary R&B ensemble the O'Jays. "I was listening to them work together. And they've been in the group so long, and I love that. I hope for us, Destiny's Child, to be like that. I was just sittin' back like, that is how it's supposed to be."
Last month, Destiny's Child played a show in Washington, and the group plans to record an album next year. Beyonce thinks this one will be a little different, mostly as a result of her rewarding experience recording "Dangerously in Love."
"I'm definitely gonna suggest that our next record we don't rush. Because it's not gonna be an easy thing because of the things we've done individually. Now we kinda have a different sound individually, and we've learned the things that we like and what we don't like, so it won't be as easy to just come together and just agree on everything" -- she snaps her fingers. "I'm sure it's gonna be incredible and different, but it won't take two weeks."
But she wants to do more. "I hope to do a movie a year," she says. "I'm trying to get a tour together with all of the R&B women that came out this summer, because there's so many and I love everyone that came out. I don't know how easy that's gonna be, but that's what I'm trying to do. If not, I want to do a tour. A clothing line, me and my mother are working on."
She tilts her head to the side, thinking. "I have an international tour coming up. Um . . . more L'Oreal commercials. More Pepsi commercials."
She shrugs her shoulders. "Just work."