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This Year's Model

Five years have passed since the funky divas updated the standard for chic female groove. Can the group--now a trio--reclaim the R&B pop crown from those they inspired?

June 15, 1997|Cheo Hodari Coker | Cheo Hodari Coker is a Times staff writer

'Here they are . . . En Vogue."

It's the night before the MTV Movie Awards and an announcer is introducing the three members of the nation's most influential female vocal group of the '90s during a show rehearsal.

Dancing on a mammoth stage in the middle of a Santa Monica airplane hangar turned concert hall, Cindy Herron, Maxine Jones and Terry Ellis are running through an elaborately choreographed performance of "Whatever," the single from "EV3," the group's first album since the 3.8-million-selling "Funky Divas" in 1992 (see review, Page 85).

While a band plays in the wings, six dancers line the back of the stage, each moving suggestively to the seductive, laid-back groove driving the song. Smoke fills the stage, adding even more ambience to the already busy scene.

Ellis, the reserved one with the explosive voice, practices a spin and then saunters around the front of the stage, looking at where the crowd will be cheering her on during the actual telecast.

Jones, who is lying nearby on the back of a revolving couch, resembles a purring cat. Herron, the group's tall ball of energy, sits on the couch until her verse begins, then stands and starts walking toward center stage, an electric fan from downstage blowing her hair.

Soon, the three line up, moving in unison and switching lead vocals effortlessly. Their teamwork seems routine, much like a 40-point performance from Michael Jordan--you almost take for granted just how good they are.

"The more you rehearse, the more it becomes a part of you, and when you can almost do it in your sleep, only then have you practiced it enough," Ellis says later, sitting in the group's small dressing room.

But En Vogue--originally a quartet also featuring Dawn Robinson--has always made success look easy.

Not only did the "Funky Divas" album bring them sales and acclaim (including three Grammy nominations), but their glamorous, fashion-conscious image also made them pop icons against which the flood of subsequent female groups--from TLC to the Spice Girls--have been measured.

But real life caught up with them during a hiatus that began when the group ended its 1993 tour. While out of the spotlight, they renegotiated their recording contracts and took a break from the limelight.

Herron, who married former Cincinnati Reds outfielder Glen Braggs in 1992, has given birth to a son, Donovan, now 3. Jones had a daughter, Jessica, in 1996. Ellis released a critically acclaimed but only modestly selling solo album in 1995. Most significantly, Robinson left En Vogue in April, after most of the new album was recorded, to pursue a solo career with Dr. Dre's Aftermath Records.

All this has raised questions in the pop world about the commercial strength of En Vogue.

With so many other female groups emerging on the scene with similar fashion-minded images and sharply honed harmonies, there are some in the industry who wonder whether En Vogue has a large audience waiting for them. In addition, there's Robinson's absence--will En Vogue have as much star power as a trio as it did as a quartet?

"I'm not worried about a doggone thing," Ellis, 30, says. "The record is going to come out and do what it's going to do.

"It would be great if it sells a lot, but if it doesn't . . . then we'll cry," she says, with winking sarcasm.

"You can't be in it for the money or the fame. You have to love singing, and keep that purity."

The women seemed more saddened by the recent departure of Robinson than concerned about it. While En Vogue prided itself on being a group with distinct, strong personalities, the three insist that it wasn't a personality conflict that led to the separation.

"Dawn is our sister, and we miss her terribly, because we've been through a lot together" says Herron, 31. "But she felt a desire to go solo that we've all felt at one time--it's just that after giving more than eight years to the group, she felt she had to do something else."

Robinson, through her manager Trudy Green from HK Management, refused comment. Instead, Green issued a statement: "Dawn has started work on her new album with Dr. Dre. Because she's concentrating fully on this project, she has chosen not to do interviews at this time. Her goal is to create an album that matters. She wishes En Vogue continued success."

Herron and the rest of the group maintain they still have positive feelings about Robinson. "Each voice added something special, and her voice was a very important part of that," Herron says. "So she's doing her solo thing like Max and I will do someday, and it's open for her to come back and she knows that. We'll all sing together again someday--I still feel that."

Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds is one person who prides himself on his knowledge of girl groups.

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