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Destiny, Manifest

The group known as much for rifts as for hits is trying to put the strife behind and make a new break--out of the teen pop pack.

July 01, 2001|GEOFF BOUCHER | Geoff Boucher is a Times staff writer

HOUSTON — To understand how good Destiny's Child looks right now--the three of them standing there, all glossed lips and honeyed limbs--you need to know what a smelly mess the rest of this city is in.

A malicious tropical storm has pounded the coast twice in recent days and left behind sagging bridges, collapsed buildings and swells of sewer water downtown. Humidity and shock have much of the populace lurching around in a soggy sleepwalk, not even bothering to step around the deep puddles anymore.

Against this brackish backdrop, the young women of Destiny's Child look criminally glamorous.

Their wattage is even more dramatic considering it's a Tuesday afternoon and they've been smiling for six hours during a marathon fashion shoot for a teen magazine. The trio is perched arm-in-arm-in-arm atop a lavish staircase in the family home of their leader, Beyonce Knowles. The man-made lake behind the house may be licking at the back door, but these ladies are the high ground of Houston, not to mention the pop music world.

The question, though, is the firmness of their footing. Can Destiny's Child survive the storms that surround it?

The group, groomed here in Houston, has sold more than 8.5 million albums in the U.S. with the high-sheen R&B groove of "Bills, Bills, Bills," "Say My Name," and "Independent Women Part I." The latest album, "Survivor," debuted at No. 1 on the pop charts.

The members are Knowles, 19, and Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams, both 20, and all are adored by the same youthful fans who have made Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys famous pop pinups.

Unlike the youth pop platoons, though, Destiny's Child enjoys major respect from music industry insiders, the same insiders who dismiss most teen-dream acts as flavors of the week.

Destiny's Child picked up two Grammys in February and, when it lost the song of the year trophy to U2, listened as Bono included the group's name on a short list of competitors for the title of biggest act in the world. Two months later, when The Times polled top record executives to rank today's most coveted acts, Bono and his mates were beaten out by Destiny's Child, who, at No. 6 on the list, also topped Celine Dion, Shania Twain and Limp Bizkit. One exec gushed that Knowles, who writes and produces songs, is the "next Diana Ross."

Music reviewers are also warming to the group. Early on, the group was lumped in with an anonymous gallery of R&B acts, but with "Survivor" the trio earned critical praise as well. "The great pop group of the moment

All this for a group that on July 18 in Albany, N.Y., kicks off its first national tour as a headlining act. It is also lining up movie and soundtrack projects, solo albums, modeling gigs, a Christmas album, sponsorship deals ... the list goes on and on. "So many people want a piece of the group right now," Williams says. "There's always the overexposure thing. I know it seems like we've done a lot, but we could have done a lot more." The media coverage rarely fails to mention the hectic schedule--and it never omits the group's wrenching and fascinating penchant for firing members.

"Drama, drama, drama," Knowles moans when asked about the group's assorted lineups. Three young women have been ejected from the group since the release of its self-titled debut album in 1998. That's a fired member every year, suggesting that Diana Ross may be a career model for young Knowles after all.

The carousel has created major spin-control problems--lawsuits, harsh media coverage, scathing "Saturday Night Live" skits and an ever-churning rumor mill. The typical whispers: The haughty Beyonce sees herself as the real star and the other members are more or less Pips sent in from a temp agency. That view goes on to paint Mathew Knowles, Beyonce's father and the group's manager, as a controlling stage parent who keeps the spotlight on his daughter and drops a hammer on anyone who crosses him.

There are some elements of truth to all that. Beyonce Knowles is, undeniably, the star of the group, and her father is demanding and tough. But, up close, the family of Destiny's Child does not seem nearly as dysfunctional as advertised.

Instead, chatting with the members and their circle is like touring the Houston landmarks that map their success story--their church, the Headliners hair salon where they played as young girls and the century-old house that will soon become their headquarters. Each has this big city's small-town congeniality, but there's also ample evidence that, lately, the weather has been pretty stormy.

Destiny's Father is fuming.

Mathew Knowles is a tall, youthful-looking 49-year-old who has the charismatic habit of tilting back his head a bit, arching his brows and greeting speakers with an interested smile. That smile, though, is nowhere to be seen at the moment. "This stuff is ancient history, I don't get it," he snaps. "Do you want to talk to Beyonce's great-grandmother too? When does this stuff go away? I don't want them in our story."

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