“Good morning,” said the receptionist, “Music World/Sanctuary.” There was a pause. “No, ma’am, I don’t.” Pause. “I don’t even know where that party is. Um-hmm. Good-bye.” She gave me an exasperated look, and the phone rang again.
It was the Thursday before the Super Bowl, and here at the Houston headquarters of pop star Beyoncé, the phones were ringing nonstop. The entire city was giddy with parties and rumors of parties, and Beyoncé, the hometown girl who was set to sing the National Anthem before the game, was rumored to be hosting the hottest party of all. Everybody in town was looking for a way in.
I was waiting to talk to Beyoncé’s father and manager, Mathew Knowles, and her mother, Tina, who is her stylist and clothing designer. Together with their daughters, Beyoncé and Solange, also a recording artist, the Knowleses have become the most successful American music family since the Jacksons. Their offices, in a three-story nineteenth-century house decorated with modern and African art, were humming; doors opening and swinging shut, employees having hurried conversations in the hallway. At one point, the receptionist got on the intercom and said firmly, “All MWEs to the conference room.” Music World employees crowded the halls, heading past the life-size cardboard cutout of Beyoncé holding a Pepsi and the dozens of framed gold and platinum albums. When all was clear, a woman walked in the front door and the receptionist said to her, “Staff meeting. Right now.” The woman hurried off. Mathew had called an emergency meeting, the receptionist explained to me.
The sense of anticipation in those charged days before the Super Bowl was palpable: Things were about to get crazy around here. Indeed, Beyoncé, who was already a multiplatinum recording artist, was about to cross the threshold to downright superstardom. It wouldn’t take much, over the next two and a half weeks, to push her. First would come her excellent rendition, in front of 89 million people, of the National Anthem, which was passionate yet respectful and also, in the wake of the halftime spectacle, the only non-idiotic performance all day. A week later she would win an astounding five Grammys. One week after that she would give a wild halftime performance of her hit “Crazy in Love” at the NBA All-Star Game. All of a sudden Beyoncé, 22, would be everywhere, in the way that Britney, Madonna, and Michael are everywhere—except that Beyoncé is talented, young, and not an accused sex criminal.
It doesn’t hurt that she is beautiful, with large eyes and a stunning smile, or that she is, as she memorably says in the words of one of her songs, “bootylicious.” Part of her wide appeal is that she is both wholesome and sexy at the same time. She’s also mysteriously pan-racial—she’s black, but with her blond locks and golden skin, she could be just about any color. Beyoncé is an adman’s dream, and she is currently the public face of Pepsi (replacing Britney), L’Oreal, and Tommy Hilfiger. As I waited at the Music World offices, I picked up two little boxes that sat on a chair next to me. Each held a blond Beyoncé doll made by Hasbro.
Beyoncé’s journey from shy Houston girl to larger-than-life superstar commodity is matched only by 52-year-old Mathew’s transformation from corporate salesman to powerful music industry mogul. He has built himself an empire on this city block in downtown Houston, where he does almost everything in-house. He manages not only Beyoncé, Solange, and Destiny’s Child, the world’s biggest girl group, but also the group’s other two members—Michelle Williams and Kelly Rowland—as solo acts, as well as three other artists. In 2002 Mathew’s label, Music World Music/Columbia, released a number one gospel album by Williams, and he recently signed soul legends the O’Jays. In the main building, Mathew manages, markets, and promotes his artists; out back sits a state-of-the-art studio, where he records them and teaches them, as he did Beyoncé, how to be stars. There’s also a big equipment- and merchandise-filled warehouse, one side of which is covered by a giant image of Beyoncé, Michelle, and Kelly, looking like superheroes, looming over the city’s skyline. (Last October Mathew’s management operation was bought by the London-based company Sanctuary for $10 million, though Mathew will continue to oversee his acts.)
After Mathew sat down to talk in his second-floor office, it was only a few minutes before his secretary came in and told him he had an important call, and he asked me to wait outside—the first of three times he would do so. As I waited, I looked at the walls lined with even more gold and platinum albums and dozens of articles about Destiny’s Child. Just outside his door there was a 1987 letter from Xerox congratulating him on being the Salesman of the Year three out of the previous four years. After a couple of minutes he stuck his head out, invited me back in, and asked his secretary, “Can you get Beyoncé on the phone? Tell her it’s urgent.”
When his daughter called back, I sat and listened while Mathew stood, leaning against his desk, talking to his daughter, and looking out the window. The five-minute conversation concerned a potential problem with Beyoncé’s upcoming tour. Mathew spoke confidently and deliberately, laying out his case for the action he wanted to take, and then said, “That’s my thought, but ultimately it’s your final decision.” After a long pause, he ended with, “So, I have your approval?” Then he said good-bye.
“She’s my daughter, client, partner,” Mathew said of the woman whom he has helped to sell more than 40 million albums. Indeed, recently they became partners in property; the two own this block and are looking at others to buy. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship that has come a long way since she was a little girl. The father wouldn’t be where he is today without the daughter and vice versa.
It wasn’t immediately apparent to Mathew and Tina that their eldest daughter was an entertainment prodigy. In fact, they say, when Beyoncé was a child, she was so shy she would walk into a room and try to be invisible. But she loved to dance, so her parents put her in a dance class, hoping she’d make some friends. Beyoncé’s dance teacher heard her sing, and in 1989, with Mathew and Tina’s permission, she entered her in a school talent show. Onstage, Beyoncé was outgoing and self-assured; Mathew and Tina, sitting in the audience, were shocked. “Tina and I looked at each other,” Mathew told me, “and said, ‘Is this the Beyoncé we know?’” Beyoncé won and soon went on to win a Sammy Davis Jr. Award, or Sammy, at a citywide talent show. In a video from the latter event, Beyoncé, wearing a blue sequined dress similar to Dorothy’s in The Wizard of Oz, stepped carefully sideways, left and then right, as she sings “Home,” from the musical The Wiz, eyes upward. After she won, she clutched the podium and spoke in a little voice: “I would like to thank the judges for picking me, my parents, who I love—I love you, Houston!” Then she blew a big kiss. It was the perfect nexus of innocence and showbiz, a line she continues to walk to this day.
Beyoncé won many more contests, and soon she was asked to be the lead singer for a dancing and singing act called Girls Tyme, more than a dozen eight- and nine-year-old girls who would eventually include the other three original members of Destiny’s Child: LaTavia Roberson, Kelly Rowland, and LeToya Luckett. Girls Tyme performed elaborate routines to pop and contemporary R&B at schools and talent shows. In 1990 a woman named Andretta Tillman, a friend of one of the adult founders of the group, invested some money in the girls and eventually began managing them. When the girls weren’t rehearsing, they watched videos of the Jackson 5 and the Supremes, aping the dance steps, admiring the outfits, and dreaming. They made videos of their routines and then critiqued them. Tina, who owned a hair salon, did the girls’ hair, and they ran through their routines at her shop.
In 1992 Girls Tyme—by then with only seven members—made it all the way to the finals on Ed McMahon’s Star Search, where they lost. The defeat was devastating, and not just because the band that beat them looked like A Flock of Seagulls. They had been convinced that a Star Search win would lead to a record deal. It was at this point, Mathew says, that he decided to help his daughter achieve her dream. Without any experience, he took the leap into the music biz. “Back then I knew ninety percent of what I needed to know because of my business acumen,” he told me. “I knew from corporate America how to establish relationships and how to get to the decision maker.” Mathew uses the phrase “corporate America” often, as if to refer to a time in a previous life.
Mathew got his entreprenuerial spirit, he says from his father, a Gadsden, Alabama, truck driver who sold scrap metal on the side, and his mother, a housewife who sold quilts. Mathew sang in high school and went to college at Fisk University, in Nashville, where he graduated with degrees in business administration and economics. He and Tina met in Houston and married in 1979; they had Beyoncé in 1981 and Solange five years later. Mathew became a salesman—life insurance, telephone equipment, postage meters, copiers, and finally, high-dollar hospital equipment such as CT scanners and MRI machines. The Knowleses did quite well and lived in a six-bedroom house in Houston’s fashionable Third Ward among other upper-middle-class black families. They went to church on Sundays and sometimes gathered around the piano and sang while Dad played.
After the Star Search loss, the middle-aged corporate salesman sat down and considered something that thousands had considered before him: how to make it in music. He enrolled in a class in artist management at Houston Community College, but he found a much better blueprint in the story of Berry Gordy, the president of Motown Records, who had created one of the great music-business success stories in the sixties. Gordy had done everything in-house at his Hitsville studios and offices, which sat on one city block in Detroit—managing his acts, recording them, releasing their records, promoting them, and marketing them. Unlike most labels, Motown actually developed its artists, teaching them how to move gracefully, dress glamorously, talk to an audience, walk across a room. Gordy helped create individual styles for every artist. When they walked onto a stage, they were stars. Gordy ran Motown like a family, even employing his own siblings. Most important, he controlled everything. He was the father, and father knew best.
To say that Mathew took control of Girls Tyme would be an understatement. According to Lornonda Brown, Tillman’s brother, Mathew threatened to take away Beyoncé, the obvious star, if Tillman didn’t agree to let him co-manage. Tillman, of course, relented. “She knew she had to,” said Brown. “Mathew’s daughter was his trump card.” Tillman had been diagnosed with lupus, and as the disease slowed her down, Mathew took over more responsibilities (she died in 1997). He changed the group’s direction and image, trimming it from seven to four members—Beyoncé, Kelly (whose mother, a nanny, deposited her at the Knowleses so often that she eventually moved in and became their ward), LaTavia, and LeToya—and concentrated on making them better singers. He hired vocal coaches to help with the harmonies and melisma of modern R&B. He had a deck built in the family’s back yard for the girls to practice on. He set up what he called Boot Camp—three months of vocal and dance lessons in the summer. He hired a model to show the girls how to walk in high heels, and he made them sing while jogging through Memorial Park so they could perform without tiring. He himself taught them how to present themselves, what to say between songs, and how to do an interview. “It’s critical to nail it in the media,” he told me. Image, Mathew knew from his jobs in corporate sales, was just as important as reality (though he’d make his share of mistakes, such as changing the group’s name—first to Somethin’ Fresh and then, oddly, to Cliché).
Perhaps most crucial of all, Mathew developed a strategy. “When you sell a product,” he told me, “you first have to design and build it, but also you have to figure out the needs of the customer. When we put the group together, we had a plan. We figured out our demographic, our customers, our imaging, what type of songs we’re going to sing. It’s not by accident that we write songs like ‘Independent Women’ and ‘Survivor’—female-based empowerment songs. That’s our customer base.” It was no longer just about singing and dancing, or even entertaining. The girls had to believe in themselves and their product at all costs. They had to sell themselves.
By 1994 Mathew was mailing out dozens of packages full of tapes, bios, and photos to record labels. “My heart was not in corporate America,” he said. All of his work seemed to pay off when he got Columbia A&R rep Teresa LaBarbera Whites to fly to Houston for a special showcase. On the video from the performance, you can hear his voice stopping the girls mid-song. They had gone swimming before the meeting, and as he had warned, their noses were stopped up. “I don’t really care if Teresa is here,” he says angrily. “See the price you’re paying for going swimming the other day?” They didn’t get signed. A few months later they inked a production deal that led to a contract with Elektra Records in 1995, but that too eventually fell through.
By that time, Mathew had become obsessed with the group. He left his job selling medical equipment, absolutely certain that his gamble would pay off. Tina had to make up for the lost income by working longer hours at her hair salon, working so late she’d go to sleep on the salon couch, then get up in the morning and begin cutting hair again. The financial and emotional strain on the marriage was too much, and the couple separated. Tina took the girls and moved into an apartment. They sold their home and one of their cars. The dream seemed over.
But not in Mathew’s mind. Like any decent salesman, he remained confident, refusing to admit defeat; he believed in himself, his daughter, and his product. And so he pestered LaBarbera Whites again and got another audition, in 1997. This time the girls flew to New York City, and this time they didn’t go swimming. They got the deal.
Soon afterward, Mathew and Tina got back together. To seal their good fortune, they picked a new name for their daughter’s group, this quartet of girls that seemed, after all that hard work, chosen. Tina pulled out a Bible and found the word “destiny.” Mathew added “child.”
“Someone just called for Beyoncé,” Vernell Jackson said, laughing. “This woman said, ‘I think I rang this number in error, but is Beyoncé there?’ No, Beyoncé’s not here.” She laughed again. “It happens almost every day.”
Vernell manages Headliners, Tina’s eight-seat salon on Bissonnet, near Rice University. She is also the go-between for crazed fans and Destiny’s Child. She pulled half a dozen letters and packages from behind the front desk, addressed to Beyoncé, Tina, and the group in care of the salon. Then she produced a white canvas the size of a coffee-table book with a pencil drawing of Beyoncé, though it looked more like Cher. There was a handwritten letter from the artist taped to the frame. “He loves her,” Vernell explained, “because he saw her in his dream.”
Headliners, which until 1995 was on Montrose Boulevard, was the girls’ unofficial stage, where they learned to be entertainers. Every week they would work out their routines to an audience of captive women under hair dryers. While Tina cut hair, Mathew would direct the girls, and afterward he’d ask the ladies for criticisms and comments. Then the girls would do the routine again. “The customers sometimes didn’t want to listen,” remembered Tina. “They’d be singing and dancing, and Mathew would tell them to make eye contact with the customers. The girls would call out, ‘Put your hands together!’ Customers would be rolling their eyes. That was a tough audience.” Solange cut her entertainer’s teeth here too, dancing solo for customers when she was only four.
It’s been a while since Tina cut hair at Headliners. She still goes there to get hers done, but she spends most of her time at her Music World office. While Mathew is intense, Tina is calm and earthy. She likes to wear jeans when working; for our interview at her office she was also wearing a black sweater and tan suede boots.
She was born Celestine Beyoncé in Galveston in 1954. Her father was a longshoreman and her mother a seamstress who tailored clothes for others and also made them for her family. Tina loved Motown and even had a singing group in high school called the Veltones, which was modeled on the Supremes. She designed their outfits and her mother made them. She loved Motown’s music, but she also loved the style, the berets on the Jackson 5 and the gowns on the Supremes. “I couldn’t wait to see what the Supremes had on,” she told me, “how they had their hair. All those groups were talented, but they had the whole imaging thing too. They looked like stars.”
After her girls were born, she would often go to thrift stores and buy clothes, then customize them for her kids. It wasn’t as though she needed to; Mathew made good money. She just liked to do it. She worked as a beautician and makeup rep, and in 1990 opened Headliners, which, at the time, was one of the biggest salons in Houston, with two dozen chairs. Tina started grooming Destiny’s Child, and later she began designing outfits for them too. Hip-hop culture was all baggy pants and backward baseball caps, and Tina wanted Destiny’s Child to be different. “I always wanted the girls to be glamorous,” she told me. “But for the longest time, nobody at Columbia got us. They’d say, ‘Tina, these girls, they’re so Texas. Can you lay off the makeup and the big hair and high heels?’ But I love big hair and makeup. We here are different than anywhere else in the world. Women here are so well put together.” She worked as hard as Mathew did at getting the girls’ look established, sometimes laying their costumes out on the floor of the salon and working into the night. She has dressed them like Boy Scouts and cowgirls, making them look sexy but glamorous—but never, as the rappers might put it, “stank.” “You can dress sexy without going too far,” Tina said. “I grew up in the seventies. I don’t see anything sexual about a nice flat stomach.” Tina’s design for Beyoncé’s Super Bowl outfit was a tasteful white forties-style skirt and suit jacket; her design for her Grammy appearance one week later was a gold, old-Hollywood-style gown.
“She’s a style icon,” Donatella Versace recently said of Beyoncé. “Her sense of style is perfect for today.” Of course, Versace was complimenting Tina too. Mother and daughter are partnering for an upcoming clothing line, Touchacouture, which Tina says will be out later this year. She will be doing less designing and more culling from other designers for Destiny’s Child, but she’ll still accompany them on tour. Though even there she’s never far from her more traditional family role. In January, while she was on tour with Beyoncé in Europe, a friend of Solange’s was killed, and Tina flew home. “When my seventeen-year-old calls me and says, ‘Mom, I’m sad,’ I have to get on a plane and go.”
She doesn’t have to do that too often. While Beyoncé has been the family project since she was a little girl, Solange is the more independent daughter, the oddball kid sister who seems to enjoy doing things on her own. (In March she surprised many people by jetting to the Bahamas and marrying her boyfriend.) At the Music World studio, I watched her record vocals for her next album (her first, Solo Star, came out last year on her father’s label) and then sit and work on the lyrics. She was like any other high school senior absorbed in writing poetry, only hers was, literally, to her own soundtrack. Solange is waifish and thin, with long hair almost to her waist. At seventeen she is cute on the verge of beautiful. She doesn’t have Beyoncé’s curves, but she says she doesn’t compare herself with her sister anyway. “My family always called me the rebel,” she told me. “I’d always dress differently. I never defined myself by my sister. Beyoncé went along with Mom’s styling because she was so beautiful. I have my own musical ideas, and marketing ideas, and imaging ideas.” Her self-produced second album, she said, has an Alicia Keys-Norah Jones soul-jazz feel. If Solange succeeds, it will be by following young, independent women like them. “I have arguments with my dad about the meaning of success,” she said about the man who built her the grandest of sandboxes. “His meaning: at the end of the day, having something to show for how hard you worked—a wonderful house and wonderful family. My meaning: At the end of the day, I want to feel good about what I’m doing. No regrets. I want to love what I do.”