Beyonce: The Billboard Cover Story
Fans are still getting to know Sasha Fierce, Beyoncé's musical alter ego, formally introduced on the singer's 2008 album, "I Am...Sasha Fierce."
Most probably don't know, however, that the singer/songwriter has been friends with Fierce since elementary school.
Manager and father Mathew Knowles will never forget the moment he first met Fierce. A 7-year-old Beyoncé was entered in a talent search open to Houston elementary and middle school students. The song she sang? John Lennon's "Imagine." "Beyoncé was the youngest," Knowles says. "She got up onstage and when she was finished, she received a standing ovation. Her mother [Tina Knowles] and I looked at each other and said, 'That can't be our Beyoncé. She's shy and quiet.' "
Twenty-two years later, that simmering brew of shy, quiet talent peppered with fierce determination and ambition is at a boiling point. The former frontwoman of Destiny's Child has come into her own, enjoying one of the best years of a still-evolving solo career.
On Oct. 2, Beyoncé will add one more honor to her array of accolades when she accepts Billboard's Woman of the Year Award. The presentation will be made at Billboard's Women in Music brunch in New York, recognizing the year's top 30 women in the music business.
"Beyoncé is a multiplatinum artist and a multitalented woman who clearly embodies the qualities of excellence and achievement that the Billboard Woman of the Year Award was created to honor," Billboard editorial director Bill Werde says. "She has not only influenced pop culture with her hit songs and her signature dance moves, but has inspired women everywhere with her unique style, business savvy and dedication to charitable causes."
In the past 12 months alone, Beyoncé has accomplished several career milestones. She not only sang "American the Beautiful" during the opening ceremony of the 2009 presidential inauguration, she also sang the Etta James hit "At Last" as President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama danced their first dance at the Neighborhood Inaugural Ball.
In March Beyoncé launched her worldwide I Am...tour, which has grossed some $53.5 million to date, according to Billboard Boxscore. She's also the star and executive producer of the 2009 film "Obsessed," which opened at No. 1 and has grossed more than $68.3 million in North America, according to Nielsen EDI.
"I Am...Sasha Fierce" debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 when it was released by Columbia Records in November. The album, the singer's third solo set, has spun off a string of Billboard Hot 100 hits: "If I Were a Boy," "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)," "Halo," "Ego" and "Sweet Dreams."
After accepting MTV's video of the year award for her iconic "Single Ladies" video a few weeks ago, Beyoncé gained a new level of fan and industry respect at the Sept. 13 event when she unselfishly brought Taylor Swift back onstage to complete the acceptance speech cut off by Kanye West's surprise interruption.
Beyoncé also continued her commitment this year to ongoing philanthropic projects and entrepreneurial activities from fashion to fragrances.
"She's incredibly creative," says Rob Stringer, chairman of Sony Music Label Group. "She also works phenomenally hard to create the opportunities she has. People tend to think there's always an image-maker behind female pop stars. That's not the case with Beyoncé. There's no element of diva or difficulty about her; she takes control of the process and makes it happen. She's grown beautifully in that role."
Beyoncé's creative skills and hard work date back to that pivotal talent show. Born Sept. 4, 1981, in Houston, the young artist-in-training grew up listening to a variety of musical influences, including Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross and Rachelle Ferrell. She and friend LaTavia Roberson were only 9 years old when the group that led to Destiny's Child was initially established in 1990 with Mathew Knowles as manager. The duo expanded into a trio after Kelendria "Kelly" Rowland joined in 1992. A year after that, the group became a quartet with the addition of LeToya Luckett.
Throughout the course of several name changes -- Girls Time, the Dolls and Cliché -- the group rehearsed and played everything from luncheons and fashion shows to church gigs and Tina Knowles' hair salon. Those experiences not only honed Beyoncé's talent and work ethic, they also planted the seeds for the singer's future business acumen.
"I think we certainly played a part," Mathew Knowles says. "Tina had her own salon and there were many nights when she came home Tuesday through Saturday at 7 or 8. And I was working hard at Xerox. I think all of the girls saw that drive. They saw our successes and also our failures."
The fledgling Destiny's Child experienced its share of disappointments before grabbing the gold ring. The act competed on "Star Search" and lost. However, the exposure led to a record/production deal through Elektra Records.
The relationship with Elektra ended after two years, without a record. But things began clicking after Knowles approached an earlier suitor, Columbia Records. Destiny's Child signed with the label in 1997.
Destiny's Child scored its first No. 1 when "No, No, No" -- the first single from the act's 1998 self-titled debut album -- reached the pinnacle of Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.
Two follow-up singles didn't fare as well. But the stage was set for a platinum-certified future when Destiny's Child teamed with producer Kevin "She'kspere" Briggs. The result was the group's first top five pop hit and second R&B chart-topper in 1999: "Bills, Bills, Bills."
The act's second album, "The Writing's on the Wall," yielded two more hits ("Say My Name" and "Jumpin', Jumpin' "), opening the door to a storied career.
"There are moments that just stick out from working with the group in the beginning," says Lisa Ellis, former president of Sony Urban Music. "Beyoncé was always so brave and prepared to be the star she is today, even at 16 and 18 years old. She's always pushing the envelope and very competitive but with humility and kindness; the epitome of a professional and human being."
The year after "Wall" brought a lineup change as well as a turning point in Beyoncé's career. Destiny's Child now was a trio, with the departure of original members Roberson and Luckett and the addition of Michelle Williams. And the group exploded in popularity thanks to the 2000 release of its next single, "Independent Women Part I."
The song, used as the theme in the film "Charlie's Angels," spent 11 weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100 and also marked Beyoncé's emergence as a songwriter. She added production credits to her growing résumé with the group's third album, "Survivor," released in 2001.
In 2004, the act released "Destiny Fulfilled" and, a year later, the trio disbanded, closing a significant chapter in girl-group history. To date, Destiny's Child has sold 16.9 million albums in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan. (Worldwide, according to Sony, Destiny's Child and Beyoncé cumulatively have sold 100 million units, including albums, physical and digital singles, and music DVDs).
During the three-year hiatus between the "Survivor" and "Fulfilled" albums, each of the members of Destiny's Child recorded solo albums.
Beyoncé's first solo set, "Dangerously in Love," arrived in 2003. Its popularity was powered by her stiletto-heeled gyrations in the video for the lead single, "Crazy in Love."
That first solo album extolled the joys of love, but the singer/songwriter's second solo release, the 2006 set "B'Day," centered on the theme of female empowerment. With her single "Irreplaceable," Beyoncé introduced into the popular lexicon the memorable phrase, "To the left, to the left," which translates to "I can find someone else. I don't have to stay in this dead-end relationship."
"I have to commend Beyoncé's vision for doing that song and including it on the record," says Mikkel S. Eriksen, one-half of the production duo Stargate. "It was a big risk because the song sounded very different from what was going on at the time and with the other material on the album. I don't think any of us knew it would be one of the biggest records of her career."
Producer Rodney Jerkins, who worked with Destiny's Child on the hit "Say My Name," witnessed Beyoncé's ability to multitask without dropping the ball while recording the "B'Day" album.
The singer had four studio rooms going simultaneously during a recording session in New York: Jerkins was in one while producers Sean Garrett and Swizz Beatz were housed in two other rooms. Beyoncé was in a fourth room cutting background vocals.
As Jerkins recalls, among the songs she was working on were "Déjà Vu," "Ring the Alarm" and "Upgrade You."
"It freaked me out," he recalls. "It wasn't the fact that she had four rooms going but that she was able to pull off the personality and emotion on each song, going from a ballad to a ghetto hood beat. Songs are like mini-movies to me, and no one can act in four movies at a time. But if you listen to those songs, you can hear the tonality and what she had to do to attack it. Not too many people can wake up and do that -- and do that consistently."
"What people may not know about her is that besides being such an accomplished performer, she's a great producer," adds Big Jon Platt, president of West Coast creative for EMI Music Publishing. "She also has some of the best A&R instincts I've ever come across."
Beyoncé's creative instincts and multitasking skills provide the underpinnings for her other pursuits, including acting, business ventures and philanthropy.
She made her acting debut in the 2001 made-for-TV production "Carmen: A Hip Hopera" for MTV. That was followed in 2002 by her first feature film, co-starring as Foxxy Cleopatra opposite Mike Myers in "Austin Powers in Goldmember." Since then she's appeared in five more feature films: "The Fighting Temptations" in 2003; "The Pink Panther" in 2006, with Steve Martin; the hit musical "Dreamgirls" in 2006, with Jennifer Hudson, Jamie Foxx and Eddie Murphy; "Cadillac Records" in 2008, in the role of Etta James; and her most recent, "Obsessed," released earlier this year.
On the latter two films, Beyoncé also served as executive producer through her own company, Parkwood Films, named after the street she grew up on in Houston.
Beyoncé previously displayed her business skills in 2004 when she and her mother Tina established the production company Beyond Productions. A year later, the pair launched their first fashion collection, named House of Dereon in honor of the singer's maternal grandmother, Agnez Dereon. Since then, two other collections have been spun off: the junior lifestyle line called Dereon and the young girl's division Dereon Girls.
Beyoncé's endorsement opportunities include alliances with Pepsi and L'Oreal along with Tommy Hilfiger's True Star fragrance and Emporio Armani's Diamonds. Those fragrance forays set the stage for the development of Beyoncé's own Coty fragrance, which will be unveiled in early 2010.
Beyond the music, acting and business ventures, philanthropy is one of Beyoncé's passions.
The Survivor Foundation -- formed by Beyoncé and Kelly Rowland together with the Knowles family -- has donated more than $2.5 million for transitional housing for Hurricane Katrina victims and storm evacuees in the Houston area. Among the foundation's additional initiatives is the Knowles-Rowland Center for Youth in Houston.
On her current I Am...world tour, Beyoncé joined forces with the General Mills brand Hamburger Helper and the charity Feeding America to help deliver more than 3.5 million meals to local food banks through fan donations. The singer also devotes time to the Make a Wish Foundation, meeting and talking with children during her tour stops. She underscores her songs' female empowerment themes through her work with GEMS (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services).
Yet in all of her activities, Beyoncé is always in control, former Destiny's Child member Williams says.
"An important lesson I learned from her is how to be firm and make sure your yes means yes and your no means no," Williams says. "If she doesn't want to do it, you can't manipulate the situation with her. It's about making decisions that are right for you, that are right business-wise, that won't take you where you [don't] want to go or hurt you five or 10 years from now."
Sony's Stringer adds, "Other artists pretend they have control over what they do. Beyoncé really does. She's growing as an artist more rapidly than anyone thought."
Already a veteran at the age of 28, Beyoncé tied the record for the most Grammys won in a single year by a female artist when "Dangerously in Love" earned her five statuettes in 2004, including best contemporary R&B album and best R&B song for "Crazy in Love" featuring Jay-Z. Her "B'Day" also garnered a best contemporary R&B Grammy in 2007. That same year, Beyoncé became the first woman in the history of the American Music Awards to receive its International Artist Award. Her 2007 concert DVD "The Beyoncé Experience Live," featuring her all-female band, has been certified three-times platinum by the RIAA.
This year, Forbes listed Beyoncé at No. 4 on its list of the 100 Most Powerful and Influential Celebrities, No. 3 on its tally of the top-grossing musicians and No. 1 on the countdown of top Best-Paid Celebrities Under 30, estimating her earnings in 2008-09 at $87 million.
Soon back on the road for the next leg of her worldwide tour, Beyoncé shows no signs of slowing down. And that will keep fans anticipating what the next creative moves will be for Beyoncé/Sasha Fierce.
And in the view of her father, what does the future hold for Beyoncé?
"I can't predict," Knowles says. "But I hope she will be enjoying the fruits of her labor with a continuing mix of music, film, corporate projects; helping others as she does now; and moving into other endeavors like maybe painting. Most people don't know this, but she's a really good painter. Family is also important to her. I see her having a long-lasting career but hopefully not working as hard as she is now."
Whatever Beyoncé does next, the one constant will be her passion.
"That's why she's able to do all of this," Knowles adds. "It's the talent, drive, determination and passion. You can't successfully develop or fulfill any strategies unless you have that."