Fierce shy: Beyonce
In person, she is quietly composed. Not what you might expect from the woman who brought bootylicious to the Oxford dictionary. But Beyonce has many tricks to overcome her natural shyness, says Liadan Hynes, who meets the superstar as she launches the latest phase of her world dominanation. Photograph by Ellen von Unwerth
'I wanted this to be something that made you feel like you could conquer anything, and take over the world." Beyonce is telling me about her inspiration for her first signature perfume, Beyonce Heat, which she is launching the day we meet, but she could just as easily be laying out her manifesto for life. On the lips of Madonna or Jennifer Lopez, such a statement would sound arrogant, grasping, and tiresomely megalomaniacal; from Beyonce, it's a clarion call to "my women", as she calls her fans.
"Strength was something important, because a lot of my songs I write for my women, to empower them," she continues, waving her hands -- which are decorated with sparkling red, two-inch talons -- in the air to emphasise her point.
On stage, and in the ads for her new perfume, Beyonce is fiercely, almost aggressively confident. In person, she is soft, a quietly composed presence. It's not that she is underwhelming exactly, but meeting her doesn't induce that slightly out-of-body feeling you'd imagine you'd get with a woman who could lay claim to the title of world's biggest celebrity. In fact, it feels more like a chat with one of the girls -- she happily discusses her mom and shoes, regularly breaking into an infectious chuckle.
She's so ladylike it's hard to imagine this is the person responsible for earning the word bootylicious a place in the Oxford English Dictionary; "Bootylicious: Esp. of a woman, often with reference to the buttocks: sexually attractive, sexy; shapely."
"What makes a woman sexy?" I ask her. "I think a woman who knows who she is, is very sexy, a woman who knows what she wants. And," she pauses, "someone confident. It's just when a woman walks in, it puts you at ease when you know that they're confident and happy."
When we meet, she is suffering from a cold. She is sitting perched on a red velvet couch, a red pashmina, which she clutches to her as if chilly, thrown over her knees, and her voice is slightly hoarse. She doesn't get up; instead, we journalists individually approach and she gracefully extends her hand upwards for us to shake, inclining her head slowly to each of us and murmuring her hellos. It's rather like being greeted by the Queen.
It has been a big week and it's hardly surprising that she is a little bit under the weather. Two days ago, she enjoyed a record-breaking appearance at the Grammys that all of America is talking about. She picked up six awards, more than anyone has ever won in the one night, breaking her own record for five in one night. She also put in a typically storming performance, and gave an unprecedented declaration of love to her husband, rapper and entrepreneur Jay-Z, who was seated in the front row, while making her thank yous. On the night, he told her she smelt particularly good. "'That is Heat,'" she says she told him, with a small, satisfied smile and a signature chin wiggle and accompanying flick of her hair.
Today, she's in New York for the launch of her first signature fragrance -- Beyonce Heat. Despite having just announced that she's taking six months off, "to recharge my batteries", apparently beginning directly after her Grammys performance, as of now there's no sign of a slowdown.
She's not extraordinarily tiny in the way most celebrities are; her arms and legs are normally slim, and I'd give her a 12 in a dress. Her face is stunningly beautiful, almost surprisingly so. Her skin is flawless, and her hair -- poker straight, with an asymmetrical fringe -- is almost superhumanly shiny.
Through the hoarseness, her voice has that hypnotic melodic quality of a Southern American accent, and she speaks softly, in the manner of one who knows that everyone in the room is hanging on her every word.
She's wearing a red, one-shouldered dress, the kind of thing River Island might stock, and her waist is tiny. In keeping with the signature colours of her perfume, she is dressed completely in red and gold -- gold is her favourite colour, she tells me.
Her shoes are six-inch sandals with a tinsel-like red and gold ankle strap. On anyone else, the effect would be trannyish; on her, it's entirely appropriate.
The launch of her new perfume signals a new chapter for Beyonce. Maybe it's married life, but there's a new, quiet confidence to her that is summed up in the fact that she is launching her first perfume, and is no longer just the face of someone else's brand.
"This is my first fragrance," she says softly, her southern twang turning 'my' into 'ma'. "You know, I'm finally ready, and I've learned a lot. And I know exactly what I want. I wanted to make sure . . . if I had someone say, 'What do you want to smell like?' this is what it would be".
There's always been a dichotomy at the heart of Beyonce -- rip-roaring, thigh-shaking, leotard-wearing diva on one hand, shy, refined upper-middle-class girl on the other.
In fact, she took up singing and dancing lessons, at the age of eight, in an effort to overcome her natural reserve, "the singing," she has said, "when that began, it was definitely an escape."
Later, to deal with the inescapable attention that came with career success, she took on the slightly embarrassing stage persona of Sasha Fierce, a protective shield that allowed her a modicum of separation from the craziness of being Beyonce, and also enabled her to step outside her everyday shy, retiring self.
She has described Sasha Fierce in terms of an out-of-body experience, something beyond her control, that takes over. "There's no doubt that in Sasha mode things happen that wouldn't normally," she once commented. "A few years ago I was on stage. I had these earrings on that were designed by Lorraine Schwartz. Now, Lorraine is a good friend of mine, but they were expensive and if I wanted them I still had to pay for them. Anyway, in mid-song, one of them fell off. So I threw it out, and afterward I thought, 'What did I just do?' So we had my cousin, who is my assistant, going into the audience and saying, 'London, those are my cousin's earrings. Who has them?' and you know what, she got them back. But after, she's like, 'You know, we're gon' have to tame Sasha'."
The anecdote sums up Beyonce perfectly. That her idea of bad girl rock 'n' roll antics is throwing an earring into the audience; the modest pecuniary awareness; and the surrounding oneself with family.
Later that night, after the rounds of press interviews, Beyonce joins us again for a question-and-answer session. The short appearance sums up her essential contradiction. Before her arrival, we're treated to a 10-minute video montage of her best bits. The writhing, growling, stage Beyonce, triumphantly singing "It's Beyonce!" to the tune of a 50 Cent song, makes it all the more surprising when the woman herself shuffles shyly onto the stage pigeon-toed, knees turned inwards, an embarrassed, shy smile hovering uncertainly about her mouth.
On being asked about looking uncomfortable at a public appearance, she once replied -- "I looked uncomfortable? That's how I usually feel. When I walk into a room and everyone is looking at me, it's still embarrassing."
In the past year or so, though, the need for a made-up character to hide behind has waned. The shy girl is happy to show herself, warts and all, to her public.
At a launch party for her most recent album, I Am . . . Sasha Fierce, she mused, "I'm in a very good place right now. I'm very happy. I'm growing up, and I'm really comfortable with myself . . . I know that people see celebrities, and they seem like they're so perfect . . . But I'm a human being. I cry. I'm very passionate and sensitive. My feelings get hurt. I get scared and nervous like everyone else.
"Sasha Fierce is my alter ego, this other side of me that's almost animalistic and strong and fearless, and I have used this person to take over when I'm too scared or too shy . . . The thing that's interesting is I don't need Sasha Fierce any more, because I've grown, and I'm now able to merge the two. I want people to see me. I want people to see who I am."
Her newfound ease with herself is reflected in her fragrance. When she sprays it, "I feel feminine, I feel like a woman. I can leave a lasting impression."
I'm not normally a huge perfume person, but Heat is actually lovely -- not too overpowering, more of a fruity, spicy scent than anything too floral, or heavy.
"I like to wear fragrance all the time. Before I go to bed . . . I spray it in the morning before a show, and I wanted it to be something that was appropriate for any occasion." It's a typically split-personality comment -- somehow simultaneously conjuring up images of Marilyn Monroe naked in bed, and raising concerns for what is proper and mannerly.
The day after we meet, she attends a signing in Macy's. The store sells 72,000 bottles of her perfume during that hour. Between February and March this year, Macy's sold $3m of Heat.
The perfume was largely inspired by her mother, Tina Knowles who, Beyonce tells me, she counts alongside Barbra Streisand and Michelle Obama as one of the most inspiring women in her life.
In this interview, all questions have been pre-approved and must be scent-related, so any sort of meaningful conversation is tricky. But when I ask about Tina, Beyonce instantly relaxes, breaking out of the slightly formulaic interview manner, and leaning forward eagerly in her seat, fixing her huge, almond-shaped, almost black eyes on me.
"Fragrance is important to me, because there's so many memories attached to different scents. Growing up, I thought it was the coolest thing when my mom, she would walk by, and I remember the sound of her stilettos, and the smell of this beautiful woman walking past. And leaving the room, you could still smell her, and it made me want to hug her," she smiles, breaking off into her vaguely goofy chuckle.
"Growing up, my mother's food was my favourite. She cooked Creole food, really spicy food, and I wanted to have an element of that spice in the fragrance."
Her mother's collection of antique bottles was the inspiration for the Heat bottle -- "I played with my mother's antique bottles," she fondly recalls.
"I mean, all the women that were in my mom's hair salon, and their stories, and just being around all those great females. I think that's where I got all of my song ideas from. I just love being a woman," she giggles, her southern twang drawling out the 'loooove'.
With her newfound sense of self, the 28-year-old has of late opened up in interviews about her desire to have children in the future. Creating her perfume has also given rise to thoughts of legacy. "Wow, what an opportunity for me to have my own perfume, and my own scent, and leave that mark on the world, and I can pass that to my kids," she says, of first being asked by Coty to work on the fragrance.
Both Tina and Solange, Beyonce's younger sister attend the Heat launch party that night.
In the flesh, 56-year-old Tina Knowles is a prettier version of Tina Turner. We stand beside each other in the lift, and I take the opportunity to scrutinise her; she's wearing a shiny lycra dress, possibly the most unforgiving fabric a woman could choose, and she's flawless. She shares the same perfectly chiselled jawline, the same gentle, yet regal manner, as her elder daughter.
Beyonce was involved in every part of the process of creating Heat, and has commented that the fragrance is a true reflection of her character. What exactly does it reveal about her? I ask.
"Well, I wanted it to be something modern," she says. "Like, I'm a modern woman. Something timeless. Something also really elegant, and classy." She could be describing herself or her mother.
Younger sister Solange is a different matter. She's DJing at the party that night. Photos don't do her justice. She's an absolute beauty; tall, with coltish limbs, huge eyes and a graceful, swan-like neck, all emphasised by her shaved head. She's barefoot and braless, wearing a red and black American Apparel dress.
On entering the party, both Beyonce and her mother instantly gravitate to the DJ booth. Tina hovers in a protective, mother-hen fashion, looking on anxiously when the power momentarily goes. Beyonce, who enters the room without much fanfare, goes straight over to the DJ booth, leaps up beside her sister and gestures proudly to the crowd. After a preliminary hug, Solange largely ignores her sister, who dances by her side for a few minutes before going off to greet former Destiny's Child band member Michelle Williams.
The sisters are close. Solange, says Beyonce, was "born Sasha Fierce".
"When she was born I became the protector." Although they are both in their 20s, they seem generations apart, Beyonce is all refined, old-world charm, Solange is self-consciously cool and feisty. The Knowles sisters' attitudes to Twitter sum up their differences. Solange is an avid user, and recently ardently defended her sister, blasting Beyonce naysayers, ranting that she was sick of people expecting her to be anti-Beyonce, that she is in fact "all for Beyonce", and that those trying to stir up reports of jealousy could "kiss both our Knowles asses". It's hard to imagine her older sister telling anyone to kiss her ass. In fact, notoriously private Beyonce has said she "doesn't get Twitter".
"I like to call people, or have dinner," she has said on the subject. "My sister is the Twitter queen. She told me about twittering. But I don't get it. I feel like I'm getting really old . . . I'm like, 'What? I don't understand. Just call me.' I don't get it."
She remains similarly circumspect when it comes to sharing details of her April 2008 wedding. When she and Jay-Z got married, they barely acknowledged it for the first year, so it's something of a surprise when Beyonce's superstar husband turns up to the party. When he arrives, it's with more fanfare than his wife. Before he comes, several assistants spend half an hour fussing over floral and candle arrangements in a corner. A velvet rope is found, and an impromptu VIP area appears.
When he enters, bouncer in tow, Jay-Z marches straight past it, and over to his sister-in-law. There are big hugs for both Solange and his mother-in-law, Tina, and he stands by the DJ booth, getting especially enthusiastic for a Snoop Dogg track. He's wearing jeans and a khaki shirt, and a long set of coral beads, and he's smaller than expected, certainly not towering over his 5ft 7in wife.
The entire room turns unashamedly to stare, and there's a blinding flashing of cameras. Jay-Z glances over and our eyes meet briefly; he gives a tight smile.
The two stand side by side, his arm hovering at the small of her back, she sipping delicately on a glass of red wine. Their friend Usher arrives -- where Jay-Z is surprisingly small, he is positively titchy -- and they chat among themselves. We leave them there, facing a wall of people pointing phone cameras at them. Two of the world's biggest superstars talking to a friend, making a valiant effort to seem as if they are merely out for a regular night and a few quiet drinks.
It's an incongruous sight and truly unforgettable, like the woman herself; a star that shines despite her shyness.
Beyonce Heat will be available from selected pharmacies and department stores from this month