As a child, she watched Whitney Houston on TV.
That was the reason Kelly Rowland began singing, first in her Atlanta living room to “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” then later in the church choir and at local competitions. She watched R&B trio TLC on VH1 in the early ’90s, probably with a hairbrush microphone in one hand and remnants of sparkly eyeshadow on the other. Like so many young girls, she was searching for a model for her own future: a name, a face, an energy she could embody. She found that in female music greats like Houston and Janet Jackson.
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Rowland, best known for her role alongside Beyoncé Knowles and Michelle Williams in Destiny’s Child, saw in these women a sisterhood that was unapologetically real and ferociously protective. She wanted it.
And she wants girls today to have it, too. It’s what brought her to Los Angeles, to film her new reality competition—except Rowland doesn’t call it a reality competition; she calls it a “docuseries,” because there are no scripts and no planned dramatic outbursts (though she concedes it’s inevitable when emotions run high). The 10-episode BET series, Chasing Destiny, which premiered April 5, is a collaboration between Rowland (executive producer, host and mentor) and Frank Gatson (creative director and choreographer) to find and develop the next big superstar girl group.
Of more than 600 girls who auditioned in Los Angeles, New York and Atlanta, Rowland and Gatson chose 15 to pare down and develop into a cohesive group. Oh, and they gave themselves two weeks to do it.
“I just wish we had a year,” Rowland says, comparing the process to her upbringing with Destiny’s Child. “Me and the ladies grew up together…. We saw how [TLC] was put together. It’s the same process. The only luxury is time.”
Gatson has long worked with some of the industry’s biggest girl groups, including Destiny’s Child and En Vogue, as well as solo artists such as Michael Jackson and Jennifer Lopez. And at 35, Rowland, the four-time Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter-actress, has some wisdom to share, too.
I’m a Survivor
Rowland’s career began early, at the encouragement of her single mother, Doris Rowland Garrison, who would shuttle her back and forth from rehearsals between shifts as a nanny—a job that kept the family moving a lot. About a year after leaving Rowland’s father in 1988, she and young Kelly moved to Houston. Rowland struggled with the instability. This time, though, nearly 800 miles from her Atlanta hometown, the pair settled down. From there, things moved quickly for Rowland.
In 1993, a group of six rapping and dancing neon-wearing preteens appeared on Star Search, facing off against an all-male rock band, Skeleton Crew. Beyoncé was 12 at the time. She and fellow original Destiny’s Child member LaTavia Roberson had met through an audition and began performing with the group Girl’s Tyme. Two years after that, Rowland auditioned and joined the group. It marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship between Rowland and Beyoncé.
Girls Tyme had attracted enough national attention that West Coast R&B producer Arne Frager flew in to watch the girls perform. Impressed, he planned for them to make their national debut on the then-popular talent show. In the end, the girls lost. But Beyoncé has called it a “defining moment”—the first time they realized they could work so hard and still wind up disappointed.
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After the Star Search loss, Beyoncé’s father Mathew Knowles (already the group’s unofficial manager) left his job as a medical-equipment salesman to manage the group full time. They redesigned, trimming down to four members; rebranding as Destiny’s Child; and dropping the rap routine for a rich, Motown-inspired sound that would later be compared to The Supremes.
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They spent countless hours rehearsing in the Knowles’ living room before and after school, over the weekends and at Mathew’s vocal and dance boot camps during the summer. In a world where women are in constant competition, Destiny’s Child proved success and sisterhood aren’t mutually exclusive. But the grueling schedule took its toll. “We were really just around each other and our moms. We were so young,” Rowland recalls. “We saw how strong they were and the different things they went through. We got a lot of our strength from our mothers.”
As a single mother, Doris Rowland Garrison struggled to make ends meet. At first Rowland ate dinner a few nights a week at the Knowles’ home when her mother worked late. Then a few more. By 1992, the Knowleses had gained a third daughter, and Rowland a second mother.
Last Mother’s Day, Tina Knowles—“Mama T” to Rowland—penned a heart-wrenching open letter to daughters Beyoncé and Solange Knowles, niece Angie Beyince and Rowland: “I gave birth to two of you, but I have four incredible daughters…. Kelly, I know without a doubt that you were a true gift from God. You came to live with us when you were only 11 years old. You were the sweetest, most kind person I had ever met and you still are…. I’ve seen you take the jewelry off of your arm and give it to someone because you wanted to make them feel good.”
It makes Rowland think about her own son, 19-month-old Titan Jewell, born just a few weeks before Rowland’s mother died. “I’m super, super protective,” she says. “I think if he comes to me one day and he’s just singing his face off and he’s like, ‘Ma, I wanna be a singer,’ what am I gonna say? I’m not a dream killer.” But the thought stays with her.
What the women sacrificed in typical childhood memories, they made up for in 60 million album sales over a seven-year recording career. They became Billboard’s No. 3 girl group of all time.
“They’re the type of group that never broke up,” creative director Gatson says. “They’re the type of group that are sisters, they’re friends, they’re professional, and they’re nice.”
But like all sisters, they’ve had their struggles. In 2013, Rowland released a solo single with lyrics that candidly juxtapose Beyoncé’s success and her own troubles. She’s said later that Beyoncé was supportive of the song, but the lyrics reference feeling trapped in an abusive relationship, and the pain of watching her world spiral while her friend’s rose. The name of the track: “Dirty Laundry.”
If you ask Rowland whether she’s looking for the next Destiny’s Child, expect a snappy response. Despite the show’s name and Rowland’s calm demeanor, she isn’t looking for the next anything.
“I think that we, as people, always look for the next ‘somebody else,’ and we should just allow people to be themselves,” she says. During auditions, there isn’t a big stage or a judges’ table. No flashy golden tickets or bizarre costume-wearing contestants. There are director chairs for Rowland and Gatson in an open room with wooden floors and nondescript walls. A worn-out rug with a microphone stand serves as a makeshift stage. Rowland wears an oversized sweater with her hair in a bun. She ribs Gatson (known for his unfiltered commentary) between auditions. It’s a scene that could happen in her living room. In any living room.
When a contestant is trying too hard and being too flashy, Rowland gets frustrated. You can see how much this process means to her. She feels like girl groups are missing from music today. It’s not that girl groups don’t exist—XFactor-born Fifth Harmony and the British group Little Mix get regular radio play—it’s just that Rowland thinks young girls need to see groups of powerful women supporting instead of competing with each other. Rowland tells the Chasing Destiny girls that it’s about more than looking cute onstage. It’s about more than photo shoots and smash hits.
And Chasing Destiny’s message seems to be well-received. The first episode ranked 35 out of 150 original cable telecasts, according to Showbuzz Daily, a website dedicated to box office and TV analysis. Throughout the show, Rowland says Beyoncé and Williams have been with her every step of the way.
Chasing Destiny is about finding a group that works well together. Rowland says the show isn’t about eliminating girls one by one, and then throwing the winners into a hellishly competitive field on their own. “Our objective is to mold a group,” she says. “You have to go through all the ladies and find the ones that excite you, like ‘Oh, I don’t know if her voice is quite there, but man I love her vibe. She has a real potential. Maybe she’s just a filler voice.’ ”
For Destiny’s Child, the molding process took years. Shortly after their self-titled album marked a breakthrough into the charts, Roberson and another original member, LeToya Luckett, blaming Mathew Knowles’ management, filed a lawsuit claiming his “greed, insistence on control, self-dealing and promotion of his daughter’s interests at the expense of [Roberson and Luckett] became the dominant force in Destiny’s Child.” The lengthy legal battle occurred, aptly enough, while the ladies recorded the theme song for Charlie’s Angels, “Independent Women Part I.”
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Rowland doesn’t say much about the shakeup, but Beyoncé said at the time the restructuring was a “group decision, not a management decision.”
Throughout member additions and subtractions, lawsuits and media rumors, Rowland and Beyoncé held onto each other and rebounded stronger than ever with Williams. The trio’s second album, Writing’s on the Wall, would sell more than 7 million copies and include still-popular hits, such as “Say My Name.” Their 2001 album, Survivor, would sell 4.3 million.
My Time Has Come
Rowland has a strong but silky voice. It’s hard to picture her angry. She’s been on the set of her show all day, but if she’s tired, you can’t tell. During breaks, she calls to check in on Titan, a rambunctious toddler who is proving to be her biggest challenge yet.
Rowland has found success as a solo artist, earning a Grammy (with Nelly for best rap/sung collaboration) for their hit number, “Dilemma,” and collaborating with big names like Lil Wayne and David Guetta. She’s had big roles on shows such as the hit drama series Empire. She credits the women in her life, of course.
“My girlfriends, my family, my friends are actually where I get a lot of my inspiration,” she says. “Me and my girlfriends have made it a point to go out every other weekend. Because we still want to be able to have a life outside of our hubbies and children… to enjoy another woman’s energy and conversation.” She notes that women everywhere share certain bonds: “We’re all going through and dealing with the same things, in some fashion.”
Rowland says moving from mentored to mentor was easier than she expected. “It allows me to really think about the tools I needed coming up,” she says. “I can pass on the things that I appreciated and applied to my career—whether it’s work ethic, whether it’s passion, whether it’s going over something over and over in rehearsals.”
In a career spanning nearly two decades, one moment stands out among the rest: meeting her lifetime idol, Houston, the woman who first inspired her to sing. She left Rowland speechless during a chance encounter in a hotel lobby. The late Houston sang “Say My Name” to the trio and gave some advice: “Focus every moment,” Rowland says. “That was a good feeling to have… someone who is your hero supporting you and lifting you up.”
And that’s what Rowland wants to do for the next generation.
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This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.