En Vogue rise to the top
Inside a tan trailer parked near New York City’s Paramount Theater, the four members of En Vogue, whose ”My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)” is thumping out of radios all over town, are talking about their Future. In four hours, along with such R&B legends as Phyllis Hyman, Gladys Knight, and Melba Moore, En Vogue will be performing at the Essence Awards, a prestigious, nationally televised homage to the achievements of black women. but right now, sitting among greasy chinese-food containers and empty Evian bottles, the young women have more personal performances on their minds.
”We’re all gonna plan it — and get pregnant at the same time!” announces Cindy Herron, a tall, aerobicized woman who speaks in a high-pitched, little-girl voice.
”We could perform with big stomachs!” cries Maxine Jones, whose heavy masses of thin braids nearly overwhelm her small frame.
”What a publicity stunt that would be,” says Dawn Robinson, who sports a sleek pageboy.
Terry Ellis, whose huge baby browns put the Keane kids to shame, just shakes her head. ”We couldn’t do the dance steps,” she points out.
If the women of En Vogue are planning a little too far ahead right now — only Herron even has a boyfriend — it may be a result of their exploding success. In just two years they’ve sold more than 2 million copies of their first two albums — 1990’s Born to Sing, and their latest, Funky Divas — and landed two No. 2 singles, last year’s ”Hold On” and now ”My Lovin’.” But there’s more: Thanks in part to the glamor they’ve hot-wired into their precision-choreographed high-fashion videos, they’ve already earned comparisons to the Supremes and landed a contract for their own Diet Coke commercial — a sure index of pop stardom.
Heady stuff for four women who barely knew each other before 1988 when they each auditioned in Oakland for hip-hop producers Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy. The team, which had produced the very successful male R&B trio Tony! Toni! Tone!, was trying to create the same commercial magic with women.
”We wanted the girls to be beautiful, but not too beautiful,” says McElroy. ”Intelligent, but not nerds or anything. And more than anything else, when they sang we wanted people to go, ‘Wow!”’
The two producers matched the high energy of the four singers with juiced-up R&B, first on the pop-oriented Born to Sing, and now on Funky Divas, which blends rock, reggae, rap, and soul. The women took it from there, combining raw talent — they can sing — and a tremendous desire to succeed.
Though Foster and McElroy created En Vogue, direct the group’s musical course, and get a cut of the group’s profits, by all accounts, they don’t operate as strict Svengalis. ”I tell them all the time,” says McElroy, ”that these are their lives. Wherever they end up, they can say, ‘We got here because this is the route we chose.”’
Although the foursome was packaged by others, their sister act is no act: They finish each other’s sentences, pull at loose threads on each other’s clothing, and fix each other’s hair. ”When we were trying to find a name for the first album,” says Ellis, ”one night I woke up at about 4 a.m. and thought, ‘This is just so incredible and major that we were brought together.’ Then I thought, ‘That’s it. We were born to sing…together.”’
The women of En Vogue share an emotional connection that no one outside the group can completely understand. Their professional lives are intense: They travel about six months a year and spend almost all their time together, publicly joined at the hip like quadruplet Barbie dolls. Getting them ready for an appearance is itself a major production — hair and makeup alone can take four hours. And if you call yourself En Vogue, haute couture better be a big part of your design. The women spend hours poring over fashion magazines for outfits to order or have their stylist copy, and their big fear is of looking hoochie-Oakland slang for out of date.
”Everybody’s tense when it comes to deciding what to wear,” admits Jones, flipping through the latest Glamour and wearing jeans and a white oxford shirt knotted at the waist. ”It’s a sore subject sometimes because we have different ideas of how we should look.”
”Everybody has different tastes,” agrees the funkier Robinson (tight, faded Levis and sleek, black cowboy boots). ”Now we’ve learned to individualize.”
”One great thing about this group,” says Herron (black sleeveless cat suit under an oversize mustard mohair cardigan), ”is that I get to play dress-up.”
Of course looking good is no substitute for sounding good. When there is down time on the road, the women often critique their performances, plan their next videos, or do vocal exercises. ”They’re always worried about their schedules,” says their manager, David Lombard: ”’When do we start rehearsing for this show?’ ‘Do we have the choreography ready?’ They work us to death to make sure they work hard.”
A half hour before En Vogue’s appearance at the Essence Awards, the tension in their cramped trailer is as palpable as their hairspray floating in the air. Earlier, the power had gone dead for an hour or so, killing hair dryers and hot curlers, and now their hairstylist is frantically playing catch-up. A crowd of about a hundred people, who have been watching the celebrities arrive, has moved toward the trailer as word spread that En Vogue is inside. ”We love you!” a man shouts when Lombard briefly opens the door to look out. Inside, the four women rush around in matching silver lamé baby-doll minidresses, fishnet stockings and black suede five-inch-high strappy sandals.
”Booger check!” calls out Robinson, as she and Herron push close to the mirror to look up their noses.
Jones asks Lombard to turn on the cassette player so they can rehearse to the instrumental track of ”My Lovin’,” the song they’re going to perform. And then the four women crowd into the back of the tiny dressing room and pull a plastic screen closed for privacy. ”Whatever happens up there happens,” says Ellis. And then their strong clear, voices belt out the song:
”No, you’re never gonna get it, never never gonna get it…”
”You sure you’re not gonna get hoarse?” calls out Lombard when they finish.
”One more time!” answers Jones. Lombard rewinds the tape, and the singing starts again.
A few minutes later, several bodyguards arrive to escort the four into the theater. ”There are a lot of people out there,” their publicist warns, ”so, no autographs, please.” As the women sashay through the adoring crowd, the catcalls begin. ”It’s my girls!” cries one man who tries to shove a piece of paper in Herron’s face. The women of En Vogue just smile, wave, and keep on moving.
CINDY HERRON, 26. Image: The most theatrical of the Voguers. Bio: She grew up in San Francisco, the daughter of a white mother and a black father, who divorced when she was 7. She has been dating Cincinnati Reds outfielder Glenn Braggs for several months. Experience: She played Yolanda, the ”older” girlfriend, in 1991’s Juice.
TERRY ELLIS, 25. Image: Reserved in public; group comedian in private. Bio: Raised in Houston by her housewife mother and truck-driver father, she is the youngest of four daughters. She earned a B.A. in marketing at Prairie View A&M University in Prairie View, Texas. Experience: She was singing with a band and doing studio work in Houston when a friend called her about the audition. She used her rent money to fly to Oakland the next day.
MAXINE JONES, 26. Image: The self-described ”moody” member of the group. Bio: Originally from Paterson, N.J., she was 5 when her mother died. She moved to Oakland when she was 15 to live with her three older sisters. Experience: She was working in a hair salon when she auditioned for Foster and McElroy.
DAWN ROBINSON, 23. Image: Sultriest on stage, self-proclaimed ”partier.” Bio: She moved to the Bay Area from her native New London, Conn., in 1981 with her sister and her mother, an operating-room technician. Experience: A club singer since the age of 12, she was working as a dentist’s receptionist at the time of the audition.