Singers Beyoncé Knowles, Kelly Rowland, and Michelle Williams talk about their recent hits

It’s a sleepy summer Monday at the Houston Center of Dance, and Destiny’s Child are more than an hour late for rehearsal. Big-band jazz wafts through the ballroom as four couples twirl across the floor, while in a small back room Destiny’s dancers fine-tune routines with a choreographer. Another 45 minutes pass — no Destiny’s Child. A silver Plymouth sedan pulls up, and three bubbly girls bound into the trophy-filled reception area, typical teens looking for some fun on a dull afternoon. Still no Destiny’s Child. ”Beyoncé!” someone shouts, and the girls turn.

Sure enough, Beyoncé Knowles, 19, Kelly Rowland, 19, and Michelle Williams, 20, have arrived, much younger than you’d expect from their videos, virtually unrecognizable in dowdy street clothes, and way too giggly to be the glittery R&B divas who’ve sold six million records and generated this year’s most sophisticated and funky Top 40 hits. The girls immediately seem friendly and down-to-earth, which is a little surprising given the controversy that’s been swirling around them in recent months. It’s only been a week since they sacked singer Farrah Franklin, making her the third group member to get the boot in the past six months. But these smiling gals seem so … normal. ”I was just talking on the phone to one of my friends and they were like, ‘Man, you guys are big. You don’t know how big you are,”’ Kelly says, relaxing on a couch in the dance studio’s lobby a few minutes after their arrival. ”I’m like, ‘No we’re not.’ It just sounds so weird.”

Don’t kid yourself. As fresh-faced as they appear, Destiny’s Child are also hardened industry vets whose decade-long history contains enough bitter disappointment, sweet success, sour conflict, and embarrassing band names to make a Behind the Music producer drool.

The group launched in 1989 when a pair of Houston entrepreneurs decided to build a preteen R&B act around a precocious local talent, the then-8-year-old Beyoncé (sounds like fiancé) Knowles. Typical of such naive enterprises, the flight to 15 minutes took off at amateur hour: multiple lineup changes, a string of too-cute monikers (GirlsTyme, Something Fresh), a shattering loss on Star Search (”We went backstage and bawled,” remembers Beyoncé), and the eventual wresting of managerial control by an out-of-his-realm-but-oh-so-well-meaning parent. Mathew Knowles, a successful medical-equipment salesman, knew zero about the music industry when he grabbed the reins of his daughter’s career, but he was savvy and resourceful enough to solidify the girl group’s lineup (Beyoncé, Kelly Rowland, LeToya Luckett, and LaTavia Roberson) and to land a deal with noted R&B songwriter-producer Darryl Simmons (Babyface, Dru Hill) and Elektra Records. Newly rechristened the Dolls, the group seemed to finally be on the fast track. Or so they thought.

”Honestly, I wasn’t prepared,” explains Simmons, who says he took on too many projects too quickly and never got around to finishing the Dolls’ debut disc. ”I didn’t come through. We may have recorded one or two things, but I couldn’t tell you what they sounded like.” Elektra dropped the Dolls without releasing a record. ”We felt like our life was over,” Beyoncé remembers. ”We thought we would never get signed again.”