Kelly Rowland is patiently holding a pose as Sunday Life’s fashion team crowds around a monitor, appraising the photographs being taken of the American singer. Framed by a funky bob, her cheekbones are razor sharp, and her deep brown eyes hypnotic as she gazes coolly down the barrel of the camera. “Fierce,” murmurs one onlooker admiringly, as torrential rain drums on the roof.
Suddenly a door at the back of the studio in Sydney’s Alexandria slides open and the slap of little sneakers thuds across the cement floor. “Mama, mama, mama,” calls the toddler, ignoring every rule of a fashion shoot and running straight in front of the camera.
Rowland’s previously impassive face breaks open in a wide smile. “Hi muffin,” she croons as she sweeps her two-year-old son Titan up in a hug, seemingly oblivious that she’s crumpling her designer outfit in the process. In an instant, the 36-year-old – a somewhat intimidating glamazon in front of the lens – is softened.
One of the three key members of the wildly successful late-’90s girl band Destiny’s Child, it has taken Rowland – who still counts former bandmate Beyoncé as one of her closest friends – time to feel comfortable in her own skin. This road to self-acceptance has underpinned a flourishing solo career as a singer, actor, mentor and author, and made her determined to empower other women.
“Bey always says to be authentic,” she explains after the shoot, when she’s changed back into her Esprit hoodie, denim cut-offs and Stan Smith trainers. “Some people get it early – Solange [Knowles] got it sooo early, she always made up her own rules. I think with me it comes with age.”
A 20-year veteran of the entertainment industry, Rowland can still recall the best piece of career advice she’s ever received. “Outwork everybody,” she says emphatically. “So many people want the same thing or have the same dream you do, and what separates you from everybody else is your work ethic. There’s always room to work harder.”
She has taken the advice to heart. Not only is she appearing as a judge on the new season of The Voice in Australia, she’s also promoting the US girl band she helped form, June’s Diary, has just published a baby manual, Whoa, Baby!, is launching her own make-up line and writing a new album.
She is equally driven when it comes to her appearance – she works with two trainers to maintain her incredibly toned figure and has perfected her own look to such an extent that she’s largely doing her own make-up while she’s here.
“I’m giving myself to so many different things and projects, and at the end of the day I’m exhausted,” she says, bursting out laughing. “I’m exhausted because I want to be a great wife, and I want to be a great mother, but I want to be a great me to myself.”
Rowland traces her relentless drive back to her childhood. Born Kelendria Trene Rowland in Atlanta, Georgia, she and her mother left her abusive, alcoholic father when she was seven years old.
“My mom was a nanny and she was basically working so hard to make sure we had food on the table, and we were moving constantly,” she recalls. “I just want to be still.”
Kelly keeps working hard so she can give her son the stability she never had. But she’s wary of making Titan’s life too easy as he grows up amid the trappings of fame. “I don’t want him to be an entitled little prick. I don’t. I want him to be respectful.”
He certainly is the afternoon we meet – he occasionally wanders over to his mother during our interview but is content to be gently led away after a quick chat. Kelly, who has been pleasantly surprised by her reserves of patience as a mother, says Titan has a temper but there are no signs of the terrible twos on this day.
Michael Lo Sordo shirt dress, $890. Zimmermann “Tulsi” bikini top (sold as a bikini), $295. Saint Laurent gold drop earrings, $1550, from Cosmopolitan Shoes. Photo: Damian Bennett
Kelly was still a child herself, just 16 years old, when Destiny’s Child was signed by Columbia Records in 1997. The group released their first hit single, Say My Name, the next year and went on to top the charts with songs like Independent Woman and Survivor. Despite belting out these messages of female empowerment in public, privately Kelly was ill at ease, uncomfortable with what she calls her “chocolatiness”.
It took Beyoncé’s mum, Tina Knowles, to help her appreciate her own beauty. “She had all this artwork up and it was all these beautiful African-American or African artists. And she said, ‘Look at your cheekbones, your cheekbones look like that. Look at your skin colour, your skin colour looks like that,’ ” recalls Rowland, who lived with the Knowles family as a teenager.
“She would literally get me in front of the mirror and tell me how beautiful my chocolate skin was to the point where, when I moved to Miami, I was just baking in the sun every day [saying], ‘Ooh, I just want to get darker.'”
It also dawned on Rowland that, as a world-famous singer, she had to be a positive role model for other women of colour. “I wasn’t just a face for myself, I was a face for other girls who looked like me and I don’t want them to see themselves and not see how incredible they are in their own skin.”
This is a woman who spent $9300 on a grey Céline coat because it was “so dope” but can usually be found in sweats, and who still wears a pair of black fitted pants she bought from H&M a decade ago.
“I can always depend on them, though I have to use the tool that gets the little fuzzies off!” she says. “They just look so great, every time I wear them I always get compliments.”
Though Destiny’s Child disbanded in the mid-noughties, Rowland, Beyoncé and the third member, Michelle Williams, remain tight, calling each other most days of the week.
“We’ve known each other since we were nine and 10 years old and that is in-sane,” she says. “And the coolest thing is that we’re having children together and our children play together – they’re basically cousins. Friendship is a beautiful thing when you’ve got those lifetime friends.”
Rowland met her husband and manager Tim Witherspoon through Williams’s brother, and she refers to Beyoncé’s mother as her “bonus mother” and confidante. Tina Knowles was by Rowland’s side when the singer’s mother was dying in late 2014, and she was the first person she called when she discovered she was pregnant with Titan.
Sass and Bide “Pocket of Snow” shirt, $495, “Last Forever” trousers, $655, and “In Wonderment” neck piece, $150. Saint Laurent earrings, $1700, from Cosmopolitan Shoes. Christian Louboutin heels, $1495. Photo: Damian Bennett
Given how ferociously competitive the music industry is, and how acrimonious so many band breakups are, it’s refreshing to see the former Destiny’s Child bandmates rejoice in each other’s success. After her stunning Grammys performance in February, Beyoncé posted photos online of all the girls dancing together at Solange’s after-party.
“We’re all secure within ourselves and within our gifts,” Kelly explains. “I think you have to be comfortable with yourself to be comfortable with others. For me, right now, I’m in my own world and I love being in my own world.”
Rowland is in Australia fas one of the newest judges on The Voice, joining old hands Delta Goodrem and Seal, along with other newbie Boy George. This is the third talent show she has judged, and she relishes each opportunity to discover the next big thing.
“I love the idea of finding new talent. I remember when people were looking for new talent with me, the idea that you might be on the brink of something special, something super-special.”
But the wannabe stars on #TeamKelly had better be prepared to hear some home truths from their new mentor. “I’m really honest – sometimes to a fault,” she says ruefully, describing herself as “black and white, no grey areas”.
“I’m here to build people up, not tear them down,” she says, “so I do know that I have to be tactful with my words, because I would have wanted someone to be tactful with me.”
Her protégés will have to deal with something she didn’t when she was starting out in the music industry – social media. “Social media changed everything. It makes it more personable and in some ways it’s great and in some ways it’s terrible. I miss mystery. In ’97, we had mystery. In 2017, you ain’t got no mystery in sight!”
Bec & Bridge Nature Elementa swimsuit, $250. Tome skirt, $1110. Dinosaur Designs x Bassike earrings, $250. Balmain Culvera heels, $2050, from Cosmopolitan Shoes. Photo: Damian Bennett
Her visit coincides with the wettest Sydney March in 40 years. Despite the relentless rain, she says she loves Australia and has found the “superchilled” vibe conducive to writing songs for her new album, which will be her fifth solo release. “Music is here,” says Rowland. “It’s so present, it’s the most present it’s been since having my son.” She wants to deliver what she calls a meaty record.
Her first album since 2013’s Talk a Good Game, it will reflect all the changes she has experienced since then – marriage, motherhood, her mother’s death and the political upheaval in the US. As a friend of the Obamas, she says she feels sick about Trump’s election.
“I try to stay positive in everything that I do, especially for the sake of my son, but I’m really disappointed … We have someone who is not as classy as our last president. [The Obamas] are just such personable people and they really care about people, they don’t care what economic background you had.”
Like all new mothers, she has discovered an infinite capacity for love for her child, confiding that she broke down in tears when Titan told her for the first time he loved her. “I had no idea so much emotion existed.”
Now Rowland wants to channel the new-found emotions into a record that empowers women and reminds them of their worth – just as others have done for her. “I don’t want to have some sort of shallow frickin’ record – there is only so much sexiness you can talk about”
“We’re all in our journey to our best lives and it’s not easy, it does get exhausting. I’d like to be the voice that reminds you of how f…ing incredible you are as a woman. We work so hard, and we give so much of ourselves out, that we have to pour it back in. And my goal is to do that.
The Voice premieres on Channel 9 on Monday.