By Gerrick D. Kennedy
4:03 PM EDT, August 22, 2012
As Whitney Houston’s final film performance in “Sparkle” plays out in movie theaters, a set of R&B powerhouses have banded together in the wake of her death for a new TV One reality show.
“Ironically, we were all at the pre-Grammy event that Whitney last performed at" in February, said singer Faith Evans. "After her death, I certainly just felt like a revelation.”
Houston’s final curtain call was at Tru Hollywood nightclub, and Evans was one of the co-hosts for that event, which celebrated fellow diva Kelly Price -- and the genre -- after the Grammys cut back its R&B categories.
Evans formed a friendship with Houston after their Grammy-nominated hit "Heartbreak Hotel" (it also featured Price), and had spoken to Houston about recording a compilation that would feature an array of female R&B voices. But Evans put the project on the backburner, thinking she had time to get to it.
Houston's death proved to be the catalyst to complete the album -- and the project felt worthy to document with a TV crew.
“I had been pursued by a few different networks and done a few pilots, but I was keeping them at bay,” Evans said over lunch at the Beverly Hilton, the location where Houston died Feb. 11, on the eve of the Grammys -- two days after that night at Tru.
“This seemed like the right vehicle to not have to shoulder a show. Things just kind of aligned.”
The show, “R&B Divas,” follows Evans, who co-produced the series, along with Nicci Gilbert, Syleena Johnson, Monifah Carter and Keke Wyatt, as they band together to record the album. Proceeds of the album will, in part, benefit the Whitney E. Houston Academy of Creative and Performing Arts, an institution Houston attended in her hometown of East Orange, N.J.
“R&B Divas,” which premiered Monday to 900,000 viewers, making it the most-watched original debut in the history of the network, also pulls back the lid on the ladies’ personal lives during the eight, one-hour episodes.
The series is a warts and all chronicle of the performers, who have each had great triumphs and slumps in the music business.
A primer on the divas for those who need to catch up: Since quietly splitting from her second husband, Evans has continued to guide her successful recording career -- she left the major label structure for an independent deal in 2010 -- and helps manage the estate of her late husband, the Notorious B.I.G.
Having experienced mid-'90s success as part of Brownstone (they were signed to Michael Jackson's MJJ Music), Gilbert has since struggled to keep that passion in music; her plus-sized clothing line, however, is thriving. Johnson, though critically lauded for her own hits and as the voice on Kanye West’s breakout “All Falls Down,” doesn’t have the commercial success to match.
Carter is reemerging on the music scene after years of drug and alcohol addiction curbed her talents (she was the late Heavy D's protege). Wyatt, better known for her relationship with her abusive ex-husband than her music career, and for the show, keeps her new husband-manager on a tight leash.
Although that sounds like an overwhelming amount of turmoil to digest, the ladies promise one thing: They still keep it classy.
“You haven't heard about us? I’m barefoot, so let me show you how I run across the table,” Gilbert joked, referring to a scene from VH1’s controversial and deliciously trashy “Basketball Wives.”
“Conflict is real. If we sat here and pretended that we didn’t have any issues or conflicts, then we would be liars and that’s not what we want to do,” said Gilbert, who also co-produced the series. “We are being honest, we are being transparent. But we are not crazy. How can you be a businesswoman trying to build the brand if people can look back and see you slapping somebody or throwing a drink at them?”
The ladies admit there was hesitation to allow cameras into their personal lives, but saw the series as an opportunity to showcase positive images. And inspire aspiring divas.
Over lunch, the girls, minus Wyatt who was tied up elsewhere at the hotel, giggle and gossip like sisters -- Evans points out that there are friendships among the cast that go back years -- but talk gets serious when it comes to current portrayals of black women in entertainment-based reality shows. They want their show to burst those stereotypes.
“I couldn’t get clothes [for on-camera appearances] because some of the companies didn’t want to lend. They didn’t want their name associated with an all-black female cast,” Carter said. “People don’t understand the trickle-down because of the perception that we are all kicking and jumping across the table and fighting each other when that is absolutely not the norm.”
“But it is a blessing that TV One is a network that positively shows our culture and tries to teach and shine a light on things that aren't really put out in the mainstream,” Evans added. “They aren't about train-wreck TV.”
The show is filmed primarily in Atlanta, where the ladies live, but they also travel to Washington, D.C., New York and New Orleans, where they perform a tribute to fallen R&B voices including Vesta Williams, Etta James, Donna Summer, Nick Ashford and Houston. The series is produced for TV One by Thinkfactory Media.
“We wanted to do something that hadn't been seen before in this genre. And what we really responded to is these women -- you know these women, but you don't know these women,” said Adam Reed, executive producer of Thinkfactory Media. “We didn't want to do another 'Housewives.' These ladies were doing this charity album for Whitney whether the cameras were there or not. So the stars really aligned.”
Evans hopes to release the disc, titled "Faith Evans, R&B Divas: Music Inspired by the TV Show," by end of September, before the Grammy cut-off.
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