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In an airy mall in suburban Southern Maryland, a mutiny almost breaks out Saturday afternoon.

As teen-age girls everywhere tend to do, the three young and sexy members of the R&B; group Destiny's Child are late. It's 2:30 p.m., the scheduled time for an autograph session with fans at St. Charles Town Center in Waldorf. Almost 3,000 people have converged upon the mall, and the crowd is jostling, pushing aside small children to get better views and chanting, "We want Destiny's Child! We want Destiny's Child!"

But pandemonium doesn't fully occur until three tall, lithe beauties with large radiant eyes and dazzling smiles confidently stride onto a small stage an hour late, gathering deep-red roses from fans along the way. For a moment, Beyonce (rhymes with fiance) Knowles, Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams seem a tad overwhelmed, looking at the thousands of screaming, adoring fans all around them.

Fame and the fans that come with it sometimes still surprise the girls who are the current darlings of up-tempo R&B; with such infectious hits as "Jumpin, Jumpin," which is No. 1 on the dance charts. Their sass-filled songs laying down the law for errant boyfriends "Bills, Bills, Bills" and "Say My Name," both of which have hit #1 within the past year, have become anthems for female empowerment. They just released their latest single, "Independent Woman," which will be the theme song of the upcoming "Charlie's Angels" movie and the name of their next album. Their sophomore album, "The Writing's on the Wall," has sold more than 6 million records in the United States and 2 million more worldwide since its July 1999 release. And the group currently is on a whirlwind U.S. tour with pop princess Christina Aguilera that stopped in at Merriweather Post Pavilion Saturday night.

Not bad for some teen-agers from Houston who just 10 years ago were pony-tailed 9-year-old girlfriends watching videos of the Supremes.

"You dream of this," says Rowland, 19, nibbling on a butter cookie after the almost two-hour autograph session ends. "But you never dream that you'll have this mall right here sold out and another mall in Ohio sold out. I was talking to my best friend and she was like, 'Do you know how big you guys are?' and I'm like, 'No, I don't wanna know. I just wanna keep a level head.'"

In the past year, Rowland and lead singer Knowles, 19, have had to work especially hard to keep level-headed. Destiny's Child has struggled with the disputes and departures that have ruined other successful groups, and its members have had a harsh lesson - Real Life 101.

In December, two original members of Destiny's Child, LeToya Luckett and LaTavia Roberson, were abruptly dropped after they tried to fire Knowles' father as their manager. Luckett and Roberson filed suit against the group and Mathew Knowles, accusing him of "greed, insistence on control, self-dealing and promotion of his daughter's interests at [their] expense."

Mathew Knowles promptly recruited two new girls for the group, Michelle Williams and Farrah Franklin. And just when it seemed that Destiny's Child was at a stable point, Franklin was ousted in July for missing appearances.

"Who woulda thought that it would be three members now, and Michelle would be a part of it?" Beyonce Knowles says. "But we can almost guarantee that this is Destiny's Child. We don't need another member. Our vibe is really strong and it's really cool because now there's no chaos."

That vibe first began 14 years ago in a kindergarten in Houston, when the pint-sized 5-year-old Beyonce Knowles clambered onto stage for a talent show and belted out "Home" from "The Wiz."

"She was a very quiet kid, but when she got on that stage, she was a different personality," Mathew Knowles says from a car phone in Philadelphia. "My wife and I looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders and said, 'Is that our daughter?'"

The Knowleses signed up Beyonce for voice lessons a year later and began entering her in local talent shows and pageants. When she was 9, Mathew Knowles teamed her up with three other girls to be a "young En Vogue." When the group lost its first talent show, Knowles restructured it, enlisting Rowland and Roberson, who went to school with his daughter, and Luckett, whom he recruited through auditions.

It was around this time that Teresa LeBarbera Whites, now vice president of A&R; at Columbia Records, first met the girls. Then a talent scout, Whites went to Houston to see the 9-year-old girls sing in a community center theater.

"I just thought they were the cutest little girls, and you knew then that Beyonce was special; she just had something," Whites says. 'They had beautiful voices, they were full of energy, and they sang their hearts out and danced their little behinds off. I always believed they would be stars."

But at the time it was rare to sign young stars, so although the girls wowed record executives during a trip to New York that Whites arranged, the label didn't sign Destiny's Child until 1995. In the meantime, the group went through rigorous dance and voice lessons, which Mathew Knowles says he mortgaged his home to pay for. Knowles also quit his job selling surgical machinery to manage the group full time, enlisting the help of his wife, Tina, as a stylist.

The group went through several names - Girls Tyme, Something Fresh, ClichM-i, The Dolls - before one day Tina Knowles was flipping through the Bible. Her eyes settled on the word "destiny," and then a snapshot of the girls. When the Knowleses discovered the copyright for "Destiny" was taken, they settled on "Destiny's Child" and the name stuck.

As the girls grew up, they began to co-write songs that they felt reflected the real side of love and relationships. Of the 16 songs on their second album, the group co-wrote nine.

"A lot of young women who basically are independent and tired and fed up of everything bad that males are doing in their lives have a tendency to relate," says Samantha Selolwane, assistant music director of Baltimore's WERQ 92.3 FM, on which Destiny's Child is a favorite among listeners. For instance, in "Bills, Bills, Bills," the girls mock a boyfriend who runs up their cell-phone and credit card bills without paying: "Now you've been maxing out my cards / Giving me bad credit, buyin' gifts with my own name./ ... You triflin', good for nothing type of brother / Silly me, why haven't I found another?"

And the members of the group are so comely that their male fans who don't seem to mind the gender-bashing. In particular, Beyonce Knowles - who has caramel-brown skin, cascading tresses, exquisite features and a full, yet slender figure - seems to attract guys who think they can do better than the losers the group sings about.

"I would treat her with respect, trust and love," says Philip Sain, 16, a blushing Waldorf 11th-grader who waited more than four hours for the chance to meet Knowles and shake her hand. "And I would pay all my bills."

Beyonce Knowles says group members hope their songs will encourage women in bad relationships to be strong. "We definitely want to give a good message to females to be positive," she says. "We love guys, but in relationships sometimes, things don't always go perfectly."

From the way things have gone with Destiny's Child in the past year, Beyonce Knowles is speaking from experience. Mathew Knowles says he is trying to settle the case out of court and has made an offer to Luckett and Roberson's attorney. While he declined to provide details, he expressed deep frustration with Luckett and Roberson's attempt to fire him.

"It was me who put together the group," he says. "I'm absolutely disappointed, particularly with LaTavia. She was a dancer when I met her, and I took the time and made the investment to develop her into a vocalist. I invested a lot in the group. The reason Destiny's Child is at the level that it is, it's not because it accidentally happened. A lot of hours, a lot of money, a lot of prayer went into it."

The trio seems to have adopted a philosophical approach, trying not to focus on the negatives and concentrate on their future. Down the road, the girls hope to produce solo albums. Mathew Knowles says this could happen as early as Christmas 2001, which is the tentative release date for a solo album by Beyonce.

"There's nothing for us to regret, this year," Rowland says. "We believe that everything happens for a reason. God puts people and things in your life to teach you, to make you wiser and that's exactly what's happened with Destiny's Child. We sold 8 million records. Nothing has stopped us."

Members of the trio spelled that message out even more clearly that evening, when they launched into "So Cool" at Merriweather Post Pavilion. In the song, in which the girls flaunt their successes to an unsupportive old friend, the trio ad-libbed a verse adding its latest record sales figure and made the performance that much more personal.

"This is for them haters that said we wouldn't make it / Now we've sold 8 million, and now you can't take it. / For all the people around us that have been negative, / Look at us now, see how we live."

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