Carina Chocano
May 30, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

It’s not easy getting face time with Beyonce Knowles. Even when you’re looking right at her. Twice, while on the cell with her publicist trying to arrange a meeting, I find myself staring up at her as she quaffs a Pepsi on the billboard high above the intersection of Hollywood and Highland. * Finally, there’s nothing left to do but hop on the Beyonce express. I’m instructed to call Knowles’ cousin/assistant, Angela, who tells me to drive to a nearby spot on Sunset Boulevard, park my car, and look for a bodyguard named Shorty. Shorty — well, you could ski down Shorty in a snowfall. The big man waves me over to the black Cadillac Escalade idling on the corner. By the time I climb into the dim cocoon of the SUV, I’m no longer sure if I’m meeting a pop diva, a Mob boss, or a presidential front-runner on the campaign trail. * Actually, she is on the campaign trail. ”Crazy in Love,” the first single from Knowles’ debut solo album, was released to radio two weeks ago. And the CD, Dangerously in Love, hits stores July 8. Flanked by a dark-suited driver, and her mother/stylist, Tina, the almond-eyed lead singer of Destiny’s Child has been pressing the flesh of the press for a week. She shows no sign of flagging. Actually, she couldn’t look more invincible if she’d just sprung from Zeus’ head. Knowles is a focused and gracious campaigner — even though, if it were up to her, she wouldn’t be doing this at all.

”I always want to make music, sing, and perform on stage,” she says in her low, husky drawl. ”And, I think, make movies. But everything else that comes with it? If I had a choice, I wouldn’t do it…. Putting out the solo album, there are things you have to do” — she pauses — ”because you do!” The absurdity cracks her up.

By the end of this day, Knowles will have gotten through a meeting, two fittings, a dance rehearsal, and this interview. She’ll have sent Angela to pick up T-shirts for a video, scanned audition tapes, selected dancers for her upcoming tour, searched for a pair of stilettos she can dance in, gazed longingly at Shorty’s cheeseburger (”Don’t look at that,” Angela warns, ”it’ll kill you”), and ordered the spicy green beans for dinner.

By the time you read this, she’ll have appeared on SNL, crammed in two recording sessions, made a radio-station stop, flown to Vegas for VH1 Divas Duets, and shot back to New York for TRL.

”That’s my reward,” Knowles says. She means the burger.

Just 21, Knowles has been a star — in the most rigorous, exhausting sense of the word — for more than two thirds of her life. Since before she was washing her own hair, she has been both the principal product and the main marketing vehicle of the Knowles family business, a mini-entertainment empire managed by her father, Mathew, whose most recent yield is Beyonce’s 16-year-old singer/actress sister, Solange. Knowles pinpoints the start of her career as a talent-show performance at age 5 near her childhood home in Houston. The original members of the group that would become Destiny’s Child formed in elementary school in 1989. Three years later, they appeared on Star Search and lost, prompting Knowles’ father to quit his job as a medical-equipment salesman and start guiding the group’s career full-time. Beyonce was just 10 at the time.

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