There's only a handful of ways to land a major-label record deal, and the least likely is winning one. But that's just what the Triplets did, with considerable fanfare, when they took the grand prize in MTV's Basement Tapes contest five years ago. Which only goes to prove that winning isn't everything, because singing triplets Vicky, Sylvia, and Diana Villegas didn't exactly cause a pop sensation with the EP they made back in 1986. They're successful now, though, with ''You Don't Have to Go Home Tonight,'' a song that ranks in the top 30 on Billboard's singles chart.
What happened to transform the Triplets from dead in the water to Thicker Than Water, their sleek new album? A 180-degree turnaround in sound and style. The Villegas, Mexican-Americans raised in San Miguel de Allende, came north of the border at age 17 as naive about the music biz as Montezuma was about the intentions of Cortes. So they relied on other people, including their first manager, who may have seen them as Joan Jett in triplicate and pushed them toward hard rock. While the tough-chick act netted the Triplets a contract (via MTV), they were still gullible greenhorns. ''When you're a contest winner, the label inherits you, like it or not, and you don't have an A&R man who found you and who's saying, 'I believe! I believe!''' says Diana. ''We thought things would just develop, that the producer would do the right thing.'' When their EP flopped, it was time for the Triplets to wake up and smell the tequila they took charge of their career and returned to their roots.
Inspired by Linda Ronstadt, who recognized her own Latino heritage by recording an album of Mexican songs, the Triplets let a Mexican accent enter their music, along with elements of softer, more melodic pop. ''There was a time when it was not cool to tell people you were Mexican, especially in rock & roll, but we had to find ourselves and be proud,'' says Diana. ''It was good-bye to the big teased hair!'' says Sylvia. The Triplets found a new look, hitched to their heritage: fringed suede, faded denim, toreador jackets, and cowboy boots.
While the Triplets claim sole credit for the make-over, their current success has a lot to do with support from their record label, which bombarded press, radio, and retail and sent the sisters (who, for the record, are nonidentical Aries with distinctly different personalities) on a meet-and-greet tour. ''They're giving us a chance to show ourselves,'' says Diana, ''and we've been on the other side, totally ignored.''