Sky Magazine, March 1995

Girl Zone

Are Eternal, the four hyper-polished homegirls from London, the female Take That? Sven Harding reports.

There it goes again - that piercing noise - cutting clean through the bass-heavy aural fog that's emenating from dub-reggae-pumping speakers in the corner - the irritatingly shrill sound of four mobile phones ringing their cellular hearts out every 10 seconds or so, the right ears of their in-demand owners glued to the overworked gizmos.

Eternal are in the house... well, in an airy photo studio in north London, sitting in a storm-cloud of hairspray, being glammed-up for our photo-shoot by a feverish bevy of stylists. That the four barely twentysomething girls from south of the river are having to field a constant barrage of calls from friends and well-wishers doesn't come as a surprise when you consider what's happened to them in the last 15 months: a debut album that's sold close to two-and-a-half million copies around the world, five consecutive UK top 20 singles, a hit debut single in America, wildly successful tours of such colossal, music-hungry territories as Japan and Australia, and reviews that have described them as "supreme kind of pop group". Tonight they're due to perform their massivly-popular, carefully homogenised blend of pop and soul at a packed Labatt's Apollo, Hammersmith, in what has been billed as their triumphant homecoming gig. And everybody they know seems to want a ticket.

"Even before we met Denis [their manager], me and Easther always knew we'd be in this business - that's what we always wanted to do," says Vernie Bennett, moving with me to a neutral corner of the room while the other three quarters of the group become involved in a polite but firm argument with the stylist concerning her choice of footwear for the shoot. As Easther (Vernie's sister, and the group's lead singer) enters the row it becomes clear that there's absolutely no way Eternal are going to wear the selection of Patrick Cox footwear that's been provided for them - they want to stick with their beloved trademark boots, or "boogers" as they call them.

Their business manager, Denis Ingoldsby, is a "thirty-going-on-forty-something" veteran of the music business and ex-PolyGram A&R man, who now, along with his business partner, former record-plugger Oliver Smallman, runs a burgeoning, London-based recording artist management production and songwriting set-up called First Avenue Management. Since they formed their partnership in 1991, the duo have achieved the kind of success that has lead many to compare them to the likes of Stock, Aitken and Waterman and even Motown. Nearly all of the bands in First Avenue's 15-strong roster - including Dina Carroll, Bad Boys Inc, Pauline Henry, Michelle Gayle and Judy Cheeks - produce the kind of slickly-produced, precisely formulated dance- and black-music-tinged pop that today dominates the charts, both at home and abroad.

"I'm an old R&B boy," says Ingoldsby. "Songs make artists - it's all about the songs. I got to the point where all the record companies just didn't want to listen, so I've had to do it myself." Eternal were brought together by Ingoldsby in an attempt to match the chart success of slickly-dressed and choreographed US all-girl pop/soul ensmbles such as En Vogue and Jade. "I got fed up of all the American acts always coming here as groups and cleaning up," says Ingoldsby. "We didn't have anything to compare. I thought let me have a go at making one of them, you know. I wanted to make a young En Vogue, really, that's what Eternal was." Being constantly on the lookout for potential pop-stars ("I see kids in the street and I say 'Can you sing?'") he didn't take long to find three of Eternal's four members.

"I was singing I Miss You Like Crazy in an amateur night at Xenon [ancient West End nightclub]" recalls Vernie, who was at the time (nearly three years ago) studying law at Wolverhampton University. "I came off stage and he [Ingoldsby] was standing there and he said 'I'd like to get together and make some demos and stuff.' I didn't actually phone him, but the following week my sister went back and he gave her his number again. When we eventually did phone him it sort of all came together."

After recruiting the two church-choir-trained Bennett sisters, he spotted Louise Nurding dancing in Soho's Conti School of Performing Arts (the same establishement that provided a young Naomi Campbell with her impressive vocal skills), Louise then dragged along her classmate Kéllé and Eternal were created... or Hymn, as the group was initially known. "It was a bit churchy," says Ingoldsby of his initial efforts to reflect the group's strong gospel background in their name.

Back in the photo studio, the footwear crisis has been resolved (resoundingly in favour of the "boogers"), and the ease with which the group are slikcly snappiing into their trademark low-slung, bunched-together B-girl poses and cheesy grins betrays the intensive media grooming Ingoldsby and Smallman gave the girls in the year they spent together before they signed their recording deal with EMI.

"They have to be taught - you can't just walk onto television. We try to educate the kids first," he explains. "Eternal were two years in development before they actually put a record out and, thank God, it's worked." But mention the word "manufactured" in the same sentence as the name "Eternal" and you're asking for trouble from the group themselves.

"I think all groups have to be manufactured to a certain extent," says a slightly indignat Vernie, "but if you've got talent and you know what you're doing on stage I don't think that can be manufactured." Kéllé, at 19 the youngest member of the group (she also has a diploma in modern dance and used to score the occasional appearance in Eastenders), backs Vernie up and attacks the notion that Eternal are mere pop puppets. "We don't let anybody push us around when it comes to our music," she says. "We've become four very independent businesswomen: the business side of things we've had to take care of for ourselves. We have advisers and accountants and lawyers and managers, but we like to know what's going on for ourselves just so we can feel comfortable."

I mention the notion of Eternal as a female equivalant of Take That. "They always have to give you a label; they always have to categorise you," moans Easther, though she's trying not to talk too much to preserve her voice for tonight's Hammersmith show. "I don't see that we're like Take That whatsoever," chips in Kéllé. "We're four girls: they're five guys. They're white, we're interracial. There are so many differences. Their music is totally different to ours."

Where Eternal do bear more than a passing resemblance to TT, though, is in the phenomenal manner in which they've captured the imagination, and stormed the bedroom walls of Britain's semi-hysterical pop-hungry female teenagers. "We do have a bigger girl following than male following," admits Louise. But wheras Take That exude a contrived homoerotic sexually, you get the impression that - despite the make-up, the pouting, and the deeply slushy love-songs - the concepts of sex, male fans, and Eternal don't sit at all comfortably together. "We haven't ever used any sexual dress code, we haven't used any sexual poses, or any sexual talk to get us anywhere," says Louise, who ironically enough is regarded as the group's biggest sexy symbol. "That's not something that we definitely want to keep away from; it's just what we are like individually. It doesn't interest us."

"But the other night in Cambridge this guy threw his underpants on the stage," interrupts Kéllé. We couldn't believe it, we were so embarrassed, it was like 'Eeuugghh!'" she shrieks. "He came backstage afterwards - he was like 'Did you get my pants?' We just got on the bus, we were too embarrassed to say anything." She continues, 'With guy fans it is embarrassing - they'd rather write to you than come up to you. It kind of makes me sad when they're like 'I love you' and things like that: it hurts me, 'cause I think, well, it can never be. I mean, maybe it could be, never say never, but I think it's almost impossible for us to do anything but be friends, you know - we don't have time for anything else."

As the girls troop back for yet another photo set-up I realise that Kéllé's little fan-male monologue is probably as close to the heart of Eternal as I am likely to get. These are four totally wise-up women when it comes to muck-raking journos. Boyfriends? "It'd be like a hindrance to have a boyfriend right now. We're pretty busy," they chime, almost as one.

"I've read in a paper that I was getting married - this is not true," says Louise, who has been "romantically linked", as they say, with one Dan Bowyer, late of Worlds Apart and formerly a presenter of O-Zone. "A rumour goes round, and instead of just writing 'Oh maybe Louise has got a boyfriend' they claim that I'm getting married instead. My mum said: 'Louise, is this true?' and I'm like 'Mum!'"

But what about life on the road: surely there must be rows galore between four such strong-willed young females? "There are times when it's very frustrating, and we're all very tired, but the easisest thing we find to do is just to say "You go in your room, I'll go in my room, and tomorrow morning we'll be cool," says Kéllé with impeccable diplomacy.

"G'wan Kéllé, serious," shouts Easther, as her Eternal cohort gets up to walk in front of the backdrop for some solo shots. "I can see your knickers," shouts back Kéllé, referring to Easther's semi-transparent white trousers. For just a second they revert back to their Croydon roots, before the prim and proper media mask is snapped back into place.

Later, sitting in the back of the group's tinted-glass Space Cruiser as it crawls through the rush-hour London traffic on its way to the Labatt's Apollo - the girls singing along to a Blackstreet tape booming through the sound system - I get another glimpes of the quartet as four unaffected south London homegirls. "You're gonna have to make this thing fly, my brother," says Easther,, teasing the meek-mannered, middle-aged driver about the urgency of their impending soundcheck, raising giggles from the others. "What's your name anyway, is it a funny one?" she asks mischievously, now relishing her tormentor's role. "Tom," he replies. "Tom," echoes Easther in an exaggerated comic voice. Suddenly the van is in uproar, the girls rolling round the seats in unbridles hilarity. You had to be there, I suppose, but that's the thing about the current Eternal phenomenon - whatever the joke may be, it's certainly not on them.