Time Out, Nov 30th - Dec 7th 1994

Gospel Truths

All-girl foursome Eternal have taken the teeny pop market by storm with their five classy soul- and gospel- driven chart singles. Isn't it about time that grown-ups got in on the act? Peter Paphides talks hits, harmony and Harrods with the best thing to come out of Croydon since the 109 bus. Photography by Colin Bell.

Vernie Bennett shakes her head incredulously. She's just been telling us how she was shopping in Harrods with the rest of Eternal, when a crowd started gathering around the delicatessen. Eventually, one woman tentatively approached her and said, 'Are you performing here today?'

'We were just doing some shopping, but people were expecting us to burst into song by the meat counter!' gasps Kéllé , visibly tickled by the image. Eternal really shouldn't be that surprised. They are so brilliant at being a pop group that you half expect them to disappear into a vapour of stardust the moment they leave the TV screen. In any case, you certainly can't imagine hem doing normal human stuff like shopping or burning the toast. Five hit singles in a year and their platinum debut album 'Always And Forever' have brought the Croydon quartet the kind of success that even a fairy godmother would be hard pushed to provide.

'Stay' , 'Just A Step From Heaven' and 'Save Our Love' are all featured on that album, just three classy co-ordinates in an A to Z of luscious swingbeat pop, taking in influences like Luther Vandross , the gospel lilt of the Perry sisters and The Winans (who Eternal hav worked with). A nation of teeny pop fans - a notoriously hard constituency to win over - have taken Eternal to their bedroom walls.

As Jim Morrison once cannily observed, 'the men don't know but the little girls understand.' It's about time some of us grown-ups grabbed a slice of the action. In a market dominated by Take That, East 17 and the Max Factor tragedy that is Let Loose, Eternal have, in their own quiet way made some important inroads. Pop hasn't exactly been overburdened by girl groups whose raison d'etre has transcended the mere titilation of young boys. Eternal, however, peddle perfect pop for children of both sexes and all ages. The music industry hasn't been too clever either, at providing positive black role models for black and white teenagers, but ultimately race isn't on the agenda here - merely the warm adrenalin rush that kicks in when those voices converge into one glorious uplifting synegy.

All of which goes some way to explaining why I'm sitting here in Eternal's west London hotel suite, trying to prise some tales of drug-addled, booze-drenched rock 'n' roll oblivion out of Kéllé (19), Easther (22), Vernie (23) and Louise (19), but alas, more pressing considerations are afoot. A year of constant international success may seem exciting to some people, but right now Kéllé , the youngest and most exuberant member of Eternal, is far more enthused by this afternoon's events: 'We're doing "Blue Peter" later,' she fizzes, 'I'm not normally that excited by TV, but I watched "Blue Peter" as a kid. It's going to be so weird being on it.'

'We were big fans,' announces Vernie , between sips of orange juice.

Kéllé: 'I used to love making the Christmas manger. I never got the hang of that thing with the coat hangers and the tinsel though.'

Giggles of recognition abound before Easther explains, 'Kéllé used to do these things - she was an only child.' Easther is Vernie's younger sister. She left university just before the end of her law degree in order to become Eternal's lead singer.

Eternal are excellent at jovial chit-chat. They have to be really. As a defence mechanism to stop you discovring anything juicy, it's incredibly useful. Louise Nurding , who came up through the Italia Conti drama school with Kéllé , is in the bathroom applying her make-up. She's The Quiet One. Even when she does speak, her words fall several feet short of my tape recorder. The rest of the group, meanwhile, are trying to work out why a huge slice of cake has been anonymously left on the bed.

Meeting Eternal when they're not all smiling and singing and dancing in synch is a strangely deflating experience. They're all perfectly lovely and everything, but the sultry gospel harmonies of 'Oh Baby I...' and the gasping histrionics of 'Save Our Love' are a million miles away from this mundane Thursday afternoon in Shepherd's Bush.

'Sometimes, this job can get a little boring.' sighs Vernie, surveying her surroundings, 'but we always have to understand things from other people's point of view.'

'And anyway,' reckons Kéllé , 'because every day you get new experiences it's never boring. You get to see different countries.' Eternal are so good at trotting out the party line on a range of issues, that sometimes you wonder how long the slick image can last before one of them throws a wobbler, develops a drug habit and throws herself down a flight of stairs. Or something.

Easther puts Eternal's almost supernatural understanding of each other down to the two years of grooming that their management company put them through, leading up to the first single: 'That was when we learned to be tolerant of people,' she says. 'It's important to realise that if you've been up all night on a flight, and you show that you're in a bad mood, people are bound to misunderstand you.

'Yeah,' says Kéllé , 'there's no point in complaining, because we've worked hard to get where we are. And you're always going to be misunderstood. Like, you've got 15 minutes on your schedule, so you order some food. If it's horrible, then you might not get to eat for two days.'

'That's right. Your schedule doesn't enourage regular eating,' concludes Vernie , ever the mistress of understatement, 'so when you get the opportunity, you stuff your face and people are like "Gosh! Eternal eat a lot!"'

So, with the exception of people shouting 'You fat bastards' at airports, being the nation's most prolific hit machine is a breeze, eh?

'Well, we get to visit loads of brilliant places. New Zealand was amazing,' pipes Kéllé . 'It's really... cultural. And, like, everything is gospel to them. When people pray in New Zealand they do it properly. We played a girl's school and the pupils did their Maori dancing and performed for us, which made a nice change.'

Easther: 'South-east Asia was weird wasn't it?' Kéllé: 'God, yeah! We were in a lift, and there were these two guys who were cowing away from us. It was against their religion to touch us.'

'Yeah,' ruminates Easther with a touching air of gravity, 'they're very religious out there. If we touched those men, then they'd have gone to hell.'

Kéllé: 'We went to see this Buddhist temple-type thing where people were praying'.

'We were amazed,' crows a clearly overawed Easther , 'beacuse it's in an open space and, like it's made of real gold, like all of it!'

Kéllé: 'You could just go in there and nick it!'

Vernie 's already thought about this one though. 'Ah but you wouldn't, you see. Because you'd be cursed for life!!'

Kéllé offers some sobering concluding words 'They're like, sooo religious in south-east Asia.'

Religion also plays a part in Eternal's current activities. Easther and Vernie 's life-long apprenticeship in the churches of Crydon is used to divine effect on Eternal's Christmas single, a gospel EP which features versions of 'Amazing Grace', 'Crazy', and Labi Siffre's '(Something Inside) So Strong'. Church is a great place,' opines Vernie , 'you learn to harmonise very naturally.'

Eternal leap up from their chairs and prepare for the photo-shoot. All this talk of Christmas spurs Easther to ask the others if they've done any Christmas shopping. Kéllé puts on her astonished look (it's a wonderful expression - she puts her head over her mouth just like George used to do in 'Rainbow') and announces, 'God, no! I keep thinking it's summer!'

'Never shop in Harrods,' announces Vernie , a propose of nothing.

'Yeah! It costs a bomb,' says Kéllé , sweetly oblivious to her sick pun. 'One time I was desperate for a pack of tissues, so I ran into Harrods and it was �15!' Now she's shouting. 'Fifteen pounds!! I thought, "No way, I'll use my sleeve!!"'

Easther leaves the room and applies a touch of mascara to her wildly photogenic features. 'Christmas...' sighs Vernie under her breath. It's almost as if so much has happened in the past year that she's forgotten the festive season is upon us. 'We don't get to go home often', she sighs. And the mood darkens just a little. Just like it did when they were talking about their worryingly irregular diet. Fearing that the conversation may turn to Harrods for a third time, I make my excuses.