I Was in Cleopatra, One of the UK’s First Black 90s Girl Groups
It's been 20 years since the three Mancunian sisters gave black girls pop role models. Cleo Higgins looks back on her experience of fame at a young age.
In the late 1990s there was no girl group like Cleopatra. Cleo, Yonah, and Zainam Higgins—three teen sisters from Manchester—sounded like The Jackson 5, dressed like they’d grown up with early TLC posters on their walls and kicked their way into the industry with single “Cleopatra’s Theme (Comin’ Atcha).” As the story goes, Madonna was so impressed she signed them to her Maverick record label and they broke America, selling hundreds of thousands of records.
The reality was a bit more complex. For a time they seemed unstoppable—earning BRIT and MOBO nominations, bagging a TV series replicating their family life (and featuring their mom and little sister). I mean, they sang at a Vatican Christmas carol concert. But as Cleo told me, a record label-directed change in their look and sound meant the band’s second album Steppin’ Out missed the mark and was only released in the US.
A Haçienda and male-focused music history hasn’t really remembered Cleopatra in their hometown. It’s a shame, not only because their songs about homelessness (“Life Ain’t Easy”) or bullying (“Don’t Suffer In Silence”) still resonate today, but also because their television series – splicing backstage tour footage and performances – was a pioneering format. Most importantly, they were one of a kind: a black British girl band who refused to be whitewashed and whose early success had the potential to steer the music industry toward much wider diversity. Now, 20 years since Cleopatra broke the mainstream, lead singer Cleo tells her story.
When we first came out everyone thought we were American. Fans would say, “We thought England was white, that it’s all about the Queen.” It was suddenly like people realized black people aren’t just African and American—we’re everywhere—and they found that very inspirational. We wore our hair in braids, we were very African in our styling, and I still get messages from fans saying, “You showed me I could be myself.”
Although everyone remembers us as getting signed by Madonna, she didn’t discover us. I was writing songs at nine years old, singing En Vogue and making harmonies up for my sisters. Then we’d get the train from Manchester to London and we went from label to label. We’d walk in, stand in the lobby and start singing at the top of our voices. But when we did meet Madonna she was lovely and very protective.
After we got our deal when I was 14, I came out of school and got a private tutor. The lessons that we were doing were so minuscule though, it wasn’t enough, we were just doing it to tick a box. I didn’t do my GCSEs, there just wasn’t any time—we’d do five shows a day and we weren’t sleeping much, we’d be up at the crack of dawn to get flights. But not completing school hasn’t stopped me from being in education—I trained to be a chef after Cleopatra.
My mom came along with us a lot to make sure that people weren’t pushing us into a corner. It was good for her too—she went through awful abuse with my dad. While we were on tour she was living her best life—she was like, “I’m out and about, I’m not trapped anymore!” Then on the television show we did we were heavily involved with that as a family—we’d sit around the writing table telling our stories. It was weird but it was authentic.
I was always getting up to all sorts of mischief with other artists. I remember being in the Regent Palace Hotel in London, throwing water bombs out of the window with Aaron Carter and just running around wild. Aaron was naughty, we’d play knock-a-door-running and my sisters would roll their eyes like, “You guys are like big kids.”
When we met Destiny’s Child we said to them, “Oh my God, it’s so nice to meet you!” but they weren’t very interested in us. They were hanging out with this boy band called IMx and they only had time for them. Clive Davis was a fan though and when we met Lionel Richie during the MTV Awards in Milan he came into our breakfast room and said, “I’m sorry I didn’t want to disturb you, but would you mind signing this album for [his daughter] Nicole?” It was very surreal.
The best thing I got to do was traveling—I got to see the world. We went to a children’s home in Jamaica and they couldn’t believe it. I didn’t realize how much of an impact we had on people’s lives until then—it had the most profound effect on me. My sisters loved Japan too but I thought Paris was best because we went to Disneyland every time.
Because we were young there were a lot of young fans and kids can’t control their emotions as it is, so they were always crying and screaming. We’d take them into hotels and stuff—we were acting like everyone was our mates from school. But what do you do when you’re a kid and you’ve got people who want to play? I was very innocent I guess. Only when I got older and I thought about them rocking the tour bus did I realize the magnitude of what was going on.
We didn’t really get advice from anybody. The closest thing was when I bumped into Liam Gallagher. He was in this hotel bar and I was getting a hot chocolate. He said, “y’alright our kid?” He asked how everything was going and I said it was going well. He said, “are you still enjoying it?” and he winked at me as he said it. I replied, “I am,” and he said, “Good, make sure you are, because it gets tough. Be careful who you trust.” I said, “I don’t trust anyone,” and he said, “Good kid.” It’s like we both knew.
We were paid £500,000 to sign a publishing deal but I didn’t see a penny of that. I love my ex management but they didn’t know what they were doing. People were always trying to rip us off though. We were signing away thousands for costumes that we never saw. But when we were in Tokyo one time we refused to sign a release form because we were tired of not seeing what was in the contracts. We were 16 or 17 years old by then and we’d started to grow balls.
After I came out of the deal with Warner Bros as Cleopatra they wanted to have me as a solo artist straight away. But they wanted to write all my songs and that didn’t make any sense to me as I’d been writing my own songs my whole life. So when people ask why my solo record never came out, I tell them—I was dealing with a management team and a record label who didn’t seem to have any women doing production or marketing. It was men, men, men, and their idea of a woman was a sexual object.
For a black female it’s so hard in this industry—you’re already a woman and then you’re black and then you’re put into this category—pop star, sexy R&B artist, big lungs, has to “holla, holla, holla.” I don’t want “holla, holla, holla”—why do I have to kill my instrument? Why do I have to take my clothes off? Why can’t I just sing about things that are really important to me?
Following some years away from the spotlight raising my kids, I started doing music again. Every time I performed people came away from it like it was food to their souls, but that wasn’t reflecting in my pay cheque so in 2013 I went on The Voice. I chose that over X Factor as I didn’t want to be judged my history, but it didn’t last very long because they told the whole country who I was before they even got to see my blind audition.
I went with the mindset of, “I’m going to make this the best performance and go viral.” It did the job—it was the quickest chair turn in the history of The Voice and I got four yeses. I cried when I got through to the semi-final—I couldn’t believe it. But I was also heavily trolled on the internet. The one that hurt me the most was people saying that I’m a diva. As strong black women we’re automatically looked at like we’re loud or we’re angry. Why do I have to be coy and timid for you to like me? Why can’t I be like a white woman that is strong and bold? If you saw a strong bold white woman on the show you’d be like, “she’s got spunk, she’s got fire,” but for a black woman it’s like, “she’s a diva.”
The public have become fickle through these singing competition shows. Everyone’s like, “I can’t wait til the next one!” The same week that we finished they started filming auditions for the following series and then we got an email saying they weren’t doing a tour that year. I was like, “What now?” They pick you up and they let you go. But I’ve been asked to do another high-profile television show next year and I said yes—I feel I have more in me.
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This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.