Virginia Pilot- SWV Coko made shoes her business at the beach

Posted on 19 Jan 22:38
By Rashod Ollison
The Virginian-Pilot
© March 7, 2014
It's midday in the middle of the week, and Lynnhaven Mall is quiet.

Inside the C&T Shoe Bar, Cheryl "Coko" Clemons sits behind the register looking as though she's about to hit the stage or strike a pose in an urban fashion photo shoot.

Her silken hair extensions flow past her shoulders. And her makeup is camera-ready: milelong lashes and glossy lips red as cherries. Even her black T-shirt is bedazzled with glittery beads, complementing the rhinestones studding her talonlike nails.

Since opening the women's shoe store in Virginia Beach last August with her business partner, Tamiya Davis, the "T" in C&T, Clemons says she's gotten used to the regular gawkers: fans who know her as the lead singer of SWV, one of the most successful urban acts of the '90s.

Sometimes they browse the strappy spike-heeled pumps or the trendy sandals with complicated buckles. But mostly they come to see, "Is she really in here?" Clemons says, chuckling.

The shoe store is just another way the singer has diversified her business portfolio, turning her interests, like her lifelong shoe fetish, into something profitable.

But music remains Clemons' first love. And for the past 20 years, SWV has been the multiplatinum vehicle for her voice, an instantly recognizable, silvery soprano seared with the gospel trills and flourishes she absorbed as a church girl growing up in the Bronx.

These days, the 43-year-old performer, who has lived in Virginia Beach with her husband and two sons for the past decade, is working with SWV members Tamara "Taj" Johnson-George and Leanne "Lelee" Lyons to re-establish the group's brand in a pop culture with a severe attention deficit.

SWV (Sisters With Voices) will share the bill with other '90s urban-pop acts, including Keith Sweat, Dru Hill and Guy, at Hampton Coliseum tonight. The group, which split in 1998, reunited in 2005, playing mostly "new jack swing" reunion shows, much like the one in Hampton tonight.

But nearly three years ago, SWV earnestly pushed for a comeback with "I Missed Us," the trio's first album in 15 years. It garnered a Grammy nomination and favorable reviews, but sales stalled. A reality show, "SWV Reunited," has been the next career-revitalizing move. The slickly edited show airing on We TV captures the behind-the-scenes drama as the members reshape their image and sound. Footage is shot in Clemons' home in Virginia Beach, in Nashville, where Johnson-George lives, and in Atlanta, where Lyons resides.

"That's the big thing right now, reality TV. Music is not really selling, so if you want to re-create yourself, TV is the way to go," says Clemons, seated against one of the candy apple-red walls in C&T. "If you want to help your brand, this is what you do now."

When Clemons discusses anything regarding SWV, she refers to it as a "business," the job she goes to on the weekends that takes her around the world with two women she's known since high school.

"For me, it's a business mind. I come to work, and I've learned to respect each young lady for who they are," Clemons says. "It's a business, so you have to respect each other as such. You don't really think about that when you're young. You're thinking, 'I want to be famous. I want to make this money.' And if you don't have proper management to lead you and guide you, you get lost."

That's exactly what happened to the three girls from New York City.

In the early '90s, SWV's success dovetailed with the new jack swing sound, spearheaded by Virginia Beach-based producer Teddy Riley. The synthesis of R&B melodic structures and streetwise hip-hop production sold millions of albums for swaggering acts like Guy and Mary J. Blige.

SWV was in that milieu, singing a mix of assertive and sugar-dusted love songs over aggressive beats. The hits came immediately, including "I'm So Into You," "Right Here" and "Weak," which topped Billboard's Hot 100 for two weeks during the summer of 1993.

The group's debut album, "It's About Time," released in late 1992, sold more than 3 million copies. Three subsequent albums - one released in 1996, the other two in 1997 - sold a million copies each. The pop stardom came so fast for Clemons and her family that her mother had to move from her home in the Bronx, after fans kept knocking on the door demanding to see the young singer.

"I was out on tour when all that was happening," Clemons says, rolling her eyes. "When we came out, it was a wrap. Everything blew up so fast. We didn't see that coming. Nobody saw it coming."

But then the dissension came, the jealousy and rumors of diva demands, a "Dreamgirls" story for the 1990s.

"Every little thing I did somebody was going back and telling the label," Clemons says. "I found out later it was Taj. Look, for me, I'm not the kind of person that plays a lot of games. I grew up in the 'hood, and I'm an only child. If I have to cut you off, I will. For me, that's what it was. I just stopped dealing with her. I'd ignore her and just not have a relationship. It took all these years later to have that conversation, like, 'Why did you do that?' But at that time, it wasn't difficult. I was like, 'I'm just gonna get on out here and sing and go on about my business.' "

By the time the members of SWV reunited in 2005, they had matured.

Clemons had also taken a stab at a solo career, releasing her debut, "Hot Coko," in 1999 on RCA, the group's old label. The record tanked. She went back to her gospel roots on two albums, "Grateful" and "The Winner in Me," released in 2006 and 2009. The former received a Grammy nomination. But her job with SWV has provided the steadiest work.

With cameras capturing every move, the reality show has felt intrusive at times, Clemons says. But the show has been successful, drawing more than a million viewers when it premiered in January.

"The cameras are always rolling, catching everything, just nosy," Clemons says. "But it's all editing. So what you thought you saw may not have gone down like that."

But the frequent tears of frustration and sadness among the women in the early episodes were real, the singer says. The show also reveals how the women, all in their 40s, process the pressure of returning to a business that doesn't know what to do with mothers of teenagers. One episode details Clemons' liposuction and Lyons' butt lift, cosmetic surgery the performers felt they needed to compete with the Rihannas and Beyoncés dominating today's urban-pop scene.

Clemons says she feels better about being a part of the group again. The bruised egos are healing, and the women are learning to be patient with one another. Everything is cool as long as the business is tight, the singer says.

"Outside of that, we really don't communicate," Clemons says, running her glamorous nails through her hair. "People tend to think we're best friends and we hang out. It's none of that. But there isn't any animosity, either. I go to work; I do my job. When I come home, I don't want anything to do with SWV. I just wanna be Cheryl."

Rashod Ollison, (757) 446-2732, rashod.ollison@pilotonline.com.

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