An Interview With Ms. Tina Knowles: The Quintessential Renaissance Woman (2024)

Indisputably, one of the most significant pop culture movements in recent memory has been Beyoncé’s Renaissance World Tour. In the midst of shattering records and stimulating national economies, this majestic concert experience has been more than just a musical treat for the ages: it has culminated as a safe space of expression for people from all walks of life who showed up as their most authentic selves, in a time where community and culture desperately matters.

Now, Renaissance: A Film By Beyoncé is destined to exceed those expectations, while giving an even more incisive look into behind the scenes of tour life, the sacredness of community and Beyoncé’s legacy work. History will crystallise that fashion became an important vehicle of expression for concertgoers and movie lovers - particularly, members of the LBGTQIA Community - who flocked to stadiums and arenas around the world in swarming colonies to reclaim power and identity through song and style. Beyond The Queen Bey’s global reign of influence over the last 26 years, this tour also craftily celebrates one indispensable source of inspiration behind the scenes: her mother, Ms. Tina Knowles.

At the intersectionality of all things creative, Ms. Tina Knowles has lived many lives. From dabbling in the world of makeup artistry in her late teens, to hair salon owner, resourceful costume designer, author, keynote speaker, philanthropist and certainly, superordinate storyteller through the art of fashion, the multifaceted businesswoman has certainly made an indelible mark in entertainment circles. But even in the absence of contumely criticism, prestigious evocations and prized industry labels, magic still lives in the palms of her hands. It is, quite possibly, the same generational magic of dressmaker talents that have been gently passed down from her Louisiana-born grandmother, to her mother, and eventually, to her. As an arbiter of fashion, Ms. Tina’s skill set is a timeless rarity; but as the Knowles family matriarch, her commitment to fostering legacy is unwavering. For her, family is the soul of her soul - where it all began.

In this rare interview and in honor of World AIDS Day, we chat with Ms. Tina Knowles about her nephew and best friend, lovingly known as Uncle Johnny who ‘made that dress’ as her earliest style collaborator, and the dynamic duo’s journey with fashion from humble beginnings in Galveston, Texas. From their early adventures in the embryonic career stages for Destiny's Child to Johnny's heartbreaking death from AIDS complications in 1998, hers is a journey of re-discovery, re-birth and alignment. We chronicle Ms. Tina Knowles' ability to find healing in fashion which connects to Beyoncé’s incredible style range that was on display throughout the tour - a story that global audiences now expect to unfold on the big screen. Ms. Tina’s impact on Renaissance: A Film By Beyoncé stitches together a new tale of intentionality: one that recognizes her costuming career as a reverent form of fashion archiving that memorializes this important movement for future generations.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.


Best High-Yield Savings Accounts Of 2024ByKevin PayneContributor
Best 5% Interest Savings Accounts of 2024ByCassidy HortonContributor

Tenille Clarke: Ms. Tina, thank you so much for taking the time to make space for this conversation. As Black Women, I feel as if this is such an important connection for us to have: not just to celebrate the work that you continue to do, but to also better understand the fundamentals of legacy and purpose through the gifts that you’ve been given.

Ms. Tina Knowles: It’s my absolute pleasure, thank you.

Clarke: To many associates on the social scene in your heyday, your nephew was John Edward Rittenhouse Jr. But to you and your beautiful children, he was simply Uncle Johnny. If you were to use three words to describe Uncle Johnny, what would they be and why?

Knowles: Oh my. Three words. Dynamic, loving... and talented.

Clarke: Those came sort of easy to you; it flowed effortlessly. Why did you choose those three words?

Knowles: I mean, I could actually have so many words to describe him (laughs). It just comes naturally because... he was just bigger than life, Johnny was. You know, I say in the RENAISSANCE film that every room Johnny walked into, he left it better than when he came in it. I don’t know many people that can say every room that they entered, they left it better. He was incredibly kind, incredibly funny and you felt like you knew him a minute after you met him. Yvette (Noel-Schure, Beyoncé’s publicist) has met him, and he would just fill up a room and knew exactly what to say to make someone feel beautiful. He was really the most unique human being I’ve ever met.

Clarke: Take me back to those days in Galveston, Texas. What was life like for you and the girls in such a creative, dynamic and loving environment?

Knowles: Well I’ll tell you, both Johnny and I grew up in Galveston. It is a really small town just 50 miles outside of Houston - but my kids grew up in Houston, the big city. Galveston is a little island, and we both know about island living - it’s laid back and a big part of it is the beach. People are much freer there, the pace is slower, and even though there was a lot of racial tension back then, Johnny and I really grew up in fashion. And that was our life - sewing, making our own clothes, being the sharpest-dressed kids around... even though we were really poor. So life was really good growing up there - my mother and his mother were both seamstresses and designers. Fashion was passed down and was just a way of life for us. I always say that fashion saved my family.

Clarke: You know, I really wanted to ask you if Uncle Johnny was professionally trained or if he was self-taught - or family-taught?

Knowles: He was family-taught. My Mom taught him how to sew at a very young age. Looking back on it now, I know that that was my Mom’s way of protecting him. I remember her saying to him “Johnny, if you can sew and make beautiful clothes for people, they will adore you, they will love you.” It was true, and while she didn't openly say that she wanted to keep him safe, I know now that she was very concerned about him being protected as a gay child back in that time.

Clarke: That makes so much sense - creating a safe environment of love and familiarity. Since he played such a huge role in raising the girls, what do you think was Uncle Johnny’s best quality that you still see reflected in your girls to this very day?

Knowles: Oh wow. The quality is the creativity. Just being bold, self-aware and knowing that even what you are presenting to the world is so different and unique that some people might not understand it - and not caring. That was Johnny, and those are my girls. He really didn’t spend time concentrating on people accepting what he put out there. His fashion was super bold: bright colours, unexpected things... and he expected people to love it. And my girls are the epitome of that: they don’t think in terms of colouring inside the lines. They blur the lines, colour outside of it... and when they were kids, that’s what they were encouraged to do by Johnny and I. We were rebels!

Clarke: Right! There’s such a carefree spirit in the way you talk about Uncle Johnny and yourself.

Knowles: Girl, we thought that we were hot. We were out there with our Afros, and sometimes I look at the pictures and I’m like “we look so crazy!” (laughs) and I’m sure we passed that on to the girls.

Clarke: And I’m sure that energy made for a great collaborative process between you and him. What were those brainstorming experiences like when it came to dressmaking?

Knowles: Well, in the early days before Johnny got sick, he helped me a lot. He made the girls’ clothes when they were little, and also for Girls Tyme - the group that they were before Destiny’s Child. When the girls were trying to make it (in the entertainment business), he was helping me. The collaborations were always on-point: we both loved sparkle and colour. You gotta remember, Beyoncé was 15 and the girls were 16 when they had their first hit record. We wanted them to look like Motown - sparkly, bold and over-the-top as entertainers. The truth is, at that time artists were wearing baggy jeans and crop tops - that was the way of the land. We didn’t want that to be their image, so Johnny was very instrumental in influencing me to be big and bold, so that the person in the 40th row in an audience could see them sparkle (laughs). He was very much a part of building that philosophy.

Clarke: What else do you think is the magical quality that Uncle Johnny brought to your shared creative process?

Knowles: Johnny always said that there were no rules. So when I started fully designing for the girls after he passed, his voice would always be in my head telling me to do the unexpected. Be disruptive. Don’t go with the crowds. In the 70’s and 80’s, he came up with this patchwork fabric and at the time, since polyester and knit in bright colours were the in-thing. He would make men’s leisure suits and would have so much fabric left over - so he started cutting out individual squares, sewed them together and made this fabric. Beautiful clothing made from fabric remnants, the ends of the bolts of fabric, which he got from my Mom. So again, it’s legacy: its passing on those traditions... and even though my Mom didn’t know that was what she was doing, she was making something out of nothing and she was passing that legacy on to Johnny and me.

Clarke: Coming to think of it Ms. Tina, if I recall correctly, that patchwork was incorporated into a House of Deréon collection some time ago.

Knowles: Yes, exactly!

Clarke: So then do you think that part of the legacy was intentional, in the way that Johnny influenced certain design elements?

Knowles: Absolutely, yes. I remember specifically there is an old video I saw recently of Beyoncé and Jay (Z) on MTV I believe. She has on this denim dress - I took all these pairs of old jeans that I got from Goodwill and put together that dress. And that is carrying on Johnny’s legacy because I just kept the tradition of that patchwork idea.

Clarke: Wow. Honestly, I remember when the RENAISSANCE Album released, you had mentioned in a social media post that your family did a Christmas photoshoot for a local newspaper in Texas. The way you described it, it sounded like such a core memory for you. Tell me more about that day.

Knowles: You know, I’m writing a book so I don’t want to give too much of that story away. But we had a photoshoot and they were showing all ethnicities - we were “The Black Family”. Johnny made the dresses for the girls and that’s such a famous picture at home of the girls in these little plaid dresses. He also cooked the food and did everything, and I remember Beyoncé and Solange were talking to the reporters and bragging that “Uncle Johnny did this” and the media that was there thought that Johnny was their father. He was so involved in our lives.

Clarke: You know, the HIV/AIDS epidemic ravaged through communities in the 80’s and 90’s, not just in the USA, but all over. Even in the Caribbean, we have the highest incidence rate in all of the Americas - only second to the African continent. And we could sit down and analyse data, talk about funding for research, all of these important things. But for me, it’s about the social impact of battling HIV/AIDS and how witnessing that devastation really tells a story behind the suffering.

Knowles: I know exactly what you mean. It’s hard.

Clarke: So hard. I remember growing up in Trinidad, there was a guy in my neighbourhood who fell very sick after contracting HIV and he was completely shunned: his family left him to live in a wooden structure. He had no access to medical or financial assistance and no one to turn to. It was my aunt who raised me that would buy him groceries and try to support him until he eventually passed away. To this day, I remember seeing those moments up close as a child. For you, what do you think was the most difficult part in managing the reality of Uncle Johnny’s health?

Knowles: Oh, God. When we found out that Johnny had full-blown AIDS by that time, he kept it a secret - which breaks my heart because he dealt with all of that emotion and fear alone. During that period, people were afraid to share that information. I get sad about it because as close as we were, he didn’t feel confident or comfortable enough in our relationship that he would share it with me. Johnny was working for my friend at that point; she was a nurse and her husband was a doctor. We had a conversation and they mentioned that Johnny was having night sweats. I asked them “What does that mean?” and they responded and said “Well, he might have AIDS.” And I said no - because if he did, he would share that with me. My biggest regret is that I should have had the courage to confront him about it, because I would have been happy for him to share that with me. I regret that to this day. By the time I heard he was sick, he was already in the hospital and medically it was very late in the game. Knowing him, he didn’t want to burden me... he didn’t want us to see him and think only about AIDS, and he didn’t want to be denied access to my kids. Tenille, he loved them so much, and they loved him so much. You wouldn’t believe the ignorant and stupid things people would say to me about going to see him in hospice care, because they didn't understand the nature of the illness.

Clarke: Do you think that after Uncle Johnny’s transition, you found healing and renewed purpose in fashion?

Knowles: Oh absolutely. I mean, I was already designing, but everything that I’ve done in fashion, he is at the heart of it. We started that journey as tiny kids - putting our money together just to buy a VOGUE Magazine to recreate and sketch the designs in the pages. I feel his spirit all the time and there are so many instances where me, Beyoncé and Solange would have an experience and we would say “You know, this is Johnny.” His name always comes up and it’s been a way to keep his spirit alive. Even before the song HEATED came out, I would talk about him. He’s just a part of our legacy. When Beyoncé, Solange or Kelly walks out on that stage and they’re wearing something fabulous, you can’t but help think of him and the whole family. My grandmother, my Mama, my sisters, everybody.

Clarke: We’re able to see that in so many ways. Beyoncé has paid tribute to Uncle Johnny in word and in deed, and there’s clear lineage in the intentionality behind your daughter’s work and how it connects to your passion. She dedicated her 2019 GLAAD award to him and now seeing the way she curated the RENAISSANCE album, the tour and the film, there’s a clear connection in the way these personal experiences are amplified. How does that make you feel as a guardian to the Rittenhouse and Knowles legacies?

Knowles: I am incredibly grateful and also really, really emotional. Johnny would always say to me “I’m gonna be famous Mary!” and I would always tell him “I know”, taking it with a grain of salt. Little did I know that one day that he really would be famous and there would be thousands of young people saying his name. And when I’m at those concerts, and I see people... I see hundreds of Johnny’s being bold with big personalities and dance moves, his facial expressions and being themselves. They’re comfortable and not worried about what others may say. The beauty of those moments is unbelievable. A young man came up to me at a play I attended recently and he said “Ms. Tina, I just want to ask you for a hug. I am Johnny - except I grew up in a family where I was disowned.” So while Johnny had a family that loved, accepted and celebrated him, this young man was Johnny because of the way he was dressed... his hair, his attitude and personality was all there, and to know that he felt accepted, protected and loved really touched me. I hugged him and it brought me to tears because I know that Johnny has been a source of pride and hope for so many people. Even now, it makes me emotional thinking about how our love for Johnny set an example so many years later.

Clarke: To be able to show up as the truest version of yourself is powerful, especially for the LBGTQIA community. Why do you think people from all walks of life felt comfortable enough to present their most authentic self at the RENAISSANCE Tour?

Knowles: First of all, the music on Beyoncé’s album is their music, and it came from the their space. When Johnny was 16 or 17 and I was 14, I found a club for us to go to. Even though he had the love of his family, he was lonely. I kept telling him that there had to be somewhere that people go and gather. The spot was called the Contiki, and I shouldn’t have even been in there because I was underaged (laughs). But we went there and it was like a whole new world: the music was loud, people were dancing on the floor with reckless abandonment and he could just be totally free. It all centered around house music and it was just electrifying. It changed Johnny’s life - he felt safe and free. And as my kids were growing up, he played house music every Saturday to encourage them to dance and clean up. He influenced them with that music. So to see Beyoncé honour him like that with RENAISSANCE is full-circle. The album is a masterpiece and if anyone took the time to listen to the words, feel the music and get into the fashion, it’s just infectious. Every night at the shows I would cry because you would just see this camaraderie. It’s a movement.

Clarke: It was such a congenial space! People were complimenting each other on their outfits. Everyone made you feel good.

Knowles: Right! It was filled with love and acceptance. I have been on every tour with Beyoncé over the years, and I was so sad on the final night of the RENAISSANCE Tour. I got some healing from that place every night. I don’t mean to cry now. It was just a big ole love fest.

Clarke: I think the reason you feel so strongly about the experience is because you carry Johnny’s essence with you wherever you go. As a costumer and a designer, something culminated on this RENAISSANCE Tour for you. When I attended the show in Houston, I was archiving time periods and eras in my mind and there were some incredible fashion references on stage. I saw Studio 54 in the 70’s. I saw retro-inspired looks from the Swinging London era in the 60’s. I think you went for it all this time around. Did you?

Knowles: Yes we sure did! Beyoncé had a very clear idea of how she wanted the tour fashion to be. She wanted to reflect Studio 54, highlight the LBGTQIA community and other elements. We studied all the clothes from that time period and make a modern version. You see disco, you see house music, the funkadelics, the Earth Wind & Fire. It’s all of that and I took it to another level: I hired 4 stylists and managed the team. It was friendly competition with people collaborating and rooting for each other, which was the spirit of the tour. The people, the crew, the stylists, the musicians, the band - everybody collaborated and celebrated each other.

Clarke: You probably had hundreds of costume options! There were so many designers: from TONGORO in Senegal, to PatBO in Brazil, Ibrahim Kamara from Off-White. What was the goal going into that planning process, especially in terms of the diaspora talent?

Knowles: The goal was to make it as inclusive as possible. So for example, in June we were on tour during Black Music Month, and we featured all Black designers for Juneteenth, in Amsterdam. That was such an exciting night and a proud moment for me as a Black Designer. I was cheesing from ear to ear. When Beyoncé said “Black Designers”, we said that it couldn’t be all African-American. We reached out to all areas of the world and to Beyoncé’s credit, that has always been a goal for her. It’s intentional and inclusive and she does it quietly. I applaud her for it because she’s always trying to bring somebody up.

Clarke: What will happen with all of those RENAISSANCE costumes now?

Knowles: Well, we are archiving. We tried to use as much as we could which is really hard. I don’t think people understand - changing clothes 10 times in one night is a job within itself. Sometimes you only have 60 seconds to change. The more you use a costume, the easier it becomes a quick-change. But when does Giselle Knowles-Carter ever do anything easy? (laughs) We were just gung-ho about putting as many designers on that stage as possible. I’m sure she’ll continue to wear the things and celebrate those designers. It’s not over because the concerts are over. She still has hundreds of costumes and we plan to get to them in some form or fashion.

Clarke: Do you have a favourite look from the tour? Or at least looks that you think about often?

Knowles: I have so many favourite looks that it’s almost impossible to say. But think about often? The Bee Costume hands down is a piece of art. The Off-White red one that I wore on the Sherri Shepperd show recently is one of my favourites. But there are so many others.

Clarke: Your love for fashion comes across as so transcendental and I think what you have done connects to Beyoncé’s incredible style range on a profound level. That has been on display not just on the RENAISSANCE Tour, but the last 26 years. When it comes to creating a legacy with fashion and style, are there similarities you see in yourself that mirror in Beyoncé?

Knowles: Of course! You know, if you look at early Destiny’s Child clothing, you’ll see elements like very bold colours, cutouts - things that were very ahead of their time. I took a lot of flack back then for those style decisions. We reference a lot of the early fashion in the film, so for example the “Bills Bills Bills” video, with the cutouts and the strings which were seen to be outrageous, I kept thinking to myself “I’m going too far” or “People aren’t going to understand this”. But now I see that in the fashion that she presents in RENAISSANCE, and I have to say that the boldness that Beyoncé has in fashion - the audacity - is her knowing how to make it work. I feel very proud of that, because I said that people will accept her and the girls for who they are. My philosophy is the same as my Mom’s: you change the world, and you don’t let the world change you. And the fans loved the clothes - they couldn’t wait to see what was happening next. I had to have a lot of confidence to stick to what I was doing.

Clarke: Confidence is key, and as Beyoncé said in HEATED: “Uncle Johnny made my dress, that cheap spandex she looks a mess”. But the irony is that you have used cheap materials, shopped at flea markets -

Knowles: And I love some spandex! (laughs)

Clarke: So then it’s not about the spandex. It’s the magic.

Knowles: It’s the magic. It’s what you do with it. I have always loved spandex because it fits the body and your curves. Fit is everything to me and that’s something that comes from being a seamstress’ daughter. You can see early examples of how much fit matters from the early days of Destiny’s Child. So when we started a clothing line, Beyoncé and I wanted to bring something for everyone. Fashion is really what you do with it.

Clarke: If Uncle Johnny attended one of the RENAISSANCE shows with you, standing next to you, watching his niece on stage, surrounded by people that look and act like him, share in community with him, even watching Blue Ivy perform… what do you think he would turn and say to you, not just as their uncle - but as your best friend?

Knowles: I could just hear him saying “Mary, I told you.” I know he would probably have tears of joy and be so happy. That was Johnny’s world - that he had at the club, or at the drag shows, or while making clothes. I know that he would be so proud at the fact that people felt free and safe to be themselves in the RENAISSANCE space; that they don’t have to hide. I know that he is incredibly proud of Beyoncé and all of my girls, because he had so much to do with shaping who they are today. And to be honest, he would say “Girl, we arrived.“

For more information on HIV/AIDS awareness in the Caribbean, please visit the website for the United Nations Population Fund.

An Interview With Ms. Tina Knowles: The Quintessential Renaissance Woman (2024)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Merrill Bechtelar CPA

Last Updated:

Views: 6216

Rating: 5 / 5 (70 voted)

Reviews: 85% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Merrill Bechtelar CPA

Birthday: 1996-05-19

Address: Apt. 114 873 White Lodge, Libbyfurt, CA 93006

Phone: +5983010455207

Job: Legacy Representative

Hobby: Blacksmithing, Urban exploration, Sudoku, Slacklining, Creative writing, Community, Letterboxing

Introduction: My name is Merrill Bechtelar CPA, I am a clean, agreeable, glorious, magnificent, witty, enchanting, comfortable person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.