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Girls5Eva’s Renée Elise Goldsberry on How Her Own ’90s Girl Group ‘Fell Apart’

Photo: Lev Radin/Shutterstock

Gonna be famous 5ever
Because 4ever’s too short
Gonna be famous 3gether
Cuz that’s one more than 2gether
So what are you waiting 5?

So goes the siren song of Girls5Eva’s women, who find themselves in the Peacock comedy trying to revive the success of their fleeting ’90s girl group heyday. One of the four members clawing at that second chance, the incorrigible diva Wickie (Renée Elise Goldsberry), might actually need it the most of all: Her Y2K femme-pire left her bankrupt, accused of human-rights abuses by the Hair and Makeup Guild, and forced to shoot geese for money at an airport, but she’s still convinced of the lifestyle she’s owed because of the voice God put in her mouth. And can you blame her? Here’s a woman who’s unsure why she was ever labelled a diva, “just because I wouldn’t let my backup singers wear makeup and refused to play venues that also did sports.”

For Goldsberry, who’s perhaps best known as Hamilton’s fabulous Angelica Schuyler, Girls5Eva represents a part of her life when she, too, tried to pursue girl group stardom in the ’90s. It didn’t go according to plan, but at least she got a good story out of it — oh yeah, and an eventual Tony Award for Hamilton. On a call with Vulture, Goldsberry was happy to recount her own “super young and cute” girl group experience, Wickie’s T-shirt gun full of catchphrases, and, of course, the joys of The Maskical.

Has Jim Carrey personally called you and expressed gratitude for The Maskical?
Oh my God, you know what’s so funny? I lost my mind the other day about it. [Laughs.] I literally thought to myself, Is there any way I can see Jim Carrey again and tell him about this? I met him backstage at Hamilton once. I want to ask him if he thinks it’s funny. I haven’t had that great honor yet. I do have a friend that wrote for his Showtime show, so I thought to myself, I wonder if I can reach out to him and see if he likes it. I imagine that Jim Carrey is used to all kinds of people finding ways to spoof his brilliant comedy. If you know him, will you tell him I hope he likes it?

Wickie is one of those endlessly quotable divas, and I love the physicality and cadence that you brought to the role. I believe she likens it to “performative sexuality” at one point. Did you do any diva training to prepare?
You know, it was just right there waiting to come out from within me. I think, and maybe I’m not alone in this, I’ve spent a lifetime of suppressing all of those urges and tendencies just so that people will like me. I think Wickie gave me an excuse to let it all out. It was not in any way hard to work for attention, sing a little louder, and sing a little more obnoxious to get somebody to look at me. Or to try to wear the biggest and most ostentatious clothes, anything to get noticed. I don’t know if that’s something behind everybody who comes up in this career, but I’ve been swallowing those urges for such a long time. I didn’t know how desperately I needed it.

The greatest calling card for Wickie is how she develops in the first episode. You get to see the façade and the lie, and then you get to see 100 percent transparency and vulnerability. I remember reading the scripts and having a very clear aha moment by the time I finished reading the scene where she’s in the hotel room with Dawn. I think we can all relate to someone who feels like life owes them something and is aware of how impossible it is to correct mistakes that they’ve made. No matter how ridiculous Wickie is, there’s something we can hold onto.

Where do you think she fits within the spectrum of real-life diva worship? Are we talking Mariah level?
I think she’s definitely studied the Diana Rosses of the world. She’s nipped some of the love that flows out of that. But when you look at Mariah Carey and Diana Ross and Whitney Houston, you’re looking at people who spent a lot of time pouring back out that love and giving it to their fans. Wickie lost that part. She only really saw the receipt of it and felt entitled to it, so that’s where she went wrong. But she’s definitely the dynamic, vocal diva that felt all she really had to do is stand, sing, and receive adulation.

I thought the Y2Gay episode was pretty interesting, because it dives into the fact that Wickie, despite the full extent of her glam and hustle, was never the one profiting off of herself. I’m curious if you’ve ever experienced something like that in your own career.
There’s a long history of artists, the ones in front of the camera or the ones with voices on their records, who have this illusion of financial success. But in reality, if they make this percentage of money, there’s a much bigger percentage going to everybody else. There’s also a time-sensitive element of how they’re able to receive anything. Wickie is aware of that now, but wasn’t in the beginning. For me, Renée, it was always odd. When I look at the hits for every singer outside of, like, Ray Charles, who owned his own masters, you were always working for somebody else, even though they let you stand in a fur coat and ride around in a limousine. But for a long time, the real money wasn’t coming to you. That was always obvious to me, but Wickie missed it and probably spent every night over the past two decades scratching her head and thinking, I can’t believe I thought I owned my mansion. I can’t believe I thought I could pay back those credit cards. She’s increasingly aware of it, and when she goes off at Y2Gay, that’s been her pent-up frustration and pain that finally found an outlet.

At least she was able to keep that spectacular clear piano.
That was truly spectacular. It shows the brilliance of our production team. They had to make a choice about what they were going to spend money on, and they picked this absurdly expensive piano. [Laughs.] In normal shows, that’s something that a writers room would dream of but be rendered impossible by a budget. But Girls5Eva got it. They moved that piano between two sets, too. They realized it was solid gold.

Was pop or girl-group stardom something that interested you, from a professional standpoint, when you were working in the ’90s?
Absolutely. I tried very hard to get signed. I wanted to be a solo artist. I wanted to be signed in a band. I wanted to be signed in a girl group. Anything that would give my career traction. At that time, I thought the first thing you should try for should be recording and studio success. It seemed like it would be more likely that someone would come see me in a movie as a recording artist than buy my album as an actor. I thought, strategically, the smart move would be to start in the recording space. But what I love about my career is that it proved me wrong. [Laughs.] Hamilton and my success in the theater is what has given me an opportunity to record music and tour all over the country. It didn’t work out the way that I thought, but I’m excited about what happened instead. It was perfect for me.

Did you ever come close to making it big in a girl group?
Yeah. In the ’90s, I had a really good friend named Kenna Ramsey who called me because she had an opportunity to be part of a girl group. It was her and another girl named Dawn, I believe. Very Girls5Eva in real life, right? I was brought in with another friend of mine from Toronto. The producers flew her in and got her paperwork cleared from Canada so she could be a part of this girl group. They put these little strips of clothes on us, we were super young and cute, and we could all really, really sing. They gave us this great song. Well, we thought it was a great song. When I look back on it now, I’m appalled. [Laughs.] I recently found a bunch of photos of us from back then, and they’re all hilarious. We went to an audition in a hotel room for MCA Records. One of the department heads came to hear us sing. We were going to kill it and knock it out of the water. Everyone that we sang for up to that point was blown away by us because we could all really sing.

So, this woman walked into the room, and she was clearly a powerhouse. Before she sat down to hear us sing, one of the other girls said, “When is your baby due?” I think you can guess what happened next. “I’m not pregnant.” And that was the immediate end of our career. We didn’t go farther than that. Everything fell apart from there. The closest I’ve ever gotten to signing a record deal was from that group. And who knows what would’ve happened. When I look back at my life, I think everything was perfect. But that perfectness is a road full of nos, rejections, disregards, and pivots.

Something that was on my mind while watching the show, and it actually came up in one of the episodes, is the idea of what Girls5Eva stands for. They seemed to have such a bleak, Svengali-ed backstory and lost touch with each other, but a sisterhood remained, so it felt natural when they reunited after so many years. When Vanessa Williams’s character asked you all what Girls5Eva is, she was met with silence. So, I figured I’d ask for your thoughts on it: What is Girls5Eva?
I’ve actually thought a lot about that as well. The journey of the show is understanding that there’s no one definition of what a woman is, by herself or in a group. People continue to grow and evolve and change, which also means the answer to that question can change. The girls are just learning that they’re bigger than the approval of anybody else and that they’re bigger than the barometer of our values. They don’t know it yet in that episode, but I think they discover it when Vanessa’s character gives them what they think they want — they think they want a bigger profile, validation, and success. It’s being in the public eye, so to speak. But they learn that’s not what it is. Rather, it’s finding a way to express what our inner voices and talents are in a way that’s authentic to who we are in this particular moment.

When they’re standing on the stage singing “Four Stars” in the finale, knowing that they have to give up their new lifestyles in order to do that one thing, it’s the first time that it ever dawned on them, This is who we are. My point is, they don’t know it yet by the end of the season, but the closest they ever get is when they sacrifice everything just to sing with their authentic selves together. Everything else can go to hell. [Laughs.] We haven’t even cracked the surface of their ability to answer.

What was the most enjoyable throwback performance for you all to film?
My mind changes all the time about it, because I always remember something new that makes me laugh so hard. How bad are the lyrics and the idea of what was appropriate back then? There’s one scene when Dawn and Wickie are shooting a music video about a woman’s fault when it comes to cheating. If our man does cheat / we only get real mad / at the other girl / it’s the other girl’s fault only! I think that’s the whole song. But the more ridiculously wrong our perspective is in the ’90s, the more exciting “Four Stars” becomes. There’s more relief we get when we actually find a way to sing something that’s good.

But also, at the very end of the season, the very last thing we shot was “Famous 5Eva.” I cried when I saw the finished video. I’m not kidding. We only had a day to shoot it. It was a blessing from the gods that we could actually shoot it, amid the pandemic and everything. There was really no need for a full music video, so I’m grateful that we were given the opportunity. It feels so good. We talk a lot about what was bad about girl groups in the ’90s, but there’s something really beautiful about them. It’s just being with girls and that being enough. Being with a group of girls — laughing, singing, making something in harmony with each other. That seems really trite, but it isn’t. It’s not trite and it’s not small. It’s healing and it feels good just to be with girls, with women. When I see that music video, which is by no means is elaborate, it reminds me of how powerful and healing it is to just be with other women.

Okay, it’s been a month, have you gotten any “cease and desist, bitch!” street calls yet?
I have. I was doing a concert in Iowa last weekend, and it was the first time I was back with my band in a year. We were outside at a beautiful park, surrounded by a beautiful symphony, and I told the audience, “Hey all, I’m in a new show called Girls5Eva, check it out if you can.” And somebody immediately from the audience goes, “Cease and desist, bitch!” [Laughs.] I’m sure nobody in the park knew what that meant. He was a true fan. If that follows me for the rest of my life, I’d just say thank you.

Girls5Eva’s Renée Elise Goldsberry on Her Girl-Group Stories