February 03, 2003 12:00 PM

There’s nothing wrong with her barely lived-in Houston home, not with the 513-sq.-ft. master bedroom, the swimming pool with three waterfalls and the backyard putting green. But Kelly Rowland of Destiny’s Child isn’t entirely pleased with the sprawling $610,000 house where she lives alone. “I didn’t want it to be that big,” she says. “I don’t usually have enough people to fill it—except for Christmas.” Host of the family feast this past holiday, Rowland made her mom cook the turkey. “I tried doing the turkey for Thanksgiving,” she says, “and it was a flop.”

Which is a rare experience for Rowland, whose first turn in the solo spotlight is anything but a turkey. After catapulting to fame as a founding member of the enormously popular pop trio, Rowland, now 21, scored a surprise hit last spring with her first side project, the single “Dilemma,” a duet with hip hop star Nelly. Now, with the release of her debut solo album, Simply Deep, powered by a rock and soul flavored single, “Stole,” rockin’ Rowland is on a roll. “I’m so proud of her,” says Destiny’s Child singer Beyoncé Knowles, 21, whose group is on temporary hiatus while its members pursue solo projects. (Third member Michelle Williams, 22, had a hit album of gospel tunes last year.) “We’re still together and very happy,” Rowland says, “but we’re all excited that we each get the chance to do something by ourselves.”

Following the lead of Knowles, who crossed over to movie stardom in last year’s Austin Powers in Goldmember, Rowland has heard Hollywood’s siren call as well. And while she won’t be singing in the horror flick Freddie vs. Jason (due next summer), she did get to exercise her vocals. “They taped me screaming once,” she says, “and then used it throughout the movie.”

Screaming as her success has been, Rowland hasn’t always seemed one of fate’s favorites. Born in Atlanta, she barely knew her father, whom she describes as an alcoholic who left home when she was 6. With her mother, Doris, now 55, working as a live-in nanny, Kelly had lived in the homes of five different families by age 9. In 1990 they moved to Houston with one of those families. “I was scared,” Kelly says. “It was a new city, a new environment. But people have said I’m a chameleon. I fit in anywhere.”

More than anything, music helped her adapt to her new home. Singing spirituals in church since age 4, Rowland joined Girls Tyme, a 40-voice group that included Knowles and was organized by her parents. “I remember Beyoncé coming home and saying, ‘There is this girl and she’s really shy, but she has a beautiful voice like an angel’s,’ ” recalls her mother, Tina Knowles. Eventually Kelly moved in with the Knowleses, with the blessings of her mother, who felt they could better provide for Kelly and help realize her dreams of becoming a singer. “She knows I love her,” says Doris, who had a key to the Knowles’s home and remained close to her daughter throughout. “She’s my baby girl.”

Under the tutelage of Beyoncé’s father, Mathew, 51, a Xerox salesman who quit his job to help the girls develop their act, Girls Tyme became the then four-member Destiny’s Child. Following a strict regimen, Kelly and Beyoncé and two other girls who later left the group rose at dawn, jogged down the street singing in unison, practiced dance moves on a specially built backyard stage and took lessons from a live-in voice coach. “While other kids would be outside playing, we were inside rehearsing,” says Kelly. “We knew we wanted to be stars.”

With the 2000 smash “Say My Name,” the girls’ Destiny was achieved. Now, although love has remained elusive—”Where,” she says of her “responsible and humorous” romantic ideal, “is that guy?”—Rowland finds her aborning solo success thrilling. “I decided I’d just ride this roller coaster,” she says, “and let it take me where it will.”

Steve Dougherty

Carol Rust in Houston

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