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 …