Sisters Act

updated 09/06/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/06/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

A onetime gospel group sings about sex

FAME CAN BE SOOOO TIRESOME. JUST ask Coko, Leelee and Taj, the Sisters With Voices—SWV for short. It's a steamy afternoon in Manhattan, and the three are primped, dressed and ready for a photo shoot. But following an early-morning appearance on Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, they are struggling to keep their eyes open. "We're not used to all of this," says Leelee. "Smiling all the time, being happy when you're really sad." Not that they've had much to be sad about in the past year. Their debut album, It's About Time, an upbeat blend of rap and R&B, has sold nearly 2 million copies and generated a No. 1 song, "Weak," and a Top 10 song, "I'm So Into You." And their new double single, "Right Here (Human Nature )/Downtown," is currently No. 1 on the R&B charts. The group has been so busy, reports Taj, that she hasn't had lime to enjoy her one indulgence: Takejo, a sharpei puppy. "I haven't seen him since I paid for him," she says with rueful humor. "By the time I do, he'll be full-grown, and I won't want him anymore."

The former gospel singers, who melt at the sight of babies (in New York City last month, they called a stranger over to their limo to take turns cooing over and holding his newborn), haven't gone out of their Way to appeal to their former Sunday-morning audience. "Downtown" and another track on the album, "Blak Pudd'n," celebrate oral sex. "Some guys call us nasty dirty whores because of the songs," says Leelee. "But the people doing all the talking, I'm sure they've done it once in their lives."

Self-described home girls, Cheryl Gamble (Coko), 20, and Tamara Johnson (Taj), 20, hail from Brooklyn, and Leanne Lyons (Leelee), 19, is from the Bronx. In junior high the three first sang together under the name Female Edition, a knock-off of New Edition, Bobby Brown's former group. Coko and Leelee reunited in high school to sing gospel, then turned to R&B and added Taj to the group in 1990. With the help of a record producer's mother they met through a friend, the trio sent out demo tapes along with bottles of Perrier ("We couldn't afford champagne," says Taj) to catch the attention of record execs. Last year, after being invited to sing live in front of RCA honchos, SWV was signed to an eight-record deal. The Sisters, who kick off a confirmed seven-city European tour in London on Sept. 25, no longer have to worn" about the price of champagne, but they say they still feel most comfortable back in the hood, even though Taj is the only one still living in her old Brooklyn apartment. (Coko and Leelee have moved to New Jersey and Manhattan, respectively.) One of their hardest adjustments, though, has been getting used to throngs of adoring male fans, one of whom even tried to tear one of Coko's trademark four-inch nails off her hand at a show. "Sometimes it gets real bad, and we have to let security handle it," says Taj, who, like Coko, doesn't have a boyfriend. (Leelee has been with John Scott, 24, a truck driver, for five years.) "They mostly give us the usual 'we love you, I love you, I want to marry you.' " But, Taj adds, all the attention hasn't swelled their heads: "We're the same Coko, Leelee and Taj that started out with nothing. The only thing that's changed is our bank accounts."

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