[This article was featured in the July 2011 issue of ESSENCE Magazine. It has been presented here in its entirety.]

She’s notoriously private. For years the only offstage glimpses we’ve had of BEYONCÉ (who has won 16 Grammy Awards and held six leading film roles) have been paparazzi snapshots of her fabulous life: the yachts, the shopping, the court side seats hugged up with her husband, Jay-Z. Yet to really understand Beyoncé, you have to tap into one of her fondest memories — how every year Mama and Papa Knowles would treat their girls to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, a spectacle brimming with pageantry and flair. Now with a new life filled with its own thunder and applause, and on the eve of her fourth solo studio album, 4, Beyoncé is stepping up to a new kind of power. She recently announced that after 15 years of having her career managed by her father, she’s taking the reins herself. She spent nine months traveling the world and sorting out her work–play balance. She also took on the opportunity to write her first cover story, because, she says, “after doing so many interviews in my career…with no one asking me questions, what would I say?” Here Beyoncé shares her journey with ESSENCE readers exclusively.

Whenever I work with ESSENCE, it feels like home. The collaboration is always smooth and the concept of the rodeo took me back to my days growing up in Houston, Texas. I had a pair of pink cowboy boots that you’d think were glued to my feet. My mama begged me to take them off! Memories like these I’ll cherish forever. I especially enjoyed watching Frankie Beverly and Maze perform at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. It was like the biggest family picnic; there was laughter and music everywhere and everyone dressed in their Texas finest. I loved watching all the people. We’d eat fried Snickers, funnel cakes and fried turkey legs; the smell was the best mixture of spicy and sweet.

I also spent some amazing days at Headliners, the hair salon owned and operated by my mother, Tina Knowles. From 6 to 9 years old, I would sing and put on little shows by myself for the women who wanted a hot press and curl and some good conversation. I helped sweep hair off the floor for tips to pay for my season pass to Six Flags. (I still love a good roller-coaster ride.) And when I wasn’t cleaning up the salon, I was watching my mother become my greatest role model.

Tina Knowles was my first example of what a powerful woman is. She shaped my thinking not so much by what she said, but what she did. At her salon she worked 13-hour days, managed her staff, styled hair, and gave out free advice to her clients. She would tell the women to remember their worth and that they couldn’t work all those hours and not treat themselves every now and then. My mama worked until she had calluses on her fingers and swollen feet, then she would find time to redecorate houses for her friends and make every one’s prom and wedding dresses. She took me and my sister, Solange, to our dance classes and recitals, cooked us delicious meals, and brought us to church. On Sunday it was family day. Period. She worked hard for her family and never complained. That has not stopped. Even now, while running her own clothing company, my mother is there for us at our shows, video shoots and every milestone in her grandson Julez’s life. I’m still figuring out how she balances it all and makes it seem so effortless.

My mother taught me the principles of hard work, setting my own goals and visualizing my future. From my early days with Destiny’s Child, I understood I had to be focused and dedicated if I wanted true success. We were taught we needed a plan and the discipline to execute that plan to the fullest. I strongly believe if you work hard, whatever you want, it will come to you. I know that’s easier said than done but keep trying. Before Destiny’s Child was signed, we were turned down by so many record labels. Then, when I was 13, we were signed but later dropped. On Star Search, we lost and were devastated but we kept on trying.

That never-give-up attitude keeps me committed to helping people realize their potential. In March 2010, I opened a cosmetology school with my mom called The Beyoncé Cosmetology Center at Phoenix House Career Academy in Brooklyn. The academy is for women and men who are in treatment for drug addiction. They are learning skills that will prepare them for their lives after recovery. With support, everyone has a chance to make it.

From the time my first solo album, Dangerously in Love, was released in 2003 until my last tour ended in February 2010, I’ve constantly been on the road, or in the studio, filming a movie, or doing promotions state-side or in Europe, Asia or Australia. After grinding for so long, I wanted a vacation — a real one. But getting it was going to take a little patience and hard work on my part.

I looked to my mother for inspiration — after all, she was the one who made me realize I needed some balance. She worked hard, but found time to go on vacations, spend time with me and Solange, go to concerts and dinners. Plus, she always, always looked amazing. I can still hear her stilettos as she walked through the house and smell her perfume.

So in the summer of 2006, just before the release of my second album, B’Day, I called a meeting with key people from my music label and those who handle my film career. As we sat down in a Los Angeles conference room, I asked for a calendar. We had to map out the album release date, the movie junket for Dreamgirls, TV appearances, promo tour, video shoots, magazine shoots and international press. For years my itinerary had been filled like this from morning to evening. I’m not complaining. This is what I had to do to be successful. But it was also time to enjoy my success. After all my work commitments were penciled in and confirmed, I had two to three weeks to myself — a nice break, but not the vacation I longed for.

For B’Day, I went on tour with The Beyoncé Experience from April to November 2007, which was almost a year around the world. Then right after the tour I started recording I AM…Sasha Fierce. On April 4, 2008, I got married and then geared up for the release of the album, which would drop that November. By early summer I was shooting the album packaging, magazine covers and the video for “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” We shot that video on what was the hottest day on record in New York City, in a studio that had no air-conditioning.

However, I did make a better effort to relax. I’ve traveled extensively for work — Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia and the Caribbean —but have never had enough time to soak in the history and culture of those places. When I started my I AM…World Tour in March 2009, I made it a point to explore every country we visited. As we were plugging in tour dates, we built in some extended off days for the band and the crew. I pegged these our “tour field trips.” Egypt was the best. When I visited the pyramids, I had an experience I’ll never forget: I started singing “Ave Maria” inside the pyramid. The depth of the tomb was incredible. I’ve never heard acoustics so clear. My voice sounded so pure. It was inconceivable. I could have stayed in there forever. All I could do was say, Thank you, Lord, for this experience.

During our November 9, 2009, show at Port Ghalib in Egypt, something happened that inspired some of my writing for my album 4 (arriving in a few weeks). I was in the middle of performing “Irreplaceable,” and as the audience started singing, “to the left, to the left,” there was a woman sitting on top of a man’s shoulders in her full, traditional burka. Only her eyes and hands were visible. She was waving her hands to the left, to the left, and singing every word — which I could see because the veil around her mouth was moving. Although the venue was at capacity, I could see her clearly in the audience. I was shocked she was even there, that she’d even been allowed to attend a concert, because after it gets dark, you don’t see any women in burkas on the street. So her presence alone was so moving. Witnessing the power, beauty and strength of women — especially those living in places where their liberties are limited — is what moved me the most. I felt she had her beliefs, and they were important to her, but music also had a place in her life and she made a choice to be there.

After the tour ended in Trinidad in late February, at last I focused on taking some time off. I had talked about taking a vacation before, but always ended up in the studio after two weeks, so no one believed me. This time, though, I was serious. I was going to give myself a year to do the things I never get to do. Simple things like play with my nephew, pick him up from school, visit museums, go to concerts, see some Broadway shows, learn to cook a meal and spend time with my husband. My priority was savoring every moment. Yes, I needed some relaxation, but I wanted inspiration too, from regular, everyday things. They did not have to be over-the-top productions. I was looking for tiny moments that would speak to my heart and make me smile.

Last spring and summer I attended many different concerts, because for a very long time I had imagined what it was like to be a fan at a great show. I love it all — African rhythms, 1980’s R&B, rock, reggae — and there’s nothing better than experiencing incredible music live. I decided to travel to some music festivals I had only heard or read about: Wireless Hyde Park in London, T in the Park in Scotland, Bonnaroo in Tennessee and Coachella in Palm Springs. I enjoyed awesome performances by diverse artists, including Muse, The Dead Weather, Stevie Wonder and Rage Against the Machine.

Visiting a country without an itinerary was so appealing to me. After a few days in Auckland, New Zealand, for the start of my husband’s tour, I settled in Australia for five weeks. My schedule is usually highly regimented and requires me to be in and out of a city within two days, so it was refreshing to be in one place for weeks. I had no schedule while taking in the sites of Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and my favorite Aussie city, Sydney. They have the best restaurants and the harbor is awesome. It was a carefree existence for me. Next on my personal world tour was Japan, where it was my idea to go unrecognized as a Harajuku girl — the young Japanese women who dress up like anime characters or in exaggerated gothic costumes — to a couple of Tokyo clubs. In London I met Sade, one of my favorite artists. I’ve loved and admired her for so long. In Russia I found vintage jewelry and saw the ballet Swan Lake. But what is being abroad without enjoying the food? All over Italy the streets smell like gelato. In Paris my nephew Julez and I had escargot for lunch and it was actually tasty (though not as good as a funnel cake at the Houston Rodeo). In Capri I ate pizza and drank red wine every Sunday. I discovered I love artichokes and that a salad and fresh fish are not only healthy choices but incredibly delicious.

I’m drawn to the ocean. Whether it’s jumping from a yacht (those photos drive my mother crazy; she thinks it’s dangerous), swimming, snorkeling in the Red Sea (I’ve never seen fish so breathtaking), or just walking on the sand, the sea has a calming effect on me. Croatia has the most beautiful water — although it’s the saltiest I ever tasted. I floated on my back for close to an hour in the Mediterranean Sea. It was one of the best moments of my life.

As much as I enjoyed my life abroad, I confess I started thinking about my next album more and more. In the end, my year off was more like nine months. But it was enough. I’m grateful I had new experiences to write about and new musical influences to draw upon. My batteries recharged, I slowly started putting ideas on paper.

For many women, I know planning a two-week vacation, let alone a year off, is difficult, even unrealistic. But the very best part of my time off was being at home, where I got to sleep in my own bed. This was a big part of my vacation. Anyone can plan a staycation, just make the decision to take time for yourself and explore. Eat alone at your favorite restaurant or the one you’ve always wanted to try. Go to a day spa instead of getting the quick mani-pedi. Grab a friend and visit the closest winery. I’m grateful for the time I gave myself to breathe, to relax and to be inspired. My personal retreat gave me strength and a creative reawakening. I returned refreshed, renewed and empowered to reevaluate my life and do things that will make a difference. Because let’s face it, girls, we run the world.

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