And Then There Were Three...

THE MEMBERS OF EN VOGUE REALLY sort of like each other, and they 're about to prove it. Terry Ellis, Cindy and Maxine Jones are in an L.A. studio, finishing remixes for their new album, "EV3." Nobody's floating airs. Despite the high-tech glam of their image, each looks down-to-earth, casual. Ellis wears denim overalls, Braggs is in a hockey jersey and leggings and Jones goes for simple chic in jeans and a T shirt. They're contemplating the three years of management squabbles, financial traumas and personal upheavals that temporarily drove the group apart, caused the departure of one member and nearly ended En Vogue for good. Jones drops her voice to a whisper. "We weren't in touch that much, but I did miss them," she pledges, with an expectant look at her bandmates. Neither rises to the bait. Finally Ellis and Braggs nod slowly in agreement. Now, with that bit of sisterly love out of the way, can they get on with the interview?

As long as En Vogue keeps singing, they can love or not love each other as much as they wish. They know what really matters: with "EV3," they want to reassert themselves as preeminent divas of'90s R&B. "EV3" has all the right ingredients. There's a sure-fire hit from Babyface, an already platinum single from the sound-track to "Set It Off' plus lots more deep funk, sweet sass, old-fashioned romance and bedroom steam. En Vogue owns a certain kind of sophisticated soul: when the ladies hiss "Funky divas in $-D" in the cool thriller "Let It Flow," their voices meshed in wicked harmony, you can feel them crushing the competition under their platform soles.

Don't think they didn't crush and get crushed on their way up. Ellis, Braggs, Jones and former bandmate Dawn Robinson met at an audition in Oakland, Calif., in 1988. Songwriter-producers Denzel Foster and Thomas MeElroy had their formula in place: they wanted a modern-day Supremes, a mix of edgy style, thumping beats, sexy dance steps and church-choir voices. At the time, Maxine was working in a hair salon, Terry was finishing college Cindy was a hotel clerk and Dawn was of work; none had much showbiz experience, but all had ambition. Foster and McElroy's formula clicked: the group's 1990 debut, "Born to Sing," went platinum.

But the pressures of being man-made quickly showed themselves. En Vogue had little control. The singers demanded, and got, more artistic input on 1992's "Funky Divas," which sold more than 5 million copies and earned five Grammy nominations. But finances were tougher to solve. Braggs contends that they couldn't afford down payments on houses. Former manager David Lombard, who also managed Foster and McElroy (and denies any conflict of interest), blames the money shortfall on expensive gowns, videos and stage sets. Braggs doesn't buy it. "With all the hits," she says, "we never saw huge sums of money."

By mid-'95, the group was falling apart. Ellis was in a relationship with producer Foster, which threw off the group's fragile internal balance. Braggs married and got pregnant. Maxine married, had a baby and divorced. Ellis tried a solo career, without much success. When they finally reunited to make "EV3," Elektra Records asked them to sign contracts agreeing to focus 100 percent on the group for two years. Robinson never signed hers and left the band weeks before the album's scheduled release. She now has a solo deal with Dr. Dre. Most of "EV3" had to be re-recorded without her.

What En Vogue has to show for all the trouble is the sound of experience. When Ellis, Braggs and Jones (all in their mid- to late 30s) sing about lost love and painful pasts, the voices and the words say it's real. Even if they're not close friends in real life, their harmony on record is worth much more.