For Dream, life ain’t always what it seemed. As the first white artists signed to Puff Daddy’s Bad Boy Records in the late ’90s, the girls-next-door quartet planted its flag as the R&B-inflected answer to the thriving boy bands at the time, lacing turn-of-the-century instrumentation with sassy, finely harmonized tales of romance ripped straight from the Jelly pen-scribbled diaries of four freshly post-tween girls.
During their brightly-burning stint in the spotlight, the foursome—Holly Blake-Arnstein, Diana Ortiz, Melissa Schuman, and Ashley Poole—lived out their star fantasies in real-time: Their debut album, It Was All a Dream, released on Jan. 23, 2001, hit No. 6 on the Billboard 200 and sold more than a million-and-a-half copies; they scored two chart-cracking hits with “He Loves U Not,” which peaked at No. 3 on the Hot 100, and “This Is Me,” whose video crowned the coveted TRL countdown; and they landed an opening slot on the “TRL Live” tour, which featured headlining acts Destiny’s Child, Eve, and Nelly. At the time, they ranged from just 14 to 16 years old.
But beyond the glow was a darker, more troubled side to Dream, plagued by mismanagement, legal issues, and label woes, which ultimately unraveled the tight-knit unit. Formed in 1998 by agent Judith Fontaine, the California natives initially came together as First Warning, where ex-member Alex Chester joined Holly, Melissa, and Ashley. Fontaine brought the girls to producer Kenny Burns, who molded their candy-sweet sound under his 2620 Music skein. Chester soon left the group to pursue other endeavors, and Ortiz joined just after they parted ways with Fontaine to sign with Bad Boy to record It Was All a Dream.
On paper, it should have worked, and for a short while, it did. But the writing was on the wall: Days before they released the album, Fontaine filed suit against them, claiming she deserved a slice of the pie. It was the first of several hurdles. Their singles took off, and the group was touring the nation, but less than eight months after their album dropped, Bad Boy halted the promotion of the LP in the wake of the events that occurred on Sept. 11. In April 2002, Schuman left the group, dissatisfied with the business surrounding it, and though new member Kasey Sheridan came in to record a sophomore album, lead single “Krazy” flopped, prompting the label to drop Dream from the roster and shelve their follow-up project.
In the years that followed, the core lineup ventured off into different fields: Ortiz, Schuman, and Poole reformed as Lady Phoenix, though nothing came to fruition; Poole explored her solo side as a songwriter and artist; Blake-Arnstein became a mother and occupational therapist; and Schuman became an actor, appearing in films including Love Don’t Cost a Thing and The Hollow. It was only last year that, reunited for Blake-Arnstein’s birthday in her current home of San Francisco, they decided to revive Dream once more, releasing an a capella rendition of their smash single “He Loves U Not” to YouTube, recording a holiday cover of "O Holy Night," and announcing plans for a new album in 2016.
With the 15th anniversary of It Was All a Dream occurring today, the quartet reflects on the hard realities they learned in the past as the saga finally continues.
It’s been 15 years since the release of It Was All a Dream. How does that make you feel?
Diana Ortiz: It's a little bit surreal that time has flown by that much, to be honest. We all try to reminisce on where we were on the day that the album was released, and all of us have different memories of the day. Things were so crazy when everything happened for us.
Judith Fontaine was managing you, and she introduced you to producer Kenny Burns, who was trying to develop a sound for you. During that time, you were really young. How did you adjust?
Holly Blake-Arnstein: We were all very much just enamored with the process of learning to record. Business-wise, there were a lot of things going on that were well over our heads because we were so young that we were focused on the artistry piece, learning how to sing in the studio, learning how to blend together in harmony. We were really more engaged in the music and not so much on the deals that our parents were dealing with.
Kenny is the one who took you to Puff Daddy at the time. What was it like meeting him?
Melissa Schuman: When we first met Puffy, it was at the Beverly Hills Hilton. I remember being surprised by how informal he was about the whole thing. He was eating an omelet as we were singing. He was really hard to read. I couldn't tell if he liked us or didn't. Puff started joking about selling his napkin on eBay. That if nothing else happened, we could make a little cash. Something he touched. [Laughs.] And then maybe an hour later finding out that he was going to sign us. We were children, and ultimately, people were cutting deals.... We were very oblivious to how it all works. We were excited to do what we loved and to do it together.
As they're helping develop your sound, what do you remember about recording It Was All a Dream?
MS: It was challenging for me. I think that was the start of what later led me to leave. It had nothing to do with the four girls; it had a lot to do with dynamics with the people we were working with. There were people behind the scenes who were really bent on each one of us having roles in the group. We were not allowed to step out of those roles. So some people looked at Diana as the dancer. Newsflash, Diana can sing her ass off and wasn't necessarily given the platform to do so. Every single one of us is capable of standing on our own, and that's why we were put into the group: because we were strong performers, strong singers. It wasn't us in control.
You're talking about these people who are forcing an identity on you. Who's doing this? Is this your manager? Puff Daddy?
Ashley Poole: Melissa's talking from her perspective, but we all come home on one point: There were some shady people who maybe didn't have the best intentions for children. And there were some people who maybe were just doing business. We were a girl group, and that formula that worked was to have four unique individuals that girls around the world could relate to. But what happened was, when you're children, you grow up and you start to form an identity. As we grew up, we got to see who the good people were and the bad people were. And where the good and bad intentions were. But we were never taught to be able to have a say, so it took a lot of courage to stick up for ourselves. It was always kind of like, “Shut up, do your job, and your dreams will come true.” Where you realize later, we actually hold the power, and the four of us together are the reason we sold 2 million records, because we're really powerful together.
When you came out, it was branded as “Puff Daddy's girl group, Dream.” How hands-on was he?
MS: This was not a Danity Kane situation. It was not even close to that. But Puffy wasn't all that hands-on.
AP: There was a big disconnect from Puff and us because we were from such different worlds. We were four white girls from California doing pop music, and that's what also made it really great, being on an urban label. I think that's what sparked people's interests. I think that was a reason why we blew up so fast. But Puff was straight business. He didn't care if feelings were hurt. He said what he needed to say. He would tell us we needed to lose weight. He would tell us he liked or he didn't like that song. Just very business with us. As kids, it was kind of hard sometimes. As an adult now, I kind of understand where he was coming from.
You had a falling out with Judith Fontaine, and she filed a suit against you days before It Was All a Dream came out, asserting ownership over you. Did that feel like a betrayal?
HBA: Anybody who was involved with a project that shortly after their involvement becomes very successful is going to assert ownership, if they feel like there might be a window to do that. That's what she did, and the legal matters were dealt with, and she received the portion that was deemed appropriate for her. There were a lot of people's hands who touched the project before it got to the point where we were on TRL performing “He Loves U Not” for the first time. If every one of those people felt that they had a claim in what happened, maybe on some level, they did. But clearly, she was not the one responsible for what became.
MS: We were just very young, to be quite honest. I don't even know a whole lot about that. We were so focused and consumed with doing our job at the time, performing and doing interviews and photo shoots, I honestly knew nothing about what happened in the court. We were so young that to explain that to a 16-year-old....
HBA: I think we read a newspaper article, like you did. That's what we read.
MS: Our parents were the ones taking care of that.
HBA: And even they weren't in court dealing with it. Our attorney was handling that.
Over the years, you've mentioned that the events on Sept. 11 are what put a stop to the promotion of It Was All a Dream.
HBA: Bad Boy was a New York-based label. Puffy is very into New York City, so everybody was on hold. The music industry changed, and the emotional current of the nation was very different. We didn't want to hear party songs, and even a love song was cute, but there needed to be something more responsive. In hindsight, and we knew this at the time too, it would have been really great if we could have connected with a producer and done some work that was in line with what was going on and come out with a single that was not on the album but appropriate for the time. But the label was based in New York and every artist on the label had to be re-managed. So they didn't necessarily put Dream at the top of that list. The ball got dropped, plus we were already nearing the end of our album cycle where we would have been ready to go back into the studio right after one or two more singles. There was a decision made at the label level saying, do we try to push one more, or do we go back to the drawing board?
As you went in to record your sophomore album, Reality, they were forcing an image on you to be more grown and sexy. How did you react to it at the time?
DO: I will say that I was uncomfortable. Dancing, that is my home, that's natural for me, it's in my blood to have this type of rhythm. But I think image-wise, I felt a disconnect. I wasn't ready to be looked at with that responsibility and what came with that type of image. I was still growing in my own way, of being appreciated as the girl next door that a lot of our fans related to. And then yes, I wouldn't mind looking more mature, but I felt uncomfortable towards the end of the group. What image they wanted of me versus what I wanted for myself.
You put out “Krazy” as the first single.
AP: Uh, we didn't put out "Krazy." [Laughs.] OK? Because [Puffy] was crazy. We didn't even want to record that song. That's no dish on whoever wrote it. Did you hear the rest of our album? It couldn't have been more different. It was so urban and not where we were going at all. Just to clarify that.
It didn't achieve the same success as previous singles. Is that when things started to go south for the group?
AP: It was our first bump. We had been nothing but successful. The train had never stopped. It really caused a slow moment for us. Melissa had left, and there was a new girl coming into the group, and there was a lot going on. That was why I think we ended up disbanding. It just started to not gel anymore. The music wasn't gelling.
DO: I consider our first bump was Melissa not being in the group anymore. We'd always been about friendship first, even though no joke, we're in a business together, but being the young girls that we were, we were like, our friend isn't with us anymore. Anything after that, it was like, this feels different. How are we going to do this? It was nothing we were used to. It didn't seem to make sense. I wasn't surprised because it wasn't what our success was for the first album and didn't have the key players that were there.
AP: Everything worked out for a reason, because I ended up marrying the new girl's brother. [Laughs.]
Back in 2001, Holly said in an interview that "in five years, 10 years, 20 years, we'll still be the best of friends." It must be refreshing for that to be true.
DO: Yes. And you hear about these horror stories in groups. The fact that we are able to be on this interview and be together for it? That speaks volumes about the respect and loyalty we have for each other. That means that that's the drive of this whole Dream thing. It's the fact that our friendship and our respect and loyalty comes first, and we view this as a relationship to nurture and be respectful of.
MS: We are committed to making this for ourselves, for each other, our families and fans, so that this time, it can actually sustain itself and not be where I feel like other girl groups will be like, "We're going to do a reunion thing!" and then they're gone. This is more to us than just that. Ideally, we'd like to make music together for the rest of our lives. It's serendipitous for us. We love each other, we should be making music together, and it's not fair to us or the fans to not go for it. We owe it to ourselves to go for it and finish what we started. This time around, it's going to be the way it's supposed to be done.