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 3LW's new member gets shut out of auditions ...

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 Naturi takes 3LW to the brink of a breakup ...

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— by Corey Moss

"Now we're three again," says 3LW's Kiely Williams, cuddling up to new member Jessica Benson. "I think that's what we like the most of all. It feels like that's the way it's supposed to be."

It's 11 a.m., the crack of dawn by Los Angeles standards, and Williams, Benson and Adrienne Bailon are glowing like the spotlights crammed into the living room of the trio's part-time Studio City apartment. The girls have been rehearsing together since January but this will be their first on-camera interview as the new 3LW, eight months after Naturi Naughton's controversial departure (see "3LW Become 2LW: Naturi Says She's Out Of Group").

  3LW Photos: Then And Now
"When we were two, it was just a constant reminder of what happened before and why we were two," continues Williams, perched on a director's chair in Army pants and a baggy blouse. "Now it's like it's regrouping, and it's a lot of fun."

Benson nods nonchalantly. Next to the always animated Williams and Bailon, the casual newcomer will likely be deemed the quiet one, but her personality is strikingly poised and equally engaging.

  "It's like her whole vibe onstage was like she was already a star ..." — Adrienne Bailon
"One of the things that we loved about her was that she got up [to audition] with so much confidence," says Bailon, who's sporting a shiny platinum "Adrienne" pendant on her necklace. "It's like her whole vibe onstage was like she was already a star, like she had this confidence in who she was and her moves and her whole facial expressions. She was a wonderful performer. I think that was mainly what we saw."

Tse Williams, Kiely's sister and 3LW's co-manager, would later call Benson's laidback demeanor a godsend, joking that she "couldn't handle another one like the other two."

Although only 15 (Williams is 16, and Bailon is 19), Benson has been singing for 11 years (see "3LW Become A Trio Again ... Finally"). She grew up in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Severn, Maryland, a three-hour drive from 3LW's northern New Jersey home base, listening to pop and R&B, including 3LW.

It was a D.C. dance club where Benson was turned away from a 3LW audition. The doorman said she had to be 18.

  "Me and my mom were actually ready to leave ..." — Jessica Benson
"Me and my mom were actually ready to leave, go back to the parking garage, and this lady was running, 'No! Come back! Come back! Come back! We're gonna let you audition,' " Benson recalls. "And I was the only 15-year-old in there, and I finally got to audition and I got to sing 'Neva Get Enuf' off of the A Girl Can Mack album. And I did my thing, you know."

Benson had no idea, but Williams and Bailon knew instantly she was the frontrunner.

"Because all of the other girls were sitting in the room, you don't want to go, 'She's the one! That's the one right there!,' '' Bailon explains. "So you had to keep the same expression all throughout, but you know inside you could feel like, 'Wow, she was really gonna work out. This girl's dope. We wanna get to know her better and bring her back to New Jersey with us.' So that's what we did a couple of weeks later."

The Three Little Women spent a lot of that time singing and dancing together. "One of the most important things about our whole situation was that she is gonna have to interpret our songs until we've recorded new songs together," Williams says. "And she could do that so well, like she had been here for four years like the rest of us."

And the choreography? "She caught on quicker than I did," Bailon says. "I was like, 'Wait! Jessica, teach me that part again.' "

Just as important was seeing how well Benson's personality fit into the group. While Naughton painted Williams and Bailon as raging divas when she left 3LW, Benson has discovered nothing of the sort. "They're normal teenagers just like me and my friends at school," she says, her silver hoop earrings framing her round face. "I can talk to them just like I talk to normal teenagers."

Benson would prove this to be true after the interview, when she retreated to a bedroom with the other girls. Inside, they sat cross-legged on the floor and chatted, presumably about one of Williams and Bailon's favorite topics — boys.

NEXT: Naturi takes 3LW to the brink of a breakup ...
Photo: Albert L. Ortega/WireImage.com

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