An interview with Mary J Blige involves a lot of waiting around. Her people, of which there seem to be dozens, have booked out a huge suite on the 46th floor of New York’s ultra-swanky Mandarin Oriental, overlooking Central Park. Pastries have been provided and chopped fruit has been laid out on platters. An hour passes, at which point I’m informed the schedule has been altered and thanked for my “flexibility”.
Anna, the photographer, and her assistant, Camilo, arrive and set up their equipment. Another hour goes by, and we all take turns sighing. To pass the time, Camilo goes off to explore the suite’s many rooms and, upon discovering a bidet in one of the bathrooms, announces he’s going to try it out. He returns looking decidedly pleased with himself. “It washes and dries,” he says.
Finally, two and half hours later than scheduled, in sweeps Blige with her husband, Kendu Isaacs, trailed by a stylist, a hairdresser and a woman whose sole job seems to be to carry Blige’s hat. At 41, the Grammy-winning, multimillion-selling ‘queen of hip-hop soul’, it has to be said, looking pretty damned magnificent. At an age when most women embrace cardigans and find themselves strangely drawn to the Jaeger catalogue, Blige is still strutting her stuff in suede stiletto boots and teensy-weensy hot pants designed to bring maximum attention to her thighs. And what splendid thighs they are. Such is the mythology surrounding them that the rapper Common was moved to write the lyric: “Eyes on the thighs of Mary J Blige, imagine how good the cat must be”.
That was a bit personal of him, I remark, though Blige wafts a regal hand in my direction and tells me she has learnt not to care about what people say – or in this case, imagine – about her. “I don’t listen to people’s opinions. I have people around me who I can trust, but most of all I listen to myself. There are people out there who want to provoke me and bring back the old Mary but I’m not giving them the satisfaction.”
By “old Mary”, Blige means her younger, twentysomething self, the mouthy, bling-smothered superstar famed for her temper-tantrums and who, on one occasion, threatened to punch a female journalist. The Blige of today is, according to the approved narrative, a transformed character, chastened by love, the Lord and a life free of alcohol and drug abuse – though still apparently content to retain the services of a hat carrier.
We are here to talk about her new album, My Life II: The Journey Continues (Act I), which is released later this month and is billed as a sequel to her 1994 LP, My Life, recorded near the start of her career when she had a daily cocaine habit and would regularly get drunk before facing her public. The new album chronicles her passage from temperamental hellraiser to clean-living wife and businesswoman.
“It’s a record about survival,” Blige reflects. “There’s a song called ‘Living Proof’ that says I’m a survivor and I’m here to tell a story. I’ve been through hell, and I’m not innocent in all of it, but that’s where I’ve been. But because I survived it and I turned all the negatives into positive things, I’m the living proof that someone else can do it, too.”
When I ask about the differences between the “old” and “new” Mary, she replies: “I care about me now. When I didn’t care about me, I was, like, ‘Why is this going wrong? Why is my life so bad?’ But when you don’t care about yourself, nobody else is going to care about you. So I learnt to love myself, even if nobody else does. I’ve been living in so much guilt and shame and thinking I’m ugly and thinking I’m not worthy. That had to stop.”
The guilt and shame to which Blige refers goes back to her early childhood when she was sexually abused by a close relative, a fact that she concealed both from the public and the rest of her family until she was 33.
What made her finally speak out? “After years of trying to bury it and trying to numb the pain,” she explains, “I realised I needed to get it out, or else no matter what amazing things happened in my life, I was still going to suffer. And when I did, everyone started standing up and saying, ‘Me too’. Even now, it makes my stomach hurt just talking about it. You see, once it’s out you don’t have to be ashamed any more. It’s done. And I don’t want people looking at me and feeling sorry for me. I’m a grown-up, and I can handle this now.”
She says the anger and low self-esteem that afflicted her twenties and early thirties are a direct result of the abuse she suffered. Years ago she told Oprah Winfrey that she had allowed a boyfriend to treat her badly because she didn’t believe she was beautiful. “I thought I looked like a camel,” she said. She insists she’s over that now and has finally learnt to accept the way she looks, though I’m not so sure.
Before we sit down to talk, I watch her during the photo shoot. She looks unhappy from the off and, after just a few shots, asks to look at the pictures. Inspecting them on Anna’s camera she complains, “I don’t look good” and “That’s horrible” and starts snarling about the lighting which she thinks makes her look unattractive (it doesn’t). Anna gently suggests that she takes a few more shots and then they can go through them at the end, but Blige isn’t having it. “You and me are going to get on a lot better if we could do it in a way that makes me look good,” she barks. After a long discussion, they move into a different setting where the light is deemed more flattering. She calms down and everyone in the room exhales. Disaster is averted.
Mary Jane Blige was born in the Bronx and grew up on a project in Yonkers, New York. “It was not a cool situation,” she says. “It was survive or die. My mother always had two or three jobs going at a time and left us with babysitters a lot.”
Blige’s father left the family when she was five; she didn’t speak to him for years. He was a Vietnam veteran who suffered terrible flashbacks, and continues to suffer to this day. “He has to go to the hospital and get medication because he sees things and he smells burning bodies. My mother said he used to get up at night and grab the drapes and cover her up. He would be fighting in his sleep.”
School was, says Blige, “a headache, because lots of the children were as troubled as I was and we were all sending each other through hell. It was like the jungle. They put a bunch of people together who were all poor and unhappy in different ways and said, ‘Survive. Whoever makes it out, good luck’.”
Blige was thrown out of two schools and dropped out of the third. She can’t remember exactly when she started drinking, but thinks she was about 14. “I definitely started young. First I would numb how I felt with alcohol, and then I discovered drugs, which wasn’t hard as there were dealers everywhere. Then it just kept rolling and rolling.”
She knew she had a powerful singing voice from the day she performed at a talent show, aged seven, and left the audience open-mouthed at her performance – “although I still didn’t know I could move mountains with it”. Her break came at 17, after she recorded a song using a shopping-mall karaoke machine. “I covered Anita Baker’s ‘Caught up in the Rapture’ and I came home and I played it for everyone. James, my mum’s boyfriend, said ‘Give me that tape. I’m gonna take it to a friend of mine’.”
That friend was Jeff Redd, who was then working with James at General Motors but had just been signed to Uptown Records as a solo artist. Redd passed it on to the label’s co-founder, Andre Harell, who had discovered LL Cool J and Run DMC, and who swiftly signed Blige up. The demo also caught the ear of Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs (“I ain’t calling him Diddy,” Blige grumbles. “He’s Puffy to me”) who would produce her first album, What’s the 411?, three years later.
As a singer, Blige wore her background as a badge of honour. She appeared smart and streetwise and her sound was raw – worlds away from her female contemporaries. “My singing wasn’t like Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston, which is very clean and gorgeous. Mine was the streets, it wasn’t perfect, you know? As for the way I looked, I liked lipstick and I liked being a girl but I was a tomboy at heart. I can put on the longest dress and you’ll still see that in me. Puffy helped me with all that stuff. He looked at me and thought, ‘She would look great in a man’s suit, with her hat turned backwards’ and he was right. He took my personality and dressed it.”
Her second album, 1994’s My Life, in which she chronicled her battles with drugs, alcohol and depression, cemented her reputation as a pioneer of the hip-hop/soul sound now called R&B, and later ranked among Rolling Stone’s greatest albums of all time.
Blige responded to her success with prodigious spending and round-the-clock parties. The people around her, she recalls, were happy to encourage her. “I realised later they didn’t care whether I lived or died. A part of me didn’t want to be here any more. I was like, ‘OK, I’m done here. I don’t want to do this no more’. Part of me wanted to die right there.”
In 2001, Blige finally decided it was time to clean up. That year her friend, the R&B singer Aaliyah, was killed in an air crash. A month later came the terrorist attacks on her beloved New York. “Those events were a wake-up call,” she recalls. “There were bigger things going on. People were dying through no fault of their own and here I was killing myself.”
Now she talks a lot about “growing” and “learning” and “finding out how to love myself”, so much so that I’m amazed to find that Blige has never had therapy. Instead, she has relied on the support of friends and family. And, of course, God.
Blige’s faith, she says, has been crucial to her survival. Her mother was the daughter of the pastor, and though she never insisted that her children go to church, they used to attend with their aunts in order that they could sing.
Then, one morning at the age of 12, while looking around her in church, Blige had an epiphany. “I had this feeling and thought, ‘Wow, there’s something here’. There was a presence that was so great, and so overwhelming. It was only when I had been through hell and come out the other side, that I realised that presence was God.”
Another driving force in her recovery has been Isaacs, an industry big-shot who later became her manager and producer. The couple met in 1999, and married four years later in a low-key ceremony at their house in New Jersey. Blige’s mother did the food. With Isaacs, she gained an instant family – he has three teenage children from a previous relationship.
Still, marriage can be hard, Blige cautions. “[Husbands] are not always going to think you’re cool every day. And you’re not going to think they’re cool every day. You got to get around that and have the confidence in yourself, especially on days when they can’t see you and they can’t hug and tell you you’re beautiful.” For Blige and Isaacs, separating their working and private life can be a struggle. “It can be late in the evening, and we’re in bed, and he’s listening to some music and says, ‘Baby, listen to this’ and I’m like, ‘What? Now?’.”
Where, in the early days of her career, most of Blige’s energy was expended on partying, now it is directed towards her work. Lately, she has tried her hand at acting, and with great success. She’s just finished filming Rock of Ages, the movie version of the successful Broadway show (which recently transferred to London) set in the Eighties rock scene, alongside Tom Cruise, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Russell Brand. Her next project is the leading role in a biopic of Nina Simone, for which she has employed the services of an acting and voice coach. “She had issues,” says Blige. “She never liked her appearance, she had troubles with depression and drugs. There’s a lot for me to relate to, and I need to get it right.”
She has also launched her own sunglasses and perfume ranges. In order to sharpen what one imagines is an already fearsome business brain, Blige is in the process of completing her General Educational Diploma (the US equivalent of A-levels) and is working particularly hard at maths. “It was a big mistake leaving school when I did, especially in this business, coming up against people who just want to take advantage and rob you. And God, you forget so much. It’s hard! I’m looking at my homework and going, ‘Hell, we didn’t have this when we were growing up’.”
Along with being a singer, actor, businesswoman, wife and stepmother, Blige is also positioning herself as a universal defender of women. Eighteen months ago she opened the Mary J Blige Centre for Women in her home neighbourhood of Yonkers, and also co-founded Ffawn (Foundation for the Advancement of Women Now), funded in part by her perfume sales. So far the money has been used to send nearly 100 women to college.
Now, as she embraces middle age, Blige hopes to be a beacon of empowerment, a role model for younger women at the mercy of unhappy circumstances. Who, I ask, did Blige look to when she was at her lowest?
“I always looked at Oprah,” she reflects. “She’s been through so much and come out the other side. And I always look at my mother, who has been through as much as I’ve been through, because I’m her child and she was trying to raise us. Really, every woman is an example to me, because as women we go through so much pain. We have to live this perfect life when we are messed up inside. We all go through trials and tribulations. You, I don’t know what you’ve survived through, but I bet there’s been some hellfire and that you have a story to tell. It’s a fact of life for us. We’ve all got a story to tell.”
Fiona Sturges, The Independent