Mary J Blige – devil diva? Exclusive interview
The soul superstar Mary J Blige talks to Craig McLean about her dark days of drink and drug addiction – and why she’s done with her devil-diva ways
Published: 10:30AM GMT 01 Nov 2010
Smash! A glass goes careering across the pressed white linen. The banquette is sodden, my legs are soaked. The salad is sent back to the kitchen – there are shards of glass in it.
Waiters scurry as Gucci bags and designer sunglasses are gathered up. Mary J Blige is in a smart Manhattan steakhouse and our interview has got off to an explosive start.
Is the first lady of hip-hop soul – now approaching 40, with 50 million album sales and nine Grammy Awards to her name – back to her bad old days, as the moody, often intoxicated, devil-diva of yore?
Not a bit of it. The glass spill was an accident and it was water not booze. Sitting alone in a corner of the restaurant’s expansive upstairs lounge, Blige is the picture of calm elegance. She even turned up early.
In a few hours she’ll be back on her tour bus, heading for a concert booking in Detroit. But this afternoon the singer behind some of the greatest pop/R&B hits of the past 20 years (Family Affair, No More Drama, As) has been flogging her
new sunglasses range, Melodies by MJB, at a shopping centre near her New Jersey home.
This overcast October day she’s wearing the prototype for an as yet unavailable design. Of all the things to which she might have lent her name, why sunglasses?
‘If you look at my life, my career, just look at me, period,’ she replies breathlessly, ‘in my pictures and videos and performances you’ll see me with glasses. The glasses are just an extension of my fashion sense, my style.
And some days I don’t want to be bothered!’ she says brightly. ‘Like a lot of celebrities you wear them to hide.’
Nowadays female R&B hit-machines are a dime a dozen, but Mary J Blige was the first. Not only was she a musical trailblazer, she pioneered the ghetto-fabulous look.
Today, though, the 39-year-old is decidedly chic: she wears skinny jeans and a cream Catherine Malandrino turtleneck accessorised by camel-coloured leather Chloé boots and a three-year-old cropped black leather Gucci jacket.
What does she think when she looks back on the bling-tastic days of platinum-blonde wigs and cacophonous jewellery?
‘I’d say I’ve grown a hell…’ She stops then, God-fearing reformed character that she is these days, checks her language ‘…a heckuvva lot!
As you get older you can’t have all that mess on. You look stupid. Instead of five bracelets I do two bracelets now.’
She picked up her original style – a pile-up of labels and accessories – growing up in Yonkers, a notoriously tough housing project north of New York. Round her block she’d see certain individuals who ‘had everything’.
‘Exactly! You nailed it! And you want everything they have. Because they’re your heroes at the time. So when you get money you want everything. So you buy 10 pairs of one thing in the same colour.
And you wanna wear everything at the same time. But you learn – “Oh, I don’t have to change my hair colour every week.” That’s a lot of high-maintenance. It takes a lot to look like a Christmas tree all the time.’
Fame hit Mary Jane Blige fast and hard. Aged 17, while on a trip to a shopping centre, she had recorded a karaoke version of the Anita Baker song Caught up in the Rapture.
A friend of her mother took it to a record label and, with that, Blige had a deal. Her first album, ‘What’s the 411?’ – produced in 1992 by Sean ‘P Diddy’ Combs – was an instant success.
Blige responded with prodigious spending and partying, rapidly becoming addicted to cocaine and alcohol. Though the music remained as raw, powerful and popular as ever with her fans, Blige was developing a difficult reputation within the music industry.
She skipped meetings and was rude to the press, once threatening to punch a female interviewer.
‘I was headed for destruction,’ she says with typical candour. ‘I was finished. And it was cool, because I was subliminally trying to kill myself. I took pills when I was a kid. I already tried, a long time ago.
It was like, it’s programmed in me to not want to be here. And it almost happened.’ She shudders. ‘It almost happened.’
Nor did she have any real friends, ‘only drug friends! They just want to be high for a week – on my dollar! The bill comes at the end of the night in the club and I’m paying for all the drinks. Crazy!’
Blige has talked in the past of the ‘abusive’ six-year relationship she was in at the time, with K-Ci Hailey of the R&B band Jodeci.
‘He didn’t want me to have nothing,’ she said in 1999. ‘When I say mental and physical abuse, everyone knows it was him.’ But a decade on it seems she’s begun to let go of that anger.
‘We’ve been through hell together, and I really just want us to come out on top… No one held a gun to my head and made me do anything. So I can’t point the finger and say it was his fault.’
She sighs and tucks into her large plate of pasta and prawns. It’s her second course. Still to come is a medium-rare steak with baked potato and cream.
‘I mean, everyone was drinking!’ she continues, mid-chew. ‘I was, he was. And he’s a product of abuse from his own family tree. So…’ She shrugs.
Mary J Blige’s childhood had its own share of trauma. She was abused by a close relative, something she concealed until she was 33. Even her mother didn’t know.
It was, she says now, a toxic burden, ‘because the guilt and shame that you carry about something that wasn’t your fault… You have to speak to someone else about it. You have to hear someone say, “It wasn’t your fault. It’s OK. Let it go.”‘
Blige grew up in a small apartment with her mother, sister, five cousins and two aunts. Her father, a Vietnam veteran, had left her mother when Mary was four.
Blige concedes that it has only been in the past ‘two or three years’ that she’s appreciated how damaged her father was by his wartime experiences. ‘Even now he sometimes wakes up and smells burning bodies.’
Her mother, meanwhile, ‘loved us with what she could love us with. But she was just as damaged because she was abused as well.’
Blige identified with the 2009 Oscar-nominated film Precious, an unflinching account of a black teenage girl’s brutalised upbringing.
She became closely involved with the film, co-executive producing the soundtrack and releasing it on her own label, Matriarch.
‘That film was about people knowing, “Look, regardless of where we are, this is where we’ve been.” And some of us are still there, here,’ she says, tapping her temple.
‘After Precious, so many older people, so many people I know – big grown superstars – came out and said, “Me too.”‘
Was watching the film difficult for her?
‘Yeah,’ Blige replies quietly, her natural exuberance vanishing. ‘The whole movie was difficult, because I know someone – a guy, a family member – who suffered exactly the same thing Precious suffered.
I suffered pieces of what was in the film, but this guy is dead now because of the shame that he had to carry. And his mom was brutal. Called him names – “You ain’t this, you ain’t that, you’re a dumb motherf–er.”‘
Did he kill himself?
‘No. He saved his friend from a gun. I don’t want to go all the way into detail because I might spill the baked beans. But he suffered. We all suffer…’ She tails off.
Blige turned her life around, not with rehab but by embracing her Christian faith with new-found conviction. And by finding love.
In 2003 she married Kendu Isaacs, a music producer whom she credits with making her finally see the error of her ways. He helped her recognise – and move on from – the circle of fake, leaching friends around her.
She also found herself with an instant family – Isaacs has three children (now aged 11, 12 and 20) from his previous marriage.
‘I’m a strong individual,’ she says of her remarkable rebirth. ‘I’ve been a leader all my life, but didn’t know it until it was time to face that. My faith in God was all I had. I said, “If God is there, help me.” And he showed me that he was there.
I stopped drinking completely for five or six years. And now I’m able to occasionally have some champagne. But no drugs. I’m not doing any cocaine.’
These days Blige pours her prodigious energy into work. Her aptly titled Music Saved My Life tour, which follows the release of her ninth album, ‘Stronger With Each Tear’, comes to Britain this week.
And in October last year she opened the Mary J Blige Center for Women in her home neighbourhood of Yonkers. ‘It’s a one-stop shop. There’s a childcare system if you can’t find a babysitter; that’s what a lot of the time holds women back from getting jobs.
If you don’t finish high school you can go and study and get your General Education Diploma. There’s a computer room to get your resumés together.’
She also co-founded Ffawn (Foundation for the Advancement of Women Now), which is part-funded by proceeds from sales of her perfume, My Life.
‘It wouldn’t be right if I raised money with something as big as my perfume – we broke records the first day it went on sale [My Life is one of the biggest-selling celebrity fragrances ever] – and not use some of the proceeds to send children to college.
We’ve sent 50 women to college,’ she states with deserved pride.
At Ffawn, ‘Our initiative is to educate and encourage women, give them a second chance to boost their self-esteem, so they can go out in life and reach their potential. Be what they want to be in life.’
In January Mary J Blige turns 40 (she thinks the date of her birthday – 11/1/11 – is ‘a great omen’). In almost 20 years her career has never faltered.
Throughout her personal crises Blige has consistently delivered exhilarating music, filled with openly autobiographical lyrics and performed with heart-stopping feeling. Her fans, she says, need her music – and her message.
‘You can’t disappoint 10 million people who might feel like you feel; you’ve got to be an example for them. You’ve got to be here saying, “Don’t do it. Don’t kill yourself.” My responsibility to God is to live. That’s the gift he gave me.
What I do with it is up to me.’
The next thing Blige will be doing with her big voice, big personality and big self-belief is playing Nina Simone in biopic of the blues singer’s life. Filming is due to begin in January. What was the appeal of playing Simone?
‘Nina’s life,’ she says simply. ‘How tortured she was by her own demons. She wasn’t happy with how she looked. She was a drug addict. She was a manic depressive. She wasn’t very nice!’
Blige can relate to some of those things, then?
‘Yeah, I mean, I’m a nice person. I’ve never been a mean person. I just reacted badly to certain things that people would say or do. I was scared and ignorant. But now I get it.’
I point to her blonde bob and suggest that playing Nina could be challenging with that kind of hairdo.
‘Oh, don’t worry about that,’ she says dismissively, cutting into her steak. ‘I’ve got all kind of wigs for that.’
You can take the girl out of the ghetto-fabulous…
I Love Mary