I should have been dead'
Up on the 22nd floor of New York's Ritz Carlton hotel, looking over Central Park, Mary J Blige and I are discussing the 'oversexualisation' of young women in music and her own refusal to disrobe to sell more records.
In the past she has said: 'I never slept with anyone to get where I am, but they were after me to do that. I fought hard.' So have things improved at all over the past 20 years? She lets out a snort: 'It's definitely worse.' When I mention Miley Cyrus, and Sinad O'Connor's open letter warning her against allowing the music industry to 'prostitute her', she raises an eyebrow and puts a teacup to her lips.
Fortunately for Blige, she is in a much better place than she was 15 years ago. As a child she was sexually abused; as a young star she developed an addiction to drink and drugs, and she was on charm pandora bracelet the receiving end of a violent relationship with a fellow music star. Ten years ago she married her manager Kendu Isaacs. 'I thank God every day for the people who are there for me, for my husband who's not afraid to say the truth, no matter how bad it hurts.' The couple celebrate their anniversary next month. 'My husband is always like: "You're so beautiful, you need to be a model." But you can be the most beautiful person in the world, and if you don't feel like it inside' She shrugs. 'I'm proud of getting to a point where you can't tell me I'm not a beautiful person in my heart.'
The couple share a $12m mansion in New Jersey. 'Right over the water from my home now is Yonkers,' she says of the notoriously rough area, north of Manhattan, where she grew up. 'I can look straight across the river at the pier where I used to go as a teenager and sing, and ask God to help me and show me a way out.' Geographically, it's a matter of a few miles; metaphorically, another world entirely.
In 1992, aged just 21, she released her debut album, What's the 411?, produced by Sean 'Puffy' Combs (as P Diddy was then known); the title referred to her previous job as an operator at the American version of directory enquiries. Its raw, gritty sound was entirely unlike anything the glossy, chart friendly divas of the day, such as Mariah Carey, Whitney
Houston or Janet Jackson, were making. Blige was quickly dubbed 'the Queen of hip hop soul', ushering in a new era of R Her second album, My Life, released two years later, and brimming with songs of pain and poverty, cemented her reputation and has been named one of the 500 greatest albums of all time by Rolling Stone magazine.
In the 19 years since, Blige has recorded nine further albums and won as many Grammy awards, and has collaborated with everyone from U2 to Elton John, and Jay Z to Method Man. She performed at President Obama's inauguration in 2009 and has sold 50 million albums and 15 million singles to date. She lived out the rags to riches story, although with rapid success also came reckless behaviour. She spent her money on clothes and jewellery, drank heavily and developed a serious cocaine habit; she threw temper tantrums and issued brattish demands for white flowers, fiercely hot hotel rooms and Jacuzzis. During the drugs and drinking years, she once threatened to punch a female journalist in an interview, and was sent for etiquette lessons by her record label. In short, the worst kind of diva, and dangerous with it.
So it was with a little trepidation that I entered the chintzy hotel suite on an early autumn afternoon for an audience with Blige. I was relieved to find no heaters in the room, although there was a sizeable entourage of assistants, publicists, and hair and make up people. But over by the window, the 42 year old singer sat serenely sipping green tea, with a dressing gown draped over her lap.
'I'm probably the happiest that I've ever been,' she says. 'Because I've accepted everything about myself: things that are good, things that are bad, and I don't beat myself up any more about the things that I can't change.' In quantifiable terms, she is, she says, an eight out of ten on the happiness scale, compared to a five a decade ago, and 'probably a zero' 15 years ago. 'The way I was living, I should have been dead,' she says of the decade she spent 'spinning out of control' in an alcohol and cocaine fuelled fog. Not that she'd go back and change a single second, she insists. 'We all go through trials and tribulations, but that's when we move forward. It's the heavy times, not the happy times, that grow us up.'
For all her claims of being supremely self confident these days, she doesn't seem totally at ease; she laughs a little nervously and is a touch diffident. I see no signs of the brassy diva I had read about, and in her X Factor appearance last month, when she assisted Nicole Scherzinger in whittling down the contestants in the Judges' Houses stage, she came across as caring and maternal: enveloping a tearful 17 year old Hannah Barrett in a hug. She is even releasing a Christmas album later this month.
Blige grew up in a tiny apartment in the projects in Yonkers with her mother, sister, five cousins and two aunts. Her father, a Vietnam veteran, left when she was four, while her mother 'loved us with what she could love us with'. Blige was sexually abused at the age of five by a family friend, but she buried her feelings of shame and never spoke about the incident to anyone until almost ten years ago. 'I felt like it was all my fault,' she says. The tough surroundings did not, however, hamper her dreams. 'I knew that we weren't supposed to be living where we lived; that environment didn't connect with the dream I had in my heart,' she tells me. 'I knew something was supposed to be different.' Blige knew she could sing. 'My friends and family always told me I had a talent. I could hear it myself,' she says.
At 17, she recorded a version of Anita Baker's 'Caught up in the Rapture' on a karaoke machine in the local shopping mall. Her mother's then boyfriend had a bracelet pandora price friend who'd recently been signed pandora necklace sale to Uptown Records, to whom he passed on the tape. The CEO of the label came to the family's cramped apartment to hear the teenage Blige sing and signed her up, initially as a backing singer. Four years later she released her first album to both critical acclaim and huge commercial success.
Her only vices these days, she says proudly, are shoes and food. 'But I try to diet as much as I can, and I work out like a maniac,' she laughs. For the record, she looks in fantastic shape: trim but womanly, her low cut Ralph Lauren top giving way to toned arms and cleavage. Her legs which inspired the rapper Common to pen the lascivious lyric: 'Eyes on the thighs of Mary J Blige, imagine how good the cat must be' are hidden beneath a Saint Laurent leather skirt with spike heeled Tom Ford ankle boots poking out underneath.
For a long time I didn't think I was physically attractive, even though people would say I was,' she says. 'Because we don't love ourselves enough, we hang out with the wrong people, we go out with the wrong guys, because we don't believe that we deserve better.' She speaks from experience, having spent six years in an abusive relationship with K Ci Hailey of the R group Jodeci. '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 has said. And the fiery relationship gave rise to many of her biggest hits, such as 'No More Drama'.
She openly admits she very nearly lost it all: 'All the money and fame in the world couldn't change what was going on in my heart,' she has said. 'That's how messed up I was, and how depressed I was. I was drinking, I was doing drugs, so I couldn't even feel or see anything, and that made it all right for the moment, until I had to come down and go look for some more.' Her nadir came in the summer of 2001, when she was 30 years old, drinking heavily and hoovering up cocaine, sometimes staying up for three days at a time. Both her voice and her mental health were deteriorating. 'One day, I was in Tampa, Florida, I'd been partying the night before, and pandora braclets I was just feeling horrible. I could feel myself slipping away. And I thought: "I don't want to slip away because of alcohol and drugs and loneliness,"' she says, turning towards the window as she wells up. 'I was losing my voice, I was dying, and I prayed: "God, Lord, I need to change, help me to change." And in my darkest hour, my moment of slipping away, he [Isaacs, then her manager] called me. That's me praying for change,' she says.
With Isaacs' support and a renewed belief in God, she went cold turkey, giving up alcohol and drugs. Some of her contemporaries have not been so lucky, of course. Whitney Houston's death last year affected Blige deeply. 'Going to her funeral was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. She was such a gift from God, such a star her voice was like no other,' she sighs. 'Same with Michael Jackson [who was one of her biggest inspirations]; two such amazing gifts. And no one was there for them.' As for Amy Winehouse, she says, 'It was so painful to watch,' referring to the never ending press coverage of her downfall. She had hoped to sing with Winehouse one day.
Loneliness, she believes, is an insidious disease in the music industry. 'You have thousands of people around you because you're this big star, but no one around you really cares,' she asserts, more in sorrow than bitterness. 'I saw a tragic situation coming for me and I looked around and I saw that nobody cared, not really. They were happy for me to suffer, to drink myself to death, as long as they were getting what they needed.' She has stern words for the people who continue to allow it to happen: 'The industry makes its money on people's demise.'
Blige has no children of her own but is stepmother to Nas, 14, Jordan, 15, and Briana, 26, from Isaacs' first marriage. 'Even though I never had to push these children from my womb, it still feels like they're mine,' she says. The teenagers keep her up to speed with the latest social media developments. 'They're whizzes,' she nods. 'So I'm on Twitter, Instagram; I have Spotify and Pandora.' Does this make it easier, I ask, to teach other young women how to overcome the kinds of difficulties she has been through? 'You can't teach them,' she shakes her head. 'You've got to just be an example. You have to walk it, you have to try to live it.' ES
A Mary Christmas is out on 25 November
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