Mary J Blige is back from rock bottom - how she kicked drugs, gin and hangers-on
By NICOLE LAMPERT
Last updated at 00:58 25 January 2008
But huddled in the corner of her expansive London hotel suite, with a bathrobe over her cords and polo neck to keep out the cold, the woman known as the Queen of Hip Hop Soul is looking vulnerable.
If you needed an example of how fame and fortune do not bring you happiness, Mary J. Blige is it. Having escaped a background of poverty and abuse with her debut album at the age of 21, she turned to drink and drugs.
Now approaching her seventh clean year, thanks partly to the svengali presence of her producer husband Kendu Isaacs and partly to finding God, she admits that - despite selling 40 million albums - she is still incredibly lacking in confidence and prone to dark thoughts.
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"I still have days where I don't feel too confident," she says.
"I have to tell myself, 'you are loved, you are strong, you are beautiful'."
Mary, 37, grew up in the notoriously tough Yonkers estate in New York sharing a tiny house with her mother, sister, five cousins and two aunts.
Violence and crime were everyday occurrences. As a toddler she saw her musician father Thomas beat up her mother Cora.
And when he left the family home for good she saw Cora sink into alcoholism and depression.
Mary still cannot escape these ghosts. "On my low days I wonder why I didn't have a normal family, why we were so dysfunctional," she says. "My sister and I saw our father abusing our mother. It was traumatic."
Aged just five a family friend sexually abused her. But there was no one for her to turn to, to make things better, to make her feel loved and to make all the bad feelings go away so she kept the abuse to herself until she was 30.
"I felt like it was all my fault," she says of the abuse. "I felt worthless. I didn't understand why. All I knew was that I hated myself."
Mary admits that if it wasn't for her sensational voice she would still be living in the tenements - probably with an abusive boyfriend and drug habit.
But her talent was to be her salvation. Aged 17, a karaoke version of the Anita Baker song Caught Up In Rapture which Mary had recorded in a local mall was passed on to a record label by a friend of her mother's.
She was signed up as a backing singer before being noticed by Sean Combs (Puff Daddy) who produced her first album What's The 411?
By the age of 21 her album had gone multi-platinum and she was already a millionaire.
But far from being the end of her problems, it was the start of a whole new raft of them.
Now Mary had money for designer clothes - she sparked the "ghetto fabulous" fashion of wearing expensive labels ostentatiously piled on top of each other - and she had millions of fans who loved her.
Elton John, Whitney Houston and Sting all queued up to work with her. But, still desperately unhappy, she turned to drink and drugs, with an entourage of new acquaintances.
"Gin was my drink and I would drink every day," she says.
"I would drink until I couldn't drink any more. I did so much cocaine I would stay up for days.
"It was party central at my house and I was paying for everything. I was give, give, give. None of them were my real friends."
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No one could control the troubled star and her spiralling problems. She herself knew the only way was down.
"I didn't feel like I deserved what I had. I didn't want to exist."
Mary knew she needed help and she feels that God gave her plenty of warnings.
First a friend died, then the singer Aaliyah, who Mary did not know but admired, was killed in a plane crash in August 2001.
A few weeks after that came September 11 and then she had visions of clouds coming into her flat.
"One day I had drunk too much and I was in my apartment alone and I knew God was watching me. Something came through my window and it looked like clouds. I don't know what it was but there was a lot of it.
"I prayed to God to help me. He spoke to me and said you need someone who can deal honestly with who you are and challenge you. And, boy, did he send the right person.
"He sent me Kendu, and Kendu wasn't afraid to challenge me or my environment."
The producer - a committed Christian and father of three from a previous marriage - was ruthless in showing her that the people around her were nothing more than leeches and that her addictions were killing her.
"It was a sad time when I realised that none of the people around me had my best interests at heart," she said.
"It was terrible to find out no one really cared."
Mary used only self-will, her newfound love of God and the support of Kendu to wean herself off her addictions.
She says: "I prayed I had the strength. All I knew was that I didn't want to die.
"Alcohol was the hardest to come off - we always see it as something that is not that harmful but it was hard.
"For five years I couldn't go near alcohol without getting the shakes. Only now do I feel strong enough to have a sip if I make a toast. My life is so different."
Her husband and her faith are now her guides to life. She is happy being step-mother to his three children Jordan, eight, Nasir, seven, and Briana, 20, and would like a child of her own - although she is not sure whether she is completely ready for one.
Where once she shopped for the latest ridiculous fashion, now, she laughs, she is happiest picking out light fittings for her New Jersey home.
Even her language is toned down. The former foul-mouthed street girl - even her record label wanted her to go to etiquette classes - she doesn't even swear.
The only relic from her early life is the way she pronounces perfect as "perfick".
While those in the hip hop community may laugh at the sober and devout woman Mary has become - and they do - she is committed.
She reads the Bible like others might look at their horoscopes for daily guidance and advice.
"I study the Bible a lot," she says. "Not everything in the Bible is for me, but what is for me I take and I apply it to my life. It keeps me grounded and straight.
"I study proverbs - like if today is January 25 I will look at proverb 25, there will be a message. It is incredible."
She reconciles her God with the terrible things she witnessed in the past and with a very real belief in the Devil.
"We have an enemy on this earth called Satan," she says. "He is the one who creates the tsunamis and hurricanes. I blame my childhood on Satan.
"The God I know is forgiving and wants to give you everything."
Despite her faith, Mary is still struggling to forgive and let go of the anger which has stalked her since her bruising childhood. But she has made a start and now sees her family only as flawed individuals and victims, too.
"To move on with your life, you have to forgive people which is very hard to do," she says.
"It wasn't their fault - they are who they are. My father's father abandoned him and his mother died having him.
"My father was a victim of Vietnam - he came back from Vietnam a crazy person.
"To this day he is in and out of the veteran's hospital because he has times where he smells the burning bodies and sees the arms and legs that were blown off.
"My mother suffers from alcoholism. She is better today but she suffers, whether she wants to admit it or not."
The family she once cut out of her life are now thanked on her album sleeve-notes, although she admits they are not close.
Mary found fame with her angry and bitter lyrics and there are critics who wonder whether her faith and relative happiness will have blunted her edge.
But, as her latest album Growing Pains makes all too clear, unhappiness and insecurity are still constant companions and the record has enough anger and angst to thrill her fans of old.
A typical example is the album's title track whose lyrics include: "I got every material thing I could ever need/ I got the love from my fans that adore me/ And I'm grateful/ But my love for myself is lacking a little bit/ I have to admit that I'm working on me."
"It's going to take a long while to recover," she says. "I can't understand how anybody could think things are perfick.
"I'm not saying I haven't made progress but I have got a lot of work to do if I want to sustain this breakthrough and stay in a positive state of mind."
• GROWING PAINS by Mary J. Blige is released on February 4.
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