Oprah and Mary J. Blige
The diva who's gone from the baddest of bad girls to the best of good examples ("I know transformation when I see it," says Oprah) talks about drugs, alcohol, toxic friends, the lyrics she'd like to change, the shock that turned her around, PMS (stand back, people!), and why today she's "exactly where a 35-year-old woman should be."
In a New York mall in 1988, a 17-year-old girl from a Yonkers housing project stepped into a karaoke booth and belted out her rendition of Anita Baker's "Caught Up in the Rapture . " Her stepdad passed that recording to Uptown Records CEO Andre Harrell, who was so impressed that he signed her as his label's youngest female artist: Mary J. Blige. In the 18 years since, Mary—who was quickly taken under the wing of then unknown Puff Daddy—has served up seven albums, including the chart topper, The Breakthrough . Her honest lyrics and raw, raspy style, infusing hip-hop beats with soul-stirring emotion, have earned her platinum records and rare longevity in the music business. What eluded her until recently was happiness. She tried to find it through drugs, alcohol, and spending; by the late nineties, she'd become the gold-chain standard of the hyper-bling look known as "ghetto fabulous."

That was then. In February, when I talked with her on my show, she spoke of a spiritual transformation she'd undergone, gradually trading the high life for faith. I caught up with her again in Houston; she and her husband, record producer Kendu Isaacs, were in town for the NBA All-Star weekend. After our center court photo shoot, Mary and I sat down for the kind of truth-telling session I'm convinced we couldn't have had five years ago. I know transformation when I see it. Clearly, she's Mary J. Rising—a woman ascending to full possession of herself.

Start reading Oprah's interview with Mary J. Blige

This interview appeared in the May 2006 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.

Oprah: I love that your CD is called The Breakthrough. What does that word mean to you?

It means a lot. One day I realized that I wasn't getting anywhere by blaming other people for my circumstances. I finally understood: Even if you feel someone has wronged you or owes you something, no one is going to give you anything for free. In the inner city, there's a mentality that the government owes you something. My breakthrough came when I stopped feeling sorry for myself and took responsibility for every part of my life. No more pity parties. I've gotta love me more than anybody else loves me.

Oprah: That's right. When you were on the show talking about your most difficult years, you said something that resonates with me so strongly: Nobody tells you the truth.

Mary: Everyone around me was looking for a quick paycheck. They knew that as long as I stayed high and drunk, I'd keep handing out the Rolexes.

Oprah: Back when you first started singing, did you have any idea you'd become an acclaimed artist?

Mary: As a kid, I dreamed about being onstage.

Oprah: But you didn't imagine all that comes with it.

Mary: Exactly. After my first album, What's the 411?, I didn't even know I was successful. It wasn't until No More Drama in 2001 that I knew I had made it.

Oprah: "Family Affair" was one of your first hit songs on that album. What went through your head when it soared to the top of the charts?

Mary: Party time.

Oprah: What was your idea of success?

Mary: Getting a check. But no one had taught me how to invest my money or that I should buy property. So the second I got some cash, I spent it on every pair of shoes I never had.

Oprah: Who did you surround yourself with?

Mary: The very people who are not in my life right now. They encouraged me to drink, to be promiscuous. I allowed them to rob me of my life.

Oprah: Were you trying to live up to the kind of image you'd seen in music videos?
Mary: I guess so. If I saw someone with a hot hairdo, a ring, some boots, that's what I wanted. In the neighborhood where I grew up, I was surrounded by drug dealer chicks who spent their money on cars and clothes. The people I knew sat around drinking and cursing and living in denial. These were my role models. Life was about surviving—getting money any way you could. That's why I went spinning out of control after I got into the music business.

Before I dropped out of high school, the principal once asked me why I'd gotten in trouble. I said, "Because I don't take no shit." One night earlier, I'd heard my mother say that very sentence—and it was that attitude that later destroyed me. I always felt I had something to prove—because "Mary J. Blige don't take no shit."

Oprah: That's all you knew. When you look back at pictures of yourself wearing everything you own...

Mary: [Laughs] Every gold chain...

Oprah: What do you think of that woman?

Mary: I know she was confused. What else could you think of a woman who changes her hair color from red to blonde to brown in a month? It was crazy.

Oprah: Did wearing all that stuff make you feel more valuable?

Mary: Not until I'd had a drink. That's when I got some confidence with everything I had on. I'd look in the mirror and feel good. And, yes: Buying all that stuff seemed to quench something in me—but only for a second. Then people would say, "Wow, Mary, your record is hot," and I'd feel pretty good. But at the end of the day, the clothes, the shoes, the gold chains weren't all that satisfying.

Oprah: Did that surprise you?

Mary: Now it does, because I understand what makes a person happy. I'm like, "Why do we spend our money on all this stuff?"

Oprah: This is my theory: The more stuff you have, the worse you end up feeling, especially if you didn't have anything in the first place. Is that true for you?

Mary: Recently, yes. But I have PMS days when I go back to excessive spending. I still have a lot of work to do on myself. Change doesn't happen overnight.

Oprah: We're all women in process—and progress, I hope. I grew up poor, and as long as I wasn't exposed to what everyone else had, I was okay with poverty. But the first time I realized, "Darn, we really are poor," I began to have problems. Here's what I'm saying: If you get lots of stuff and you haven't fixed the hole inside, the stuff only puts a magnifying glass on that hole. You think, "I've got all this stuff, but I still feel horrible. Now what?" When did you start to realize that the possessions and acclaim would never be enough to make you love yourself?

Mary: After No More Drama. I had the biggest record in the country, but I didn't feel it. I was slowly killing myself, drink after drink.

Oprah: Were you drugging as well?

Mary: By then, the drugs were gone. I went from cocaine to hard liquor to wine. Along the way, I started to see that the clothes, the jewelry, the cars weren't enough. I'd see confident women and think, I want what she has. Watching you inspired me. I even watched Beyoncé Knowles and thought, She's so young but so confident. What does she have? Is it Mommy-Daddy love? It was.

Oprah: I used to look at people with two loving parents and think, "God, what's that like?"

Mary: Exactly. I read one of Beyoncé's interviews, and she referred to her mommy and daddy. I just cried. I broke down. I told my husband, "I wish I had that." The nurturing and loving show. [Mary's father abandoned the family when she was 4 years old. She was sexually violated by a male caretaker the following year.] It was later, when I gave my life to Jesus Christ, that I found out who I am. I'm a child of God. God is my mommy, my daddy. That's the only thing that'll keep my head up. If I don't remember who I am in him, I'm done.

Oprah: What brought you to that point? I know 9/11 was traumatic for you.

Mary: Yes. And Aaliyah had just died. [Recording artist Aaliyah's plane crashed on August 25, 2001.] My life was her life. She was surrounded by people who weren't telling her the real deal. We weren't close friends, but I'd talked with her a couple of times. I very well could've been the woman on that plane.

Oprah: It was your wake-up call.

Mary: Yes. I was doing a show at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Kendu and I weren't married yet, and I overheard him say, "If Mary comes in this house drunk tonight, I'm gonna leave her." So during the performance, "I kept thinking, I'm going to go home sober and tell him I'm not gonna drink anymore." After the show, I received a call from the girl who always got the drinks and drugs. When I went to her house, she had the biggest bottle of wine she could find on the table. I took off all my makeup and just sat there. "You want a glass of wine?" she asked. I said no. I got up and left for home at 10 o'clock that night. Normally, I'd be stepping in the house at 4 in the morning. When I came in without alcohol on my breath, Kendu said, "I'm so proud of you." That same night, we got the call: Aaliyah was dead.

Oprah: Has your transformation compelled you toward a greater responsibility in your artistry and lyrics?

Mary: Absolutely. One reason I turned my life around is that I realized millions of fans were following my example. I don't want to be responsible for killing us. I want to be responsible for uplifting us. In the song "Family Affair," I sing about getting drunk....

Oprah: I hate to say it, but that's one of the best songs for sit-ups. I can do 250 with the whole track!

Mary: I'm so glad you love it—but you're a responsible person.

Oprah: For me, it's just about fun. I'm not going to get drunk.

Mary: Exactly. But when some people hear those lyrics, they use it as a reason to have another shot of liquor. Later I thought, "Should I take the word drunk out of that record?" Music has power.

After the No More Drama album, people came up to me and said, "You saved me. You talked me out of an abusive relationship." Artists have so much influence. When Jay-Z said, "I don't wear jerseys; give me a fresh pair of jeans and a button-up," do you know how many kids were walking around with button-ups? That's why I know I need to tell people what's really going on.

A lot of people hate me for this. People say things like "Mary, I liked it better when you were singing them sad songs. You need to pick up a pack of cigarettes and come back down with us." It blows my mind—then again, not really. They just want someone to waddle with them in their environment.

Oprah: Misery loves company. People identify with the rawness and pain in your music. Now that you've outgrown that pain, they think you can no longer relate to them. They have an expectation about you based upon themselves.

Mary: Right.

Oprah: And this is the truth, so help me God: People want you to be only as big as they think you should be. The moment you exceed their expectations, they are no longer comfortable with you.

Mary: That's heavy.

Oprah: Then the question becomes, Will you be a slave? Or will you be true to yourself? Because as long as you're living your life based on what other people want, you are enslaved. You have a choice.

Mary: I've made my choice. Which is why I lost a million fans when I put out Love & Life [2003].

Mary: Exactly. I gained many fans who were like, "How do we get free?" Those are the people I want to reach. In the hood, the minute someone steps up and fights the tough guy, he or she gets respect. I've fought the tough guy. Now people are saying, "Mary, I gotta admit I didn't like all this happy stuff. But I'm so proud of you." We'll be doomed if we keep pulling ourselves down. We have to save each other. That's why my husband won't let me walk out of the house if I'm blocking my own progress. If I don't get outta my way, he won't get outta my face!

Oprah: You have to be at a certain spiritual and emotional place to even receive a man like Kendu. You have to want something better.

Mary: I love Kendu. He's my best friend—until I want my way! [Laughs] At the end of the day, it's about what God wants for me. I'm tired of being sick. I want to get well. It's difficult for me to be with someone who tells me the truth, because I come from a family of women who are fighters—they don't listen to men. I have issues with hearing him. But I'm growing. Just the fact that I'm sitting here talking with you is proof of that. I never dreamed this day would come.

Oprah: The reason I'm in Houston talking with you today is that I know you've grown. A few years back, my friend Gayle suggested I interview you for the magazine. I go, "What is Mary J. Blige going to say?"

Mary: Thank you. If you had talked to me back then, you would've stunted my growth.

Oprah: An interview would have been all about the publicity machine. Maya Angelou always says that when you know better, you do better. What do you wish you had known better?

Mary: I wish I had known that education is the key. That knowledge is power. Now I pick up books and watch educational shows with my husband. I'm seeing how knowledge can elevate you. Another thing I realize: When you hold on to anger and unforgiveness, you can't move forward. I also wish I'd known more about the music business. If I did, I'd be wealthier and more successful than I've been. And ultimately, I wish I'd been confident in who I am.

Oprah: You pretended pretty well. Many people thought you were the embodiment of confidence.

Mary: After I performed, do you know what I had to go home and deal with? I'm ugly, I'm dumb: all those voices from my childhood.

Oprah: That's shocking.

Mary: When I was a girl, relatives teased me about my feet, my lips, my butt, the way I walked. They said, "You'll never finish high school." And I wanted them to love me so much. If I needed to smoke a cigarette to get their approval, fine. If I had to act mean or ignorant, great. But I could never do enough to satisfy them because they already had their favorite.

Oprah: I get it. What does fame mean to you?

Mary: These days, it means I have to remain humble and grateful. Before, it meant feeling good for a moment.

Mary: When I was a girl, relatives teased me about my feet, my lips, my butt, the way I walked. They said, "You'll never finish high school." And I wanted them to love me so much. If I needed to smoke a cigarette to get their approval, fine. If I had to act mean or ignorant, great. But I could never do enough to satisfy them because they already had their favorite.

Oprah: I get it. What does fame mean to you?

Mary: These days, it means I have to remain humble and grateful. Before, it meant feeling good for a moment.

Oprah: As well known as I am, I still wonder what it must be like to be a singer, to have thousands of people in the audience waving their hands in the air and to feel the vibrational frequency when everyone in the room is with you. I think I've got it good, but I imagine there's nothing better than that. How is it possible to have that and still go home feeling ugly and stupid?

Mary: After a performance, I do have a rush. But two days later, I forget it. I'm just now getting to the point where I believe it's okay to be happy for myself. It's okay to say, "Well done."

Oprah: So "Mary doesn't take any crap" was just an image you created. You really weren't powerful, confident, or happy.

Mary: Right.

Oprah: By the way, what does the J stand for?

Mary: Jane. My parents named me after my father's mother: Mary Jane.

Oprah: I see. Are you confident and happy now?

Mary: Yes, though I still have my fall-off-the-horse days.

Oprah: How do you handle the haters and naysayers?

Mary: They don't bother me. They're not going to pull me back down. I'm exactly where a 35-year-old woman should be. I'm talking with Oprah and Gayle. I'm working with Bono on a video. At 50 I don't want to look back with regrets.

Oprah: Do you want children?

Mary: I already have two children [Kendu's kids]. I don't want any biological children right now. You know what I want? Property—lots and lots of real estate all over the place.

Oprah: You want security.

Mary: On all levels.

Oprah: I see an entire generation of hip- hoppers who have more wealth and influence than any other blacks at any other time in our history. They don't seem to know what to do with it.

Mary: They'd rather keep it gangsta than get real with themselves. I know people who have never been out of Yonkers. Where they live, being gangsta is the mentality.

Oprah: They just don't know the truth.

Mary: And yet some of these guys are brilliant. Performers like 50 Cent and Jay-Z are ridiculously smart. Not all ghetto children are imbeciles. They have brains.

Oprah: Some of them just don't recognize their power. Once a popular rapper was on my show, and he was defending his lyrics by saying, "It's my art." I go, "I respect the art thing. But you are a smart person—and a smart person has to recognize that he or she is speaking to millions who may not be as smart."

Mary: That's right.

Oprah: Is it a struggle for you to stay off drugs and alcohol?

Mary: Not the drugs. I have to be careful with the alcohol.

Oprah: Can you drink a glass of wine from time to time?

Mary: Absolutely. But after two glasses, I shut it down. Okay, so maybe it's two nice big goblets—I've got to keep it real around here—but I know how to handle it now. It's like being on a diet—I've got to leave it open enough for me to have some carbs.

Oprah: Earlier, you mentioned PMS. Does it hit you hard?

Mary: God, yes! I need some kind of drug for it. My past always seems to come up during that time. Sugar makes it worse.

Oprah: Chocolate makes it worse.

Mary: I'd always thought chocolate soothed PMS. It doesn't. Just ask my husband.

Oprah: You're 35. You're in the absolute heart of life. What's your vision for yourself this year?

Mary: My dream is to learn how to love myself more. To know what God wants me to do. To love my husband better. To be confident enough to give myself a break.

Oprah: So your wish is to really know who you are.

Mary: Yes.

Oprah: I can see that you have glimpses of your power, and that you recognize that you are loved more than you could ever know, but sometimes you lose sight of that. You forget. You want to stay connected to that truth all the time.

Mary: Exactly. Yesterday when I was working with Bono on a video, I saw a silhouette on the monitor. I said, "Who's that?" Honest to God, for a second I didn't know it was me.

Oprah: Who did it look like?

Mary: It looked like an incredible creature. It looked like a woman who's confident and filled with the spirit of God.

Oprah: That's fantastic, Mary Jane Blige.

Mary: I'm proud of the progress I've made. I'm proud of finally being able to recognize what I need to change about myself. I'm proud that I've been redeemed. Right now I'm focused. I want to get better. I want to be that woman in the silhouette all the time. That's my girl. That's my freedom.


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