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By Blige’s own admission, it took her years to find her power and to accept and love herself on her own terms.
“Man, it took a long time of just not feeling good in my own skin and saying to myself, ‘how can I not? what’s wrong with me?’ It’s no overnight thing. It’s a constant push, especially when you hated yourself and hated how you looked all your life. What really gives you confidence is when certain people start saying negative things about you that you used to say about yourself, and you say, ‘Whoa, that’s not true. I’m beautiful, I’m smart.’ You take that negative energy they are throwing and pushing yourself up. And then there are people on your side who say, ‘I wish you can see what I see.’ And I’m like, ‘yeah, I wish I could see what you see’,” she said with a self-deprecating laugh. “But those words make you say, you know what, let me really accept this. This is me and I am not going to get another. This is it.”
Childhood abuse and resulting depression prevented Blige from coming to this state of mind for a while, however. “I was a victim of abuse; my mom was a victim of abuse,” she said softly. “Every woman in my neighborhood [in Yonkers] when I was growing up was a victim of abuse — physical abuse. All my life as a child I saw women screaming at the tops of their lungs for their lives, women running out of their houses naked trying to get away from their husbands. I’ve seen the worst of the worst that a woman can go through, and I actually grew up and went through it myself. I almost didn’t want to give myself a second chance. I was going to give up. I was right in the middle of the music business, and I was going to give up. I thought there was no hope for me. I was about to record the ‘No More Drama’ album [in 2001].”
As she hit rock bottom and considered suicide, Blige found strength from her fans. “What turned me around was those four million women from ‘My Life.’ By that time I had ‘Share My World’ out, and I realized that wow, if I destroy myself, I destroy all these women that look up to me and say, ‘Mary, you saved my life.’ I have such a soft heart and I believe a heart that cares for people, and I thought, I can’t kill my fans and their kids. I prayed and asked God to help me and he sent me all the help I need. He sent me my husband to help me, who has helped me and has been helping me.”
Blige’s transformation included kicking a drug habit, working hard on her self-esteem and meeting and marrying Isaacs. And after having achieved those things, she felt strongly about extending a helping hand to others dealing with similar issues. The result: the Foundation for the Advancement of Women Now, which Blige founded with Stoute; $1 from every bottle of My Life will benefit FFAWN. “We went to work, saving lives and giving women a second chance where I saw all that abuse,” said Blige, who, together with the Westchester Jewish Community Services, opened the Mary J. Blige Center for Women in Yonkers in October. “We have GED classes, we have a child care system — because the hardest part of being a mother and trying to get a job was trying to find a babysitter, when my mom was raising us. We have a computer room where you can get your résumés together, and go online and see what’s out there. I want women to have confidence. I learned that confidence could save a life.”
And she hopes to expand beyond Yonkers. “I definitely see us branching out. We have to. There has to be [a center] in New York [City], and definitely one on the West Coast.”
One might think that Blige would be itching to counsel other high-profile domestic violence survivors such as Rihanna — but while she’s more than willing to extend a helping hand, she doesn’t intend to butt in unless asked. “If they ask me for advice and I can help, I will, but I’m not just going to walk up to them and say, ‘youuuu ooohhhhh.’ Because I don’t want anybody doing that for me,” she said with a laugh.
Of fellow singers such as Beyoncé and Rihanna, Blige noted, “They seem like pretty smart women to me. As long as they’re confident and believe in themselves [that’s good.] Everyone’s job and assignment is not what I do. That’s fair. And what works for you may not work for me and what works for me may not work for you.”
There were bright points in her troubled childhood, however. “I had a dream when I was a little girl, about all these lights and all these people. That’s all I can say, I had a dream about all these lights and all these people. And I believe I was onstage.
“It worked out the way I thought it would, now. Because I know who I am, and I love myself now. Now, I’m smiling like I did when I was a kid. In the middle of all that turmoil — getting into the music business, not being prepared, not being educated, not having parental guidance to guide me through — it was a complete disaster, but the music helped everybody! We were all in the same disastrous place at the same time, and now that dream is now. That dream was at ‘American Idol.’ That dream was being onstage with [Andrea] Bocelli. That dream is being able to go to my concerts and have all my fans sing all my songs, word for word.”
Blige is also learning French and taking acting lessons in preparation for a biopic of Nina Simone, in which she will play the title role. The film is tentatively slated for a 2012 release. “It’s fun, singing in French, singing in opera. I’m learning. If I say to you, ‘ca va’? And you say, ‘trés bien, merci. Et vous?’ That’s all you really need, along with ‘merci beaucoup’ and ‘s’il vous plait.’”
Then there’s the fashion world. Blige — a noted clotheshorse who especially loves big sunglasses, big hoop earrings and scarves — is taking the plunge into accessories design this fall with her own eyewear line, Melodies by Mary J. Blige. She also sees scarves and belts in her near future. But full-on fashion? Of that, she’s not so sure.