Mary J. Blige Is 'Single, Without a Kid, and Having a Good Time'
The singer and actress on Power Book II: Ghost, new music, and learning to love herself.
When Mary J. Blige is ready to relax, she commits. At the moment, the queen of hip-hop soul is lounge-Zooming in the vast backyard of her New Jersey home. She's wearing a one-shouldered rainbow Gucci bathing suit, gold hoop earrings, and cat-eye sunglasses, her hair caught in a loose blond topknot.
Behind her, a placid turquoise pool is set invitingly with white reclining chairs. "It's 90 degrees, and I'm starting early!" Blige says with a chuckle, noting that she's on vacation. "I'm cool with being still. That's the thing about me. I know how to just sit."
Blige has a week off before she resumes shooting the second season of the Starz drama Power Book II: Ghost, where she has a juicy role as ruthless drug "queenpin" Monet Tejada. After a much-needed rest period during the pandemic, Blige's career is jumping once again. She's winning raves as Dinah Washington in the Aretha Franklin biopic Respect. And according to co-executive producer Sean "Diddy" Combs, who jubilantly announced it on Instagram, Mary J. Blige's My Life was one of the most-watched documentary premieres in the history of Amazon Studios. It tells the story of her game-changing 1994 album, My Life, described by Blige as her darkest release — and how a shy teenager from a Yonkers, N.Y., housing project became a megastar who has sold more than 50 million albums.
Along the way, she has battled drug abuse and depression. Traumatic events from a rough childhood made her unable to cope when fame hit in her teens, resulting in a long bout of debilitating self-loathing that she is finally getting past. Very few celebrities of Blige's caliber are so transparent about their struggles. Her concerts resemble a group therapy session; this is someone who never, ever phones it in ("It's about giving 200% and leaving sweat on the stage," she says).
Even after 30-plus years in the public eye, Blige, warm and present on this sparkling summer day, is still strikingly vulnerable. In the documentary, her eyes brim when she recites some of her bleaker lyrics; she welled up again when she saw the finished film. "I couldn't believe how much I was crying," she says.
The waterworks flowed in earnest when she saw onscreen testimonials from fans who said her music prevented them from committing suicide — something she said in the documentary she has contemplated herself. "It touched me so much," she says now, her voice catching. "And I just did it by putting my pain in the music. And trying not to die."
Filming the documentary — as well as turning 50 this year — has made Blige reflective. True healing, she says, "is a process. We probably are not going to be completely healed until we're in our grave. I'm serious! So if I said, 'Oh yeah, girl, I'm healed'" — she waves her arms dismissively — "well, no, that's not true. Every single day is a fight. I'm fighting for happiness now. I'm fighting for peace of mind now."
Serenity is likely easier to summon after her 2018 divorce from her husband and manager, an ordeal that was decidedly not "conscious uncoupling." Her new single, "Hourglass," which closes the documentary, was written prior to the split and alludes to their discord. Lyrics like "If there's no tomorrow, we got to make it last tonight" reflected "me going through hell, trying to keep someone who didn't want me." She shakes her head. "But when I got out of that bad marriage, I started to really pick myself up and love myself. I don't hate myself anymore. I'm stronger now."
The film has plenty of joyous moments too. It's a kick to watch '90s-era footage of Blige and see how enduring her impact has been on fashion. In the early days, she and her longtime stylist Misa Hylton, short on designer clothes but long on inspiration, devised an irresistible mix of street and tomboy: short shorts, Teflon boots, backward baseball caps, jerseys, blond curls, Fendi sunglasses, Applejack hats.
"That's what inner-city people do — take out whatever little bit of money we have and make something great out of an outfit," she says. Young women from similar backgrounds saw themselves for the first time and started "running around with my hairstyles."
Blige's signature pleated tennis skirts and boots have come around again and are currently hitting the runway. "Everybody's doing the skirts and boots and the neck full of chains!" she says with a laugh.
She continues to blaze a style trail with Monet's look on Power Book II, all buttery black leather jackets, sharp silhouettes, and a long red mane parted in the middle and spilling down her back — Blige's idea. "Instead of giving her a bang and covering her face, I want people to see her expressions — like, 'I'm not hiding, don't fuck … excuse me, don't play with me.' And the red is a sign of fire." She tucks a honey-colored strand behind her ear. "I didn't want blond hair, because that's my shit."
Monet's major hoop earrings — another signature look—are courtesy of Sister Love jewelry, Blige's line with longtime friend Simone I. Smith, seen on everyone from Rihanna to Missy Elliott. When I tell Blige that I worry heavy hoops will pull down my earlobes, she abruptly sits up in her lounge chair. "These look heavy, but they're not," she says, fingering the gleaming yellow-gold Queen Hoops adorning her ears. "My thing was to make giant hoops that are lightweight, so you don't ruin your ears and have to have surgery! I'm going to send you some. You want some?" (A few days later, some heart-shaped pairs arrive in the mail — and she wasn't kidding, they are delightfully lightweight.)
While filming the first season of Power Book II, Blige says, she had to "push past the fear" of acting — despite an Oscar nomination for her quietly devastating performance in 2017's Mudbound. "I was not always super secure with my acting ability," she says. She misses the affirmation of a live audience. "There's nobody clapping, nobody screaming, just a cold camera," she says. "So I had to keep pushing, pushing, pushing." She smiles. "But by the time I got to the end of Season 1, I was like, 'Monet — boom.' "
Blige is intent on making an impact behind the camera, too. Her production company, Blue Butterfly, is developing a roster of diverse films and TV shows — including a sitcom called Family Affair that she and co-creator Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson just sold to ABC — and she is a vocal advocate for Black stuntwomen, who are often overlooked in the industry.
She is also writing new music — keeping her phone by her bed, in case inspiration hits at 3 in the morning ("You got to wake up, grab your glasses, and type it in there real quick"). A number of young artists are on her radar, among them H.E.R. "She has a phenomenal voice and is a great writer," says Blige. "Jazmine Sullivan moves me, Ella Mai moves me, Lucky Daye. So many dope artists out there are doing something great." The advice she would give them is characteristically straightforward. "Stay on your business," she says bluntly. "Know the state of your money. Get life insurance. Get all kinds of insurance."
Blige's phone buzzes, and she excuses herself briefly ("Hang on, don't go nowhere"). It's a friend, one of several who will be arriving shortly to relax by the pool. The afternoon's agenda is simple: Catch some rays, eat, tip back some wine, and make one another laugh. "A perfect day," says Blige.
She has some iced sauvignon blanc at the ready from Sun Goddess, the line of wines she debuted last year. Her Instagram posts of Sun Goddess's ad campaign, in which she rocks a tiny golden bathing suit on a Turks and Caicos beach, prompted an inferno of fire emoji from the likes of Taraji P. Henson and Busta Rhymes.
Rightly so. Blige says that she feels better than ever and credits exercise, vitamins, facials, lots of water ("the fountain of youth"), and frequent naps as the keys to her inherent glow. "Ever since I was a kid, I've loved naps," she says. "As a grownup, I still love them." She is mindful of her stress levels too: "When we carry stress inside, it starts to reflect on the outside, like on your skin."
Lately, Blige has grown even more experimental with her style. "I love getting dressed and looking fly," she says. "Sometimes I feel like 1980s, sometimes I feel like 1990s. Sometimes I feel like looking like a drug dealer, sometimes I feel like a classy lady."
Ten years ago, she says, "I wouldn't have been wearing these little jean shorts that show some of my bum. But now that I've got some confidence, I'm wearing them." She stretches out a gleaming, toned limb. "I know I have some good legs. I'm wearing a whole romper that looks like a bathing suit if I feel like it, you know what I mean?"
Blige is reveling in her newfound peace and her many creative projects — and her single status. "Divorce, that took a load off," she says, leaning back in her chair. "The day that I began to lighten up is the day my skin began to brighten, my eyes began to brighten. Now I keep beautiful people around me." She laughs. "I'm single, without a kid, and I'm having a good time. I'm doing the most."
Photographs by AB+DM. Styling by June Ambrose. Hair by Tym Wallace/Mastermind Management Group. Makeup by Keita Moore/The Only Agency. Set design by Michael Altman/See Management. Production by The Custom Family.
For more stories like this, pick up the September 2021 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Aug. 13th.