“Life can be only what you make it.”
If you recognize that lyric from the Mary J. Blige hit “My Life,” it’s no surprise: The triple-platinum album of the same name has been riding high on best-of-all-time lists since its release in 1994. Mary admits the words resonate with her all these years later. “That song is really emotional to perform,” she says. “It speaks to me still about what life is—life can be only what you make it.” And what an incredible life Mary has made for herself.
Born in the Bronx and raised primarily by a single mother, Mary had an early life that was not the stuff that dreams are made of. She has revealed that she was sexually abused as a child, and that singing got her through the pain. In a twist of fate, singing is also what changed her life. In 1989, at the age of 18, Mary became the first woman—and the youngest artist—that Uptown Records had ever signed.
It’d be easy to say the rest is history, but that would gloss over a lot of important things. Brief highlights of her illustrious career include selling more than 50 million records worldwide, winning nine Grammy Awards, and receiving three Golden Globe and two Academy Award nominations (Best Supporting Actress and Original Song for 2017’s Mudbound). The 49-year-old has been working nonstop since she hit the scene, making music and acting in movies and on television. You can currently catch her in Power Book II: Ghost on Starz. Recently, she's also been hard at work on her brand new wine label, Sun Goddess—which is available nationwide.
One of the things you’ve used your voice to support is Black Lives Matter.
The killing of George Floyd was atrocious—words cannot even describe it. At the same time, it was the catalyst for some change. It put a mirror up in front of all of us, but we still have such a long way to go. Racism has always been a problem, and this was the breaking point and caused a reaction around the world. There are so many things I want to see change, and things are changing, thank God.
You’ve never shied away from being vulnerable with your music—singing about things like heartbreak and other sensitive topics. Is it difficult to be that open?
I don’t believe that we go through things to keep them a secret and then one day die of a heart attack because we have secrets festering inside of us. I think that we go through stuff to speak about it so we can help someone else heal. That’s the gift God gave me as an artist, to be able to be transparent and say: “You know what? It happened to me, too.” I don’t have any of the answers. That’s why I keep having to do so much work.
In early 2021, you’ll be playing singer Dinah Washington in the Aretha Franklin biopic, Respect. Is it tougher to play someone who existed in real life?
Yes. It’s more intimidating, but I had fun playing her as well because she was so mean to Aretha Franklin. I think she was mean to her not because she didn’t like her but because she wanted her to be a better artist.
Did you have anyone in your life like that when you were coming up in the industry?
Yeah. We had Ms. Franklin before she passed. She was like that with all of us. She was hard on us. When I met her, she called me Choppy. She said, “How you doing, Choppy?” I went to somebody and said, “What she mean by that?” They said, “She’s giving you a compliment. She’s saying you got chops.” She was not always the happiest to see us—but she loved us. Chaka Khan loved me too. It wasn’t always pleasant, but she gave me some good advice. Some of the best advice she gave me was that I needed to get out of my own way. I have used that ever since.
Let’s talk about wellness—do you like to work out?
I don’t like it, but I have to do it. I like to look a certain way. So I have to do what I have to do. I do a lot of weights—heavy lifting. It keeps everything firm.
Are you a healthy eater?
Well, one of the reasons I work out is because I love food. I eat a lot of protein. I drink a green juice every day. I’ve been a vegetable eater since I was a kid. If I am going to indulge, it’s a Coke float—vanilla ice cream and Coke. Or a fudge cupcake.
How do you care for your mental health?
I meditate and I pray on the things that are positive, not on the lies that are negative. Every time a negative thought comes, I push it down. I’m like, “That’s a lie. I rebut that. I don’t receive that.” It’s a practice, and you have to do it all day because negative thoughts come. If you’re not sleeping, they’re coming every second of the day. It’s a constant job, and you have to stay on it.
What’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned?
How to love ourselves. It’s still hard, but it’s getting better because I’m starting to understand where all the tricks come from. The tricks come from the things that were in the past—the lies that you believe about yourself that you do not have to believe if you love yourself.
Can you expand on that?
Self-love is the hardest thing to feel because we live in a world where everybody is hurting. Until you get satisfied with who you are, other people won’t ever be satisfied. That’s the growing process. That’s learning how to love and hug yourself and say, “You know what? I love you, Mary. I love you, Beautiful. I love you, Gorgeous. I love you, Smart Woman. I love you, Talented Woman.” That’s a practice I do every single day.
This article originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of Health Magazine. Click here to subscribe today!
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