Uniting generations with her twin allegiances to R&B and rap, Mary J. Blige delivers emotional intimacy packaged in a luxurious voice. A true project Cinderella, Blige was born in 1971 and started singing in Pentecostal church choirs in the South, before her family moved to Yonkers, N.Y. Miraculously, a karaoke tape she recorded for fun in a mall at 16 wound up with Andre Harrell and his then-label, Uptown Records. Instant coronation came with her 1992 debut, What’s the 411?, which sold more than 3 million copies worldwide. Its successor, 1994’s My Life, sold multiplatinum internationally, and Blige won a 1996 Grammy for “You’re All I Need,” her duet with Method Man. Rumors that Blige was a creation of the producer of her first two albums, Sean “Puffy” Combs, were allayed by the multiplatinum global sales of Share My World, her latest album. Collaborating with Jam and Lewis, Babyface and R. Kelly, among others, Blige proved that she’s as real as she wants to be.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? Any advice you wish you had taken?
The best advice was my mother’s. She always says, “Stay humble, and do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and you’ll be all right.” I wish I’d taken the advice to finish school and read all my contracts before I signed them.
What did you do with your first royalty check?
What kind of question is that? None of your business. I probably bought a bunch of clothes.
Were there ever any advantages to being a woman?
No. You’ve got to work harder than men or you got to end up sleeping with everybody, and God knows I don’t want to do that.
Who was your most important female role model?
My mother. She’s really a strong woman. She raised me and my sister by herself, had two jobs; she kept us looking right and still looked good.
More women than men start working with a mentor figure, and it can be tough to move on. How was it separating professionally from Puffy Combs?
It hurt that I had to leave. But I got over it. It hurt a little bit less the more I went out on my own. Now it doesn’t hurt at all.
How are male groupies different from female ones?
If men like me, they’ll just keep looking. The only way I’ll know is if they say, “I love you.” With women, they’re just out screaming, hollering, chasing you. I’ve seen them when I was on the road with Jodeci. Oh, my God, it was sickening.
What advice would you give to female musicians starting out?
Read everything before you sign it. If you haven’t finished high school, finish. Just beware.
Are there double standards for men and women musicians?
Men can sleep with 30 women and get away with it. I can’t.
Do you feel competitive with other women artists?
I don’t pay them any mind, because to me, thinking competitive slaughters you as an artist, because you’re worried about what the next artist is doing. The best thing for you to do as an artist is to do what you do.
Is it easier to work with men or women in the studio?
Working with men – not boys, men – is good. It’s no sexual vibes going on, just straight business. I never really had to work with another woman. The last time I did was a nightmare, but I won’t say any names.
Has being a musician affected your personal relationships?
Well, right now I don’t have a love life, so that’s how fame’s affected it – me having to go on the road and him not being able to handle it. It’s hard.
Do you feel like a role model?
I don’t think I’m a role model. I do think that as an artist, you are responsible for what you put out in the universe.
How does one age gracefully in music?
Just be who you are, wait your turn, don’t push, be beautiful, be graceful. If you’re going to get angry, be angry behind closed doors; don’t never let them see you sweat. But just hold your head up, no matter what. Don’t let anybody stomp you out.
This story is from the November 13th, 1997 issue of Rolling Stone.