At 11 at night in a secluded corner of a hotel bar in Zurich, Mica Paris is having her first meal of the day. She’s very apologetic about missing an earlier interview appointment, even though she has a pretty solid excuse. Her first grandchild was born this morning in London (“He’s beautiful, he looks just like her”) and she’s been with her daughter since last night and hasn’t slept. She’s also just done a barnstorming performance in Fame The Musical, the theatrical version of the 1980s film and television programme.
She speaks between bites of her burger and she’s funny and not averse to comically deployed swear words and celebrity name-drops. She has worked with Prince and casually mentions taking Stevie Wonder out for fish and chips (“He loves fish and chips”). She ends sentences with “babe” and “darling” and chats about my name. “Patrick for an Irish man?” she says. “It’s like Leroy for a black guy, isn’t it? You never see a white guy called Leroy.”
Amy Winehouse was great. She was like a more hardcore version of me
In the 1980s Mica Paris was a huge pop star, with hits like My One Temptation and Where Is the Love? Since then she has hosted radio shows and music documentaries, replaced Trinny and Susannah on What Not to Wear, appeared in several musicals and continued to make records.
She discovered her love of music when she was five or six, she says, listening to her aunt’s specially imported Hawkins Family records. “Irish houses are very similar to Jamaican houses,” she says (she was once married to an Irish man). “The front room is sacred. You don’t bring your food in there. There’s plastic on the sofa. I used to creep in and put my auntie’s records on and pray to God she didn’t come home. I wasn’t allowed to touch the music player, but I would put that needle down every day after school and listen to the Hawkins Family and study the riffs … By the time I was 10 I could riff f***ers out of the room … You need to listen to the greats to become great. That’s the first thing. That’s what Prince always said. That’s what Michael [Jackson] said too. Well, the Hawkins have that thing. They have what we black people call ‘anointing’.”
When did people realise she could sing? “I was running around the house singing Rupert the Bear, and my grandmother started jumping up and down, going crazy and telling everyone in her Jamaican accent, ‘Oh God! Michelle have a voice! Oh God, everybody quick listen, listen!’ ”
Her grandparents had their own church, and when they discovered her talent, they made use of it. “I became this prodigy and [my grandmother] took me around all the churches around the UK. Kids are good. They know what people like. Every time I held a really long note, they’d go crazy. So I kept doing these long notes, in my white socks. ‘I’ve got a new trick! This is cool!’ … I became a really big star in the church. The Pentecostal church in the UK is massive. They have a convention in Wembley Stadium where all the congregations come together. I won a competition there and that was it. My grandmother was my agent and we were travelling around singing everywhere.”
By the time she was in her teens, she was dreaming of wider stardom and hiding Prince albums under her mattress (“He was wearing suspenders then. If my grandparents saw that album cover, I’d be toast.”). A manager named Viv Broughton put her into a group called the Spirit of Watts but she yearned for a solo career. On being turned down by Sony records, she bawled her eyes out, she says. She imitates her teenage self sobbing between the words: “I’m. The. Only. Person. Not. Signed.” As she was leaving the building she was stopped by a lowly A&R man, Julian Palmer, who told her he was absconding to form Island records and wanted to sign her.
And so she had hit after hit, but it was difficult. “My grandparents were having a meltdown because I was the star of the church,” she says. “‘Oh my God, she’s leaving us!’ They were devastated and that was really traumatic for me. I had to leave home and live with my sister. It was horrible. But I knew it was time. You know when you’re a teenager? No one can tell you anything. You know what you want. I was so driven.”
What would she tell her teenage self now? She laughs. “Calm the f*** down. It will come. Just chill.”
She had big ideas, she says, but “the suits” were meddling. “They’d say, ‘No, we don’t want this record out, we want this record.’ They started putting out records without me knowing … I came from so much control in the church. I was trying to escape that and I thought my ticket was music. When they were controlling it was a big shock for me. I felt I was in a prison.”
She tells me a story about her label-mate, Robert Palmer, complaining to the label that she was arrogant, purely because she had lots to say about the production of her record in a radio interview. Female singers weren’t meant to have thoughts about such things, she says. Later in life, she bonded with Amy Winehouse over this.
“Amy was saying, ‘They won’t let me write my own music they want to bring in these f***ing writers.’ I was saying, ‘At least you’ve got all the songs on your album written by you, honey, that’s a step.”
She sighs. “Amy was great. She was like a more hardcore version of me.”
Over the course of the 1990s, Paris’s relationship with the industry became more fraught and she ended up filing for bankruptcy. She just laughs when I ask about this. “Bankruptcy just means you made too much f***ing money.”
She did other things. She hosted a BBC radio show, Soul Solutions, for five years. She was also recruited to host What Not to Wear and went on to write a book, Beautiful Within. “It was kind of funny. I couldn’t get signed. I’d get offers for things. I’d say, ‘I might as well do it, because I can’t do what I really want to do.’ Then I’d do them, they’d blow up and then the record company would give me a deal.”
She did her first run on a musical in Clarke Peters’ Sweet Lorraine in 1994 and has done many since. “I was so scared.” Does she get scared now? “Nah.” When she’s singing, she says, something else takes over. “You’re a channel … I sing the first line and then I’m gone. You get out of the way. We call that the spirit. That’s when God walks in.”
She was already a huge fan of Fame before being asked to become part of this production. She liked how it delved into the grittier realities of making art and seeking celebrity.
“Alan Parker [director of the original film] doesn’t joke,” she says. “I’m really funny about any shit that’s twee. I’m not feeling twee … If it’s all sweet, you don’t get the dark and interesting stuff. So when I read the script for this I was like, ‘Aw yeah!’ because it’s got the dark stuff. It’s not High School Musical or Glee. There’s nothing wrong with that if that’s your cup of tea, but if I’m going to be in it, it has to have the dark shit.”
She talks about Gene Anthony Ray, who played Leroy in both the original film and the spin-off TV show and who died at the age of 41 after a lifetime struggling with addiction. “Leroy showed people that black people can do this kind of dance,” she says. “You never saw that.”
Representation is important, she says. “That’s why, when I was five, I’d run downstairs and watch the Jackson Five cartoon. I was obsessed with it. I cut my hair to be like the Jackson Five ... I wanted to be like them because they were the only people I could see on the telly who looked like me. Everyone I could see on the telly was white.”
Posh white women
She hates stereotypes and likes to subvert them. The English teacher she plays in the musical was played by white women in both the film and the TV series, which gives a very different flavour to her interactions with a dyslexic black kid. “And What Not to Wear was [originally] a posh white woman with her best mate who was also posh and they replaced them with a girl from south London.”
She’s political, she says, but quietly so. In 2001 her brother, Jason Phillips, was shot dead on the street and she got involved with the anti-gun crime initiative Operation Trident. “I needed to understand,” she says. “When you’re successful, you’re kind of detached from the street. You’re kind of in your ivory tower a little bit. My brother’s death was terrible but what was really good for me was that I learned so much. When I started meeting the mothers of those boys who were being killed, I was so shocked, because we don’t see that. It’s a whole other world you have no idea about.”
She feels lucky to have the career she has had. She still loves to sing and her voice sounds almost effortlessly powerful on stage. It does sound like she’s channelling something. She never wants to come across like she’s complaining, she says, “All I care about is that whatever you have of mine – a book or album or a TV or radio thing – that you’re inspired. That’s my job.” She laughs. “If I don’t do that, I’m a twat.”
Fame The Musical runs in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre June 18th-22nd