Bronzed, blond, and bodied—Mary J. Blige’s grow-up has been far more than a glow up. At 49, the Grammy-winner and Golden Globe and Oscar nominee might just be her best Mary yet, so if you’re one of those folks who think “sad Mary” is the best Mary, get over it and into the golden glory of the icon atop Health magazine’s October issue (photographed by 2020 Glow Up 50 honoree Itaysha Jordan, no less).
The first woman and youngest artist signed by Andre Harrell’s Uptown Records in 1989 is a world-renowned star just over three decades later. She’s currently co-starring in the highly anticipated spinoff Power Book 2: Ghost, and will next portray Dinah Washington in the upcoming Aretha Franklin biopic, Respect. But as she tells Health, her stratospheric rise was unimaginable when growing up in the Schlobohm Housing Projects of Yonkers, N.Y.
I didn’t have big dreams and goals. I think because of the environment we lived in, it was hard to dream. Because if you dream or you smile too much, people would hurt you. Hurting people hurt people. But I was a singer, and people would always ask me to sing. I didn’t know that it was going to become this. I just thought God gave me a gift to survive, and that was my survival tactic, to sing. I would feel better about my environment; I would feel better about how we were living. I would feel better about everything if I just sang.
Obviously, her singing makes her legions of loyal fans feel better, too; in no small part because the woman known as “Just Mary” seems uniquely able to not only feel but communicate our own pain.
“I think that we go through stuff to speak about it so we can help someone else heal,” she explains. “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.”
That empathy extends to Blige’s response to our current racial crises in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, which she calls “atrocious,” and so many others.
“This has affected me the same way it has affected the world,” she shares. “So much emotion, outrage, and anger has caused us all to respond the only way we knew how. It was traumatizing to see them kill this man for no reason—and so many of us every day for so many years. We have had years of frustration and years of being ignored, but all of this has brought change. We still have a long way to go, and this is why Black lives will always matter.”
The ongoing pandemic has, of course, posed its own challenges, to which the singer-actress is not immune. She tells Health that she meditates, prays and lifts weights as part of her fitness regimen (“I don’t like it, but I have to do it,” she says. “I like to look a certain way”); and after a protracted and very public divorce, has been leaning into the self-imposed solitude of the moment.
“I’m going to take away a real appreciation of this me-time,” she says. “I was already liking me, and now I have grown deeper in love with myself because I love my own company. I don’t think any of us realized how fast we had been moving. I really appreciate this rest and this silence, so that I can hear more clearly what’s going on. When you’re by yourself, you’re either going to be your own best friend and be honest and real with yourself, or you’re going to be your own worst enemy and deceive yourself. It’s been so clear to me that I am my best friend.”
Speaking of friends, the revelation may be due to some tough love from Blige’s predecessors in the industry, including the late Ms. Franklin herself, and enduring powerhouse Chaka Khan.
“Some of the best advice she gave me was that I needed to get out of my own way,” Blige reveals. “I have used that ever since.”
One of the singer’s most famous lyrics is: “How can I love somebody else/If I can’t love myself enough to know/When it’s time, time to let go.” As she tells Health, it’s an ongoing process, but one she’s succeeding in.
“It’s still hard, but it’s getting better because I’m starting to understand where all the tricks come from,” she says. “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.”