Mica Paris: 'I had everything, the money and the fame and I was like – is this it?'

 (Matt Writtle)
(Matt Writtle)

“Looking good!” I blurt out, semi-involuntarily, as I wander into the bar area of Neon, just off Piccadilly, to find Mica Paris, being photographed right behind the door.

“Work in progress, honey,” she smiles back: a phrase she will later also employ to describe an almost four-decade career that, as well as Eighties pop superstardom, has taken in radio presenting, screen acting (not least in EastEnders) and the West End stage.

“It's so funny,” she says. “Last year someone sent me an article in Smash Hits from when I was 18. It was titled The Making of a Pop Star. And I'm still trying to be successful. This is the joke. That was ‘88. I'm still exploring.”

Tonight she will make her debut, downstairs at Neon, in Rehab: The Musical: a funny-serious show about a Nineties singer who gets papped snorting cocaine and has to go off and sort himself out.

Also starring Keith Allen (who turns up halfway through our conversation sporting his sleazy PR guy character’s Hulk Hogan-esque beard), Paris describes it as “important… I only do things that are really important. I went to see it and I was blown away. I've been trying to tell people what this thing's like, this beast, this machine called the music industry and why it swallows up our best. This does that really well.”

And if this sounds a bit earnest, let me dispel that notion immediately. Later she will tell a story about Prince calling her up at home “at 4am, 5am” from Cafe De Paris. Off Mica Paris would go, to find him sat, “nursing a little shot of whiskey that he didn’t touch”, not saying very much. “But I can talk the arse off a fucking donkey, so he didn't really need to talk. I’m entertainment, you know what I’m saying?”

 (Victoria Jones/PA)
(Victoria Jones/PA)

After an hour or so in her company, I do know exactly what she is saying: the tales, the opinions, the laughter, all completely unfiltered, come thick and fast.

It seems pertinent, given the subject matter of Rehab, to talk about fame: which, after the song My One Temptation and her debut album So Good made her as big as it gets even by 1988 standards, Mica Paris experienced the full extent of… and then turned her back on.

“I’d just come off Letterman. I was everywhere. I had a huge apartment in New York overlooking the Hudson. I remember flying out my mum and my sister because I was so lonely. Then they went back to London and I was back in my apartment. I remember being sat there going, ‘I've got everything. I've got the money, the fame…’ And I was like, ‘Is this it?’”

Shortly after, she went back to London herself “to my apartment in Hackney. I had all these bodyguards outside the house. I remember phoning up Island Records saying, ‘I really don't want them around anymore’. That was that moment I walked away. I got married [to a man she doesn’t name or talk about] and had my first daughter. I ran.

"My parents were like, ‘What are you doing? Why are you turning down all this stuff just to get married?’ But they didn't get it. At that point I’d been travelling all over the world since I was 17, living out of a suitcase. By the time I was 21, I felt like I had nothing. Everyone I knew was on drugs, getting smashed and broken, and I didn't want that. I didn't like it, didn't like what I saw.”

Mica Paris as Ellie Nixon in EastEnders (PA)
Mica Paris as Ellie Nixon in EastEnders (PA)

Paris now hasn’t had a cigarette for 10 years (“Thanks to vapes, the ones you can put a flavour in”) or a drink for four. “I never had a problem with it. I'm a happy drunk, one of those on-the-tables people. But I just got tired of it. It's the day after. You get older and you realise that hangover feeling is not the one. My issue was the sadness: it made me feel sad the next day. When something makes me feel sad, I’m out because I don’t like feeling sad. I'm quite a happy-go-lucky character.”

Drugs she never touched, despite their omnipresence – cocaine in particular – in her industry in the Eighties. “People are like, why didn't you go into drugs? Because I was so grateful  to have my job. Wow, I'm getting all this because I'm a singer. Man, I'm not gonna abuse that. I'm gonna protect that shit in my life.”

She saw plenty of her contemporaries go down that road “and it scared me. At that time, I was still grieving people like Marvin Gaye, my absolute hero. When I saw how he died, when I saw all of the people like Miles Davis, all of these people, it was always drugs. I started to see this pattern: drugs, drugs, drugs. I was like, ‘I don’t want that shit, that shit’s going to mess me up.’”

More importantly, she had made a promise to her grandparents – who had to sign her record contract because she was only 17 – that she wouldn’t. “They said, [adopts Jamaican accent] ‘Michelle, we're not going to sign it because everybody in this business, they’re all taking the drugs. We don't want you to take the drugs.’ I said, ‘I promise you, if you sign this, I definitely won’t do it.’ This was four years earlier I said that to them, but I remembered that.”

It was Paris’ grandparents who raised her, in Brockley, “from birth. I’d visit my mum and dad in Streatham at weekends and things like that, but I didn't like that. I wanted to be with them. I used to be really sad about that and I promised myself when I'm a mum, I’m there 100 per cent.

"When my daughter had her first kid, I was in Switzerland doing Fame, playing Miss Sherman. It was 5am and she went into labour. I had a show that night but I got on the plane, the first plane out of there at 7am, came to London, went to St Mary's and she had the baby. Ruben. I named him! Then I got back on that plane and did the show that night.”

It was her grandparents who got her into music. “My grandfather was a hardcore minister. Amazingly powerful sermons. And I was the one that would be the singer in the church. I started when I was about eight. Then my grandmother was literally like an agent. She had me in every church around the country: this little thing with white socks and this big voice.”

 (Matt Writtle)
(Matt Writtle)

Unbelievably, she then won her first award at Wembley Stadium, aged 11. “The New Testament Church of God are this body and they have conventions in Wembley, get all the different New Testament churches from different boroughs and have a competition. At this point, I'd been singing for about two, three years. I'd never been to a place that big. They looked like ants. I was so frightened. So I just looked at the ceiling. I was so scared, my knees were moving. I was really a nervous wreck. Then I looked up at the ceiling and I gave it everything I had.”

Having bought her first single at Brixton’s Red Records (“Funkin’ for Jamaica by Tom Browne”), she knew she wanted in and that no one was going to stop her. “I'm 5ft 10in, I'm a black woman, I'm loud. But because I believe that what I'm doing is going to touch you and inspire you, that's gonna open doors for me. And so you don't get focused on all that negative stuff. Let that go. Linford Christie is one of my oldest mates and he’d always say to me – still does – ‘Mica, all I see is my lane. I don't see anyone next to me, I don’t see the audience. All I see is my lane and the ribbon. Don’t let no one distract you.’

“My thing,” she continues, “is I wanted to put British soul music on the map. That was my dream from the time I was young. Sade did it with jazz. She did a great job. But no one had done it with soul. I wanted to be the first gospel soul singer this country ever had. That was my mission. And I'm still trying to do it.“

Rehab the Musical runs at Neon 194 until February 17; buy tickets here