Mika: At home with fame

From early childhood, Mika knew he was destined to sing. And with his latest album selling a million copies, he's finally proved the doubters wrong. He invites Elisa Bray to his pad

I'm trashed," says Mika, flicking on the kettle at his London apartment. "I was given three days off and it's only when you stop working that you feel it."

If this is Mika in tired mode, you can only imagine how energetic he is usually. "You've got to hear this," he exclaims, dark brown curls bouncing as he jumps up to play a song by The King's Singers, with whom he is about to play a gig at the Union Chapel. Since Mika posted a link to the singing troupe's YouTube video on his Twitter page, the hits have rocketed from 300 to 30,000. "The power!" Mika says gleefully, his eyes sparkling.

Mika's power is undeniable. Whether you like or loathe them, the melodies of his colourful, exuberant pop songs lodge themselves in your head. His 2007 debut album Life in Cartoon Motion sold 5.6 million and his second, the September-released The Boy Who Knew Too Much, reached number four in the UK charts, shifted a million copies worldwide in its first days, and made the Top 20 in the US Billboard 200. In France he tops the charts. How did Mika become a worldwide star? "If I really have to pin down why," he ponders, "it's because I come from so many different places. It meant that I was inevitably eclectic and I wasn't born out of a scene. I was making music that existed on its own terms and subsequently had to have its own entire visual world around it. Still –" he adds, "success in one place, let alone multiple places, is a surprise."

Not that much of a surprise, surely. From early childhood Mika would spend five consecutive hours dancing in his bedroom to Nina Simone, Michael Jackson and the Beastie Boys. His mother noticed Mika's talent and he was soon singing on jingles for commercials. "I knew early I wanted to sing my own songs, but that was it. I still think I was very unlikely to do what I do – as a pop star. There's a part of me that felt like the accidentally invited guest to the party and I think that's healthy because it keeps you on your toes. When you don't think you belong somewhere you don't get complacent."

Has fame changed him over the past few years? "No".

It's for this reason, to avoid complacency, that Mika is performing a show with The King's Singers and performed acoustic shows at Sadler's Wells with an orchestra, drawing on his brief stint at the Royal College of Music (he quit). He is aware of the short shelf life faced by so many pop stars today. "Reinvention and good song writing are what will see me through in my career. I know the heart of it all is the songs so I try to write songs that don't necessarily have instant commercial potential. My ticket sales have never been better."

If the flamboyant performance style, relentless melodies and distinctive falsetto vocals aren't to everyone's taste, Mika's likeable personality is a definite draw. He can't offer enough tea and biscuits, while to launch the first single from the album, We Are Golden, he invited his fans via Twitter to his local pub for celebratory drinks, and he radiates a genuine passion and enthusiasm. No surprise that so many in the pop world have been drawn to him; Mika can count Adele, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga among his friends ("She's very intelligent and bizarrely sincere – at least she's honest about the fact she's a fabrication of her own doing").

His South Kensington flat is light and welcoming, full of brightly coloured flowers and Diptyque candles. He had it decorated recently and hasn't been able to write a song there since, despite the fact that it's the home of the upright piano he's owned since he was two. Now he takes his songwriting to the studio. "Ever since I re-did it [the flat] I haven't written a song in it because I don't like how it looks. It's way too new." His ideal place to write is "somewhere old where you can flirt with the ghosts in the room and steal their stories". His other great love, illustration, can be seen all around his flat. Works by artists such as Peanuts creator Charles Schulz adorn the walls.

Now 26, Michael Penniman moved as a young child from Beirut to Paris with his Lebanese mother, American businessman father and siblings, where they lived until he was nine. They have been based in London ever since. Mika was an eccentric child. At school in Paris he was suspended for dragging a Christmas tree into his classroom when it wasn't even Christmas. He was "discreet" and quiet among his peers, but his clothes were far from it. He would ask his dressmaker mother to fashion him shirts and bow ties from the most vibrant offcuts. If, as a bona fide pop star, he feels like the accidentally invited guest to the party, it's an extension of his youth throughout which he felt like an outsider. When he moved to London, the bullying began. He gained a place through his musical ability at Westminster School, and recalls: "It was the girls who defended me." What was he bullied about? "Everything. The way I spoke, the way I dressed. I was found to be effeminate by a lot of the guys. I was obsessed with music, I was not clever enough to be a geek, I was not cool so it left me in my own place. But I would never change anything in my past." He pauses. "Almost all pop music songwriters were never popular and that's probably why they were attracted to a populist format. And almost every creator of popular fiction or comic books, some of the most populist things published, are the strangest most introverted people, and the hardest to decipher."

While his debut album was a product of his childhood, The Boy Who Knew Too Much centres around his adolescence. "I had to pick up where I left off and confront my adolescence rather than run away from it. How do I take my world and evolve it? I understand this naive approach to really serious subjects, but how do I take that somewhere else? Ok, take your fairytale, but make it a really twisted gothic one. Make the lyrics hard hitting and miserably mundane, then pair this up with joy and you get this strange contrast between the two."

On stage he is an extrovert showman, commanding the attention of his fans – like a circus ringmaster. "It's the same me, but performing is like my boxing ring. I'm not afraid of being judged, I'm not afraid of someone taking a shot at me for who I am and what I'm doing." When the critics were divided over his debut album, he described it confidently as a "Marmite record". If he's honest, he's not exactly happy with that; he would prefer to be liked by everyone. "It must be great for some writers that are just critically fine. They can fart on a record and they seem to get good reviews."

His camp ways are still a puzzle that he wishes to guard. "I discuss my sexuality in my lyrics more than anybody in pop music. There's a way to discuss sexuality without labels. It's not born out of fear because you don't make music like mine if you're operating from a position of fear, that's for sure." He says he is currently in the longest relationship of his life so far. "I'm private about my private life and I think that's an important thing. It's not necessarily retaining mystery, it's preserving yourself so you can sit down and write a song without feeling like you've sterilised yourself to be nice to everybody."

When the photographer arrives, he leaps up. "What am I going to wear?" he exclaims, before emerging several minutes later in a suitably bright jacket. The three days' holiday are over, and it's all go again. He is already gearing up for a European tour early next year. "I quite like it. I'm comfortable with the fact that's my life." He pauses as if listening back to himself. Then, eyes shining with excitement, he corrects himself: "I love it, actually!"

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little