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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
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.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor