Mika: next year's boy

To a dollop of Elton John add a good measure of Scissor Sisters and a sprinkling of Queen. Stick it all in the blender with a dash of good looks and a spicey childhood. What have you got? Mika - the pop sensation of 2007. Luiza Sauma met him
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The Independent Culture

It goes without saying that pop music is a funny old business, one that keeps its shiny cogs chugging on the basis of some seriously delicate equations. But rare it is that someone comes along who has the whole equation: the looks, the charm, the songs, the voice, the style, the confidence bordering on downright arrogance.

When the bigwigs at Universal signed Mika, they must have been rubbing their greedy little hands together. Mika is as fully formed a pop star as you will find - the only difference being, right now, you'd probably walk straight past him in the street.

"Argh, we're going to be locked in the bunker!" he laughs, as we're ushered into a room of shockingly nondescript proportions (white walls, a table like a hospital bed, with the chilly echo of a prison cell). It would do for Katie Melua or somebody else suitably "blah" - but you couldn't choose a less suitable venue for a meeting with the 23-year-old singer than his publicist's underground lair.

Mika is awfully pretty, and has a head of bouncy dark curls, but the similarities with Melua end there. Whether you love him or loathe him (by the end of 2007, you will hold one view or the other), Mika is anything but "blah". He likes to use the word "amazing" a lot. He speaks in long excited sentences, in that indefinable, yet strangely idiosyncratic Euro-American accent spoken by jet-setting diplomats' children. He's a music-school dropout. He's impeccably turned out in a bright pink jumper and what appears to be a necklace made of strung-together plastic birds.

But this is all fluff. The most important thing is that Mika is a poker-hot, bona fide superstar-to-be, and the world is about to take note. Chuck Elton John, Scissor Sisters and Queen into a blender, and Mika is what you'd get (except much, much better-looking). But for now, it's up to the record-buying public to decide his fate. So far, the signs have been good. There's the seven-inch single that sold out within a couple of days ("Relax, Take it Easy"), a forthcoming Paul Smith campaign, the music video shot by the ubiquitous Sophie Muller (who's done everyone from Beyonce to Blur), the Radio 1 support, the healthy MySpace presence. And just the other day, some guitarist called Brian May sent Mika a little note telling him just how great he thinks he is.

"Things have been amazing," says Mika. "Every single part of it, really... In a way it's good, because I can tell that the work is paying off. But at the same time, it's a little bit hard to keep on top of it." Is it overwhelming, teetering, as he is, on the brink of possible stardom? "No, it's not. I've been working on this for such a long time that it's like things have started to come together in the right way at the right time." There's something of the young Madonna in Mika's self-contained, almost business-like ambition. If that sounds strange, to compare a strapping young man with the diminutive queen of pop, then you're missing the point entirely.

There are two roughly two types of successful musician: those who sell in supermarkets, and those who don't. In the latter category, pretty much anything goes, but the former is far more precarious. After all, how do you convince millions of utterly different people into buying the same record? The secret is in being all things to all people. This hasn't been lost on Mika, who keeps his surname to himself, telling another journalist, "My name is unisex. One size fits all." With his five-octave vocal range and ambiguous sexuality, Mika looks and sounds like the collective, androgynous wet dream of girls, gays and grannies everywhere. The evidence is in his devoted, diverse audience, whom he describes as "a real cross-section. We've got everything from 40-year-old musos who send me reports on how they think I'm doing at my gigs... We've got 18-year-old hipsters, who just wanna have a good time. And we've got groups of people that come to my shows dressed up as different characters from my songs." Is he shocked by all the hysteria? "More like the hyperactiveness - everyone gets really hyper!"

It's not difficult to see why. Mika's debut album Life in Cartoon Motion does exactly what it says on the box. A riotous, crayon-bright whirl of unashamed Pop with a capital "P", it veers from Freddie Mercury-style histrionics to Seventies middle-of-the-road rock and disco. It's massive, it's knowing, it's deeply unfashionable, it's camper than Jake Shears in a gold lamé leotard.

Born in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, Mika and his family were evacuated to Paris when he was a baby; 16 years ago he was uprooted again, to London, where he has been ever since. It's not an unusual story for a Londoner, but for a British pop star, it's almost unheard of. It's also entirely shaped his malleable identity - and his search for a concrete one - something that he happily lampoons in his forthcoming, so-catchy-it's-evil single "Grace Kelly": "I tried to be like Grace Kelly/But all her looks were too sad/So I tried a little Freddie/I've gone identity mad!"

As a child, it worked against him - when he arrived in London, Mika was a virtual outcast. "I had a hard time at school. I didn't really fit in," he admits. "It was horrible. I showed up at school and I was wearing bow ties with matching coloured trousers... In France that made me the really special kid that everyone loved. When I came to London, all they wanted to do was destroy that." Until this point, Mika has been nothing less than upbeat; suddenly, he almost looks like he's welling up.

"I kind of broke down," he says. "I stopped reading, I stopped writing and that's when dyslexia really set in for me. I've never been able to read music. My mother called me out of school, she didn't send me back for six months and I just got on my feet again." Hanging around at home with nothing to do, he began studying with a classical singing teacher. Within months, he had got his first "gig", singing at the Royal Opera House. "It opened my eyes to a whole new world: this world where people work all day long, for weeks, in order to create an illusion. So you create fantasy, and most people's jobs are rooted in reality. I realised that you didn't have to do that."

But how did a precocious, friendless child opera singer in a yellow bow tie (hold that image, readers) turn into the beautiful pop creature you see before your eyes? "I always wanted to do pop music," he says. "Even then, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. It was just a question of getting there, and getting there my own way."

A few years later, Mika found himself studying at the Royal College of Music by day, and working as a waiter and writing songs by night - and finding it impossible to even get a gig. "The indie crowd didn't want to know about me and the commercial music crowd didn't really want to know about me..." One record company - who must surely be kicking themselves - tried to squeeze Mika into their own, unfortunate equation. "They wanted me to do formulaic pop music. They were like, 'Just do it this time, make your first record and then you can do whatever you want.' Kind of like Robbie Williams meets Craig David equals disaster! So I wrote 'Grace Kelly' as a reaction to that and they never called me back."

Their loss was his gain. Despite signing to a major label, Mika was largely given a carte blanche for his debut album, which he wrote as a reaction to the current demand for dreary, acoustic singer-songwriters (or in his words, "indulgent, autobiographical, sob story, middle-class, dinner party music"). Ever the competitive child prodigy, Mika says, "I didn't want to make a record like that because there are enough records that have been made like that. I wanted to make this kind of circus master, psychotic, big-sounding pop record - essentially because if I wasn't going to do it, who was?" And here's where the budding musician ends and the pop star begins. When I ask him if he's been surprised at the press reaction to his music, his response is outrageously cocksure: "It's not arrogance, but I know I've made a good record. I know I've made a record that actually has to be talked about. I'm not surprised."

A few days after our chat, I headed down to a rather corporate charity gig in east London to catch Mika in action. Packs of media types milled about, saving the world by making good use of the free drinks, mostly drowning out the music with their chatter. Even so, Mika didn't let it affect his performance. He struck poses, he swung his hips, he thrust his fist in the air. He did all this, despite the deadening atmosphere, and despite his rather manufactured-looking backing band.

Mika's wrong about the current music scene. Lots of people are making good records; it's just that for those few, there are hundreds of others making millions from absolute dross. But he was right about his album. It is good - great, even - and it will be talked about. He'll never top the NME's Cool List, but as the clock strikes 12 this time next year, Mika's music will be playing in hundreds of nightclubs up and down the country, while people of every gender, sexual orientation and age dance around their handbags, forgetting their problems. And that, at the end of the day, it what pop music is all about.

Mika's single "Grace Kelly" is out on 29 January. His debut album 'Life in Cartoon Motion' (Universal) is out on 5 February.

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