Mica Paris: 'When they are gone, I'll still be doing my thing'

The soul singer was reborn as a surprising TV fashion guru. Now she reveals she has quit that job for her first love, music. But did she have a choice?
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The Independent Online

Mica Paris has got a big laugh. She's a big woman with big eyes and big hair that shakes as she laughs out loud at the memory of the day she walked out on EMI Records in a big rage. "I was like, 'Let me tell you something, yeah? When this building's gone, I will still be here. When there's no EMI, I will still be here, doing my thing. Fuck off!'"

The laughter is loud because even as we speak – in a recording studio in the Surrey countryside – EMI appears to be imploding. The new owners are holding a meeting with staff in London. It's not funny that 2,000 people will lose their jobs. It's not funny that artists such as Robbie Williams are apparently on strike because of the way a band of venture capitalists has decided to run the label. But for the former teenage soul sensation Mica (pronounced Meesha) Paris, the troubles afflicting her old bosses – and many others in corporate music – must feel like delightful revenge. "Oh my God, honey, hello? It's all going off!" she booms. "The music industry has been ripping off artists for years, ruining our lives. It's time for it to be rebuilt in a clear, correct way."

She stormed out of EMI 10 years ago instead of being sacked. "I got up," she recalls. "I walked out. Then I went home and cried. I said, 'Fuck, I've lost another record deal. What am I going to do?'"

Reinvent herself, was the answer. The teenage soul sensation who'd had a massive success with "My One Temptation" in 1989 was seen as past it. The American stardom that had seen her duet with Prince was over. There was bankruptcy and a breakdown to come ... but now, at last, she is just about able to laugh about it all.

She has a sell-out residency at Ronnie Scott's jazz club in London, next show a week today. A comeback single with the soul star Alexander O'Neal out tomorrow will get a lot of air play. Even if it doesn't reach number one, she will be OK. She is famous again at 38. So famous that the tabloids recently reported she had been out for dinner with a friend. That was all. The friend wasn't well known, and nor was the restaurant. The fact was reported anyway, because Paris was deemed worth a story. Why?

The telly. She has been wobbly on Strictly Come Dancing and cooked in the kitchen with Gordon Ramsay two nights ago along with old boyfriend Max Beesley; but the break that led to all this was being picked – from nowhere – with her friend Lisa Butcher in 2006 to host one of the BBC's biggest shows, What Not To Wear. "When I rang my family to tell them, they said, 'Nah! There must be a mistake. Black people don't get that stuff.'"

She only auditioned because Butcher put her up to it. Now, she says, "some of the kids are like, 'Music? She does clothes, doesn't she?'" A silky black blouse with sleeves flapping like wings today, in case you care. A black satin skirt and bare legs. And a whole lot of confidence. The first series trounced former hosts Trinny and Susannah (who had defected to ITV) in the ratings. The critics pounced on the second. The Sun was savage about her size (14), naming the show What Not To Weigh. Others called the new hosts "charmless" and "unpleasant" and said they didn't know about clothes or women's bodies. So what is her response? "I really don't give a damn about what people say, honey. The ratings were good. That's what counts."

Maybe. But a third series has yet to be commissioned. The BBC says it is resting the show for at least year. Paris insists she has quit. So let's be as blunt as a clothes guru in a changing room: she's been sacked, hasn't she?

Oh boy. The look on her face would make one of her dowdy fashion victims weep. "What?" She sits up straight on the leather sofa we're sharing, smoothes down her skirt and stares. "Nah," she says, with a shrug that's pure Lewisham High Street. "It's five months, 14 hours days, five days a week. It's a killer schedule. I can't do it, babe."

She begins to plunge into corporation politics, saying, "Peter Fincham [controller of BBC1 until last year] left and everything changed after that..." Then she backs off. "It's got nothing to do with that. It's me. I was writing a book [called Beautiful Within], doing the music, doing my second baby. I nearly died. It's been a great show, it was good to me, but it's not my future."

People on the street tell her she was great, apparently. "It was never about my fashion sense. It was about the fact I have empathy for people who feel shit about themselves. If you say my clothes look rubbish I don't care, it's just frivolous nonsense," she says, smiling. "I'm a singer." Then the look returns. "If you tell me my voice is shit, I'm going to kill you."

There has never been any question of that, not since the then Michelle Wallen appeared with the Spirit of Watts gospel group as a teenager. She was raised by her strict, devout grandpa, a minister in a Pentecostal church in south London. But music took her away, at just 17, to sign for Island Records. "You had Bono running up the stairs, Grace Jones running down. I just sat there, this little girl, going, 'I like it here!'"

The £100,000 advance bought a flat in Hackney. "They threw loads of money at me." The big hit came straight away. "There were people outside my flat screaming. That's when I realised I was famous and it was too much. I flippin' shit meself.'"

The days of big advances like that are over, the new head of EMI, Guy Hands, said last week. Mica Paris knows what they do to people. "You start thinking, 'They must be right. Why would they be wrong? Yeah, I'm the best. Come on, follow me!'" With that she leaps up and sashays across the studio control room like a hip-swinging, bolshy teenager. "You call all the shots... and you make all the mistakes."

She struggled, away from her mother and sister. "I'm 19 and I'm alone in this amazing apartment in New York, overlooking the Hudson. I'm doing the Letterman show. And I'm the loneliest I have ever been in my life." Her relationship with the record company went bad. Sales dropped. She drank to ease the pressure, put on weight and was told she looked like "somebody with two bodies". Attempts at a return with EMI were frustrated by delays.

The record industry eats its young, it always has – until now. Self-sufficient performers using the internet are scaring the daylights out of big labels. Back in the day though Mica, weren't you supposed to get advisers? "You do, darling," she says. "They end up screwing you over."

The tax bills came in. "I was broke," she says. "Proper." She went bankrupt at 30. "I had a nervous breakdown. I lost my home. I couldn't eat, couldn't think, couldn't talk, but I survived."

Her daughter Monet, is now 16 and at boarding school. The second, Russia Mae, is not yet two. She lives in Chelsea with her mother, who is in a newish relationship she hopes will be the long-lasting one she craves. But she was still in a pretty bad way when something really terrible happened on Valentine's Day seven years ago: her brother Jason was shot dead by a man who had been hassling his girlfriend. "He was 21, so young and handsome. The family was ripped apart."

Broke, grieving and ill, Paris was saved when the singer Chaka Khan – godmother to Monet –asked her to take over as the lead in a West End show. Next a guest spot on Radio 2 led to a series on soul. Then came the telly. Did she mind being voted off Strictly Come Dancing in the second week? "It was a lovely paycheck, baby."

What she really cares about is the new record. The producer is Brian Rawling, who has had hits with Cher and Tina Turner. But it is being bankrolled by a group of fans who are hedge fund managers – in other words, a bit like Guy Hands. And "Secret Lovers", the duet with Alexander O'Neal, is being released by... yep, EMI. Mica Paris can laugh, but if it's a hit then so will her old adversaries. The singing voice may be glorious, but it is still money that talks.