Bruised but not yet battered

Mary J Blidge, expected in South Africa some time in October, has literally been to hell and back in her lifetime.

Mary J Blidge, expected in South Africa some time in October, has literally been to hell and back in her lifetime.

A New Yorker through and through, this songbird, who will go down in history as one of the greatest hip-hop artists of all time, is back on top of the heap after wrestling with her demons and surviving with no more than just bruises.

The story of Blidge is all too commonplace and familiar, especially among child showbiz and sporting stars.

This country is replete with such heart-wrenching stories about child stars that shine so bright before fizzling out.

Remember Ricardo, the child star of years gone by? This was a Cape-born teenage idol who was expected to be a perfect fit for the shoes of Jonathan Butler.

Then there was Winnie Khumalo, Nomuntu Kapa and Sidney of Mama's Baby fame. These are but a random selection of child stars whose short-lived fame was like a candle in the wind.

At the height of her power and global conquest, Blidge became intoxicated with her power and allure, taking hard drugs and acting as though life itself owed her a living. She soon started attracting the attention of the tabloids and gossip columnists, but for all the wrong reasons.

The cracks started showing at the 1993 Grammy Awards, where Blidge was to accept her award.

Instead of showing up in her glittering evening gown trademark, she rocked up in street gear. Her fans where disappointed. Their diva had let them down badly.

According to Source Magazine, radio stations everywhere were flooded with phone calls from disgruntled fans.

This was just one incident that occurred in the midst of other, less public, reports of bad behaviour.

Queency Jones's Vibe had this to say: "Stories of tardiness, cancellations and general lack of professionalism are endless.

"Mary was eight hours late for one magazine photo shoot, threw a fit and walked out of at least one more. She conducted interviews where she did as much drinking as talking and acted like a zombie on national television.

"Then there was the concert in London where she was so out of it that the crowd booed her off the stage."

I once tried to interview her during one of her earliest visits to South Africa, but couldn't make sense of our short, terribly interrupted exchange. I reluctantly aborted the idea.

She has since cleaned up her act drastically. She's dumped drugs, got married and plays both housewife and businesswoman with aplomb. What's more, she's once more riding the crest of the charts and back into the public consciousness of the global community of hip-hoppers.

Not bad for the urchin born in the projects.

The story of Mary J Blidge goes something like this: She first caught the attention of record promoters in 1992 and became one of the top hip-hop and soul performers by the end of the decade, known to her fans as "Queen Mary".

The King of Bling himself, Sean "Puffy" Combs, played a vital role in the nurturing of what soon became the Mary J Blidge phenomenon.

From the word go, she was a critically-acclaimed success, starting from her first effort in What's the 411? (1992).

This was followed by another chart-buster two years later, My Life (1994).

One of the biggest R&B stars of the 1990s, she has worked with heavyweights including Lauryn Hill, Busta Rhymes and Lil Kim.

"From the start," as one critic noted, "fans were floored by its [My Life] powerful combination of modern R&B with an edgy rap sound that glanced off the pain and grit of Mary J Blidge's Yonkers, New York, childhood."

Called alternately the new Chaka Khan or new Aretha Franklin, Blidge had little in common stylistically with either of those artists, but like them, she helped adorn soul music with new textures and flavours that inspired a whole generation of musicians.

With her blonde hair, self-preserving slouch, and combat boots, Blidge was street-tough and beautiful all at once, and the record company executives, who profited off her early releases, did little to dispel the bad-girl image that she earned as she stumbled through the dizzying first days of her career.

Since she went to hell and came back, Blidge is these days often photographed at important music events kitted out in tasteful designer clothes and once more is seen as the "It Girl" of our time.

Born in the Bronx on January 11 1971, Blidge spent the first few years of her life in Savannah, Georgia, before moving with her mother and older sister to the Schlobam housing projects in Yonkers, New York.

Her rough life there produced more than a few scars, physical and otherwise, and Blidge dropped out of high school in her junior year, instead spending time doing her friends' hair in her mother's apartment.

When she was at a local mall in White Plains, New York, she recorded herself singing Anita Baker's Caught Up in the Rapture into a karaoke machine.

The resulting tape was passed on by Blidge's stepfather to Uptown Records chief executive Andre Harrell.

Harrell was impressed with Blidge's voice and signed her to sing back-up for local acts like Father MC. In 1991, however, Sean "Puffy" Combs took Blidge under his wing and began working with her on What's the 411?, her debut album.

Combs had a heavy hand in What's the 411? and the stylish touches that were added to Blidge's unique vocal style created a stunning album that bridged the gap between R&B and rap in a way that no female singer had ever done before.

Uptown tried to capitalise on the success of What's the 411? by issuing a remixed version of it a year later, but it was only a modest success commercially.

l Additional information from Jive, Source magazines and various sources.