SOUL singer and television presenter Mica Paris was born in London and grew up singing in church choirs. She released her platinum-selling debut album So Good in 1988 before finding fame in America. She has released six albums since then and her next record – of Ella Fitzgerald covers – is due out next year. Paris has also hosted What Not to Wear and her own BBC Radio 2 show, appeared on Strictly Come Dancing and acted in the West End. She tells EDWIN GILSON about her religious upbringing, the loneliness of fame and why music takes her to another place

You’re performing the Ella Fitzgerald songbook in Rye. I presume you are a longtime fan?

Ella was just so ubiquitous. She even had Marilyn Monroe as one of her good mates. Ella didn’t sound particularly black – she transcended race. Likewise, when I started out in the business I wanted to make music for the world. My gospel family said I was going to Satan. When I came back with the demo for [hit single] My One Temptation, they said it sounded too white. I said, “I don’t want to make music just for you guys”. I was 16. I look back and think “Jesus Christ, Paris – what’s going on in your brain?”

Can you expand on why your “gospel family” thought you were headed for Satan?

I was very big in the gospel scene. At 15 I was on this gospel show on BBC One [People Get Ready] all the time. I was a star for the church. I won an award at a gospel conference at Wembley. Nobody wanted me to go and do another kind of music. But then my dad introduced me to Miles Davis and Marvin Gaye. He was always telling me I was a jazz singer.

So your dad was fine with you moving away from gospel, unlike other people?

Yes, but you have to understand my grandparents raised me and they were both ministers at a church. My dad wasn’t a religious man but I went to church with my grandparents seven times a week. We never played in the street – we weren’t allowed.

Does that seem excessively strict now?

Yeah. But my grandparents came from Jamaica – they’re first generation immigrants. They’d only just got there at that point.

You’ve said that singing in church felt like an “out-of-body experience”. Do you get a similar feeling when singing Fitzgerald’s jazz songs?

Yes. Gospel music is very similar to jazz in that way. It’s a very spiritual energy. Gospel was the music that relieved pain and black people have relied on it forever. In the same way, you have to feel jazz. You just have to let go – I don’t care if I get the note wrong or lose my voice. You have to allow yourself to be led by that force. I call it the Jedi. You’ve got to feel the force, man.

How do you come down after that high of performance?

I go home to my kids, who will kick my arse from here to down the street. Honey, when you have to get in that kitchen and make dinner you’ll come down pretty quickly.

You experienced fame in your teens after the success of your first album. Was it disorientating?

That’s a good description. It felt surreal, like a dream state. It was mindblowing. I literally came from doing my A-levels and got hoisted into this mad world of private jets and a huge apartment in New York, where I lived for two years. I lived a life as a teenager that was crazy.

Did you miss London?

It was so hard. It was my first time living away from home. It was tough, so awful. I missed my family so my answer was just to fly everyone out to America. They were having a ball. Nobody was talking about my loneliness or how I was handling the fame. I needed someone to say “everything’s going to be alright”. Everyone assumed I could deal with it.

Why did they assume that?

I came from the church and that’s all about looking perfect, putting on your Sunday shoes and being on top of your game. The socks were white, do you understand? I brought that gospel ethos with me to the music business.

Did that stop you from expressing how you were feeling when times were tough?

Yes, you’re absolutely right. My Jamaican upbringing was always about strength. We’re black people, we fight, it’s tough. The black cultural experience is one of surviving with the help of God. I remember going to my grandmother and saying I might need counselling. She said, “go talk to the father, I’m off for a walk in the park”. That was it.

How did you manage your relationship with your own two daughters when you were touring?

Well, they were born 15 years apart so I took my eldest daughter on the road with me. She’s 26 now. My youngest is 11, and by that time everything was a lot more manageable. I was doing What Not to Wear and Radio 2, but by that point I’m 20 years in and I know how to deal with it. You have to have a private life.

It must have been difficult to have a private life in your heyday, though.

I had bodyguards everywhere I went. I remember calling the record company and saying “I appreciate you sending bodyguards because there are 70 people outside my flat screaming Mica, but I don’t want them to be there all the time”. So the company stood them down and I went to buy a bottle of milk and some fags. I had to wait until 2am in the morning when all the people had gone. My face was everywhere, on massive billboards.

Did you always think you had the personality for television and radio work?

No, not at all. When I was in America I became big friends with Chaka Khan, Dionne Warwick and Queen Latifah. Dionne was off sick from her Radio 2 show one time so they asked me. I was terrified before the first show. My sister said I sounded ridiculous on air. She told me to be myself. So I did, and I ended up being on the show for five years. That led on to What Not to Wear, which was amazing, because I love helping woman. We go through it all – fat, skinny, up, down. It’s not easy, baby. Be glad you’re a bloke.

Mica Paris 
St Mary’s Church, Rye, December 15, 7pm, for tickets and more information visit