Pop's New Queen
By Matthew Breen
Mika's preternatural cheeriness, seemingly boundless energy, and celebratory circus-stage imagery belie the traumas in his oft-repeated back-story: Born Mica Penniman to an American father and Lebanese mother in Beirut, Mika was evacuated with his family to Paris when he was just a year old. They later moved to London, where as a student Mika was bullied by peers and teachers at Lyc'e Fran'ais Charles de Gaulle.
'School was really hard,' Mika says. 'I had a lot of trouble with the kids in my class, but at the same time I had a lot of trouble with teachers because I had a lot of learning disabilities. I'm very dyslexic, and by the age of 11, I couldn't read or write. My life was kind of falling apart. I was a complete outcast freak. I got into trouble for everything that I said, so I stopped talking. I got pulled out of school [and] didn't go for about seven, eight months, and during that time I started to learn how to sing because I had nothing else to do.'
Trained as a soprano, he joined the chorus of a Richard Strauss opera at the Royal Opera House at age 12. At 19 he enrolled in the Royal College of Music in London. While on breaks from school, he began discussions with record companies. One label executive told Mika he'd make the deal if he changed his style and sound to match that moment's hit makers. 'They didn't care what'that was the worst part of it. They just wanted a hit,' Mika says. 'Of course, they've no idea what a hit is. No one does. What's a hit?'
Unwilling to bend creatively, Mika delivered 'Grace Kelly,' a buoyant middle finger to the sausage-making tendency of the industry. 'I had this realization that no one in the music industry would wave a magic wand and turn me into what I thought I could be,' he says. 'So if I was ever going to do it, I would have to proscribe every single aspect of my career, from my logo to the clothes that I wear. I realized that it was that vulgar and you just had to spell things out that much.'
He and his older sister Yasmine (a.k.a. DaWack), his stylist and Life in Cartoon Motion's cover artist, handmade 110 elaborately adorned boxes for his demo; the hype that followed the release of the boxes was what landed Mika a deal'on his own creative and financial terms. 'I had fought so hard to get where I wanted that I really needed the money with no interference in order to have fun and make the record I needed to make,' Mika says. 'So no one A&R'd my project'I just did it! I was even adding up the budgets for the horns myself, to see how much overbudgeting I could possibly conceal until the recording was already done and all they had to do was just pay the bill. I did a lot of that. Who said the music industry was clean?'