'My boyfriend was trying to kill me. There were weapons' (2022)

The world loves a troubled diva, and for 10 years Mary Jane Blige has provided her public with a continuous flow of what her friend, producer Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds, calls "pure pain, unlike anyone else". Drugs, destructive relationships and a hard-knock childhood contribute to her reputation as the diva's diva. The D-word has become devalued, but if ever an artist met the criteria of divahood, it's the 31-year-old soul singer from the Schlobohm Gardens projects in the unalluringly-named Yonkers, New York.

Since recording her first album, What's the 411?, with a then unknown Sean Combs producing, she has been renowned for tantrums that friends claim mask deep vulnerability. But her behaviour has been tolerated, even encouraged, by the American media, who romanticise it as the price she pays for being - by general acknowledgment - the most gifted singer of her generation.

But brilliance is no longer synonymous with pain for Mary J. The cocaine, the abusive boyfriends, even the blaring ghetto-fabulous look are history. The title of her current album earnestly insists there will be No More Drama, and to prove it the record is crammed with good-vibes songs such as Beautiful Day and new single Dance for Me. As she tells it, she has never been as happy as she is right now, nibbling a piece of chicken at her record company's Manhattan office.

"I sought Jesus, and he gave me love and took away some of the vanity. He's allowed me to love you, and everyone else in the world," she beams. No, don't turn the page. Blige may be yet another celebrity who's turned to God after finding that millions of record sales and all the designer clothes money can buy left her feeling emptier than ever, but it took a near-death experience to get to this point. In the past she has alluded darkly to having been "closer to death [at the hands of] people who say they love me than with drugs", but only recently has she felt comfortable talking about it.

She only broaches it, though, after 45 minutes of unprecedentedly polite conversation. The most telling evidence of New Mary is her approach to interviews. Formerly she kept hip-hop time, arriving either hours late or not at all. When she did turn up, weighed down by carrier bags from spendathons at Prada and Fendi, her attitude ranged from indifference to outright hostility. If an interviewer was especially unlucky, as model-turned-journalist Veronica Webb was in 1995, she'd ask them outside for a fight. It was this famous episode that prompted her record label to send her on an etiquette course, where she lasted two days.

"I kinda feel bad about the way I treated people," she says. This January afternoon, punctual to the minute, she's purringly cheerful, extending a manicured paw and gesturing to the seat next to her. She speaks briefly to her assistant about a doctor's appointment - she suffers particularly virulent PMS, which explains the bluntly titled No More Drama track PMS - and regretfully pushes the chicken platter out of grazing range, explaining, "I'm trying to lose some weight I put on over Christmas". Then she turns the full voltage of her huge, copper-coloured eyes on you.

She seems entirely affable, but her assistant further smooths the way by informing her that I wrote a complimentary piece about her during her 1997 British tour. "Oh!" she exclaims, clearly not remembering, which is just as well. It had been the definitive difficult interview, her replies monosyllabic mumbles that stopped altogether when, attempting to inject levity, I asked, "Is there a Mr Mary J Blige?" Misunderstanding, she snapped, "You mean my father ?" and left the room.

At that point, her feelings about her musician father, Thomas, seemed ambivalent. "He just, like, disappeared," she has said - walking out on her mother Cora, who worked as a nurse to support her and her older sister LaTonya. Yet, perhaps grateful for his "teaching me how to hold notes, how to harmonise", Blige used to thank him on album sleeves. His name is absent from the extensive credits on No More Drama, however, suggesting he has been relegated to the past, along with certain "hellish" figures from her "spiritually dead" 20s.

Although she doesn't mention his name, one of them is probably K-Ci Hailey of the highly popular 90s R&B band Jodeci. They met early in her career, when the music press was still groping for a label for her innovative pairing of juddering hip-hop beats and glorious soul melodies (it settled for "hip-hop soul") and she was still wearing the Yonkers uniform of baseball caps and unlaced combat boots. The relationship was emotionally shattering, culminating in Blige's humiliation the day she announced their engagament, only for Hailey to deny they were even involved.

"It's hard to be in love, because if you want happiness you have to help each other," she says pointedly, tapping long burgundy-painted nails on the table. A fashion note: today the first lady of the look dubbed "ghetto fabulous" is wearing an understated olive-green rollneck and jeans. Given that she could have chosen from a wardrobe of white fur, gold leather and gem-encrusted jewellery, the lack of bling-bling is quite disappointing. Her diamond-studded watch and black trilby, being relatively tasteful, hardly compensate.

She giggles. "You have to calm it down. As a woman, I don't think a mouthful of gold teeth and over-accessorising and long, long nails is very attractive. All these girls probably always wanted the blondest weave and all the furs." Blige herself was known for her penchant for blond wigs, but today she's wearing her own hair, which is long and dark with crimson streaks. She goes on, sounding a bit wistful, "I used to wear platinum rings on every finger and five gold bracelets on each arm. It's like you have to be seen by everybody in the street, and I don't need that attention now. Besides, you could get robbed."

Really? Would anyone actually rob the queen of hip-hop soul?

It's obviously the silliest question she's been asked in years. She splutters with amusement and sips mineral water to compose herself. "If I roll up in Harlem in fur and black bins and rings and bracelets all over and roll up on the grimiest street up there, I'm asking to get robbed. Whereas if I'm on Fifth Avenue with just one ring, they'll know I'm out shopping or whatever and leave me alone."

Her rags to riches - or Yonkers projects to New Jersey mansion - tale is one that has been lived by dozens of R&B and rap stars, who routinely brag that having millions of bucks in the bank hasn't stopped them from keeping it "real".

Blige, though, has kept it real without trying - frequently to her detriment regarding her choice of men. The strong bond that her fans feel exists between Mary and themselves comes of her having never really left the street in her mind.

"My mother raised me with a lot of respect, but the street raised me with disrespect. I'd be hanging out every night and getting high."

It was part of a pattern that defined her life for a decade. As her professional star soared ever higher, with her albums (1992's What's the 411?, 1995's My Life, 1997's Share My World, 1998's The Tour, 1999's Mary, which featured appearances by her "big buddy" Elton John and Lauryn Hill, and 2001's No More Drama) selling around 13m copies, her private life caused "pure pain". The high-school dropout who signed her first recording contract leaning on a washing machine in Schlobohm Gardens was by nature withdrawn. She was, and is, extremely close to her mother and LaTonya, whom she describes as "my dog, my friend", but as her career quickly took off, she found the attention of strangers hard to bear. Even now, she has almost no music business friends other than Li'l Kim (with whom she did a charity photo shoot for Mac's Viva Glam lipstick) and Missy Elliott.

She has hired and fired managers, and was sued by her first record company, which brought her to the verge of bankruptcy. Her drug use increased from smoking "a little weed" at parties to heavy cocaine use, and she routinely funded not just her own habit but those of her crowd of hangers-on. Then came the man who nearly killed her.

'I was in a hellish relationship. When you hate yourself, you draw people to you who hate you too," she says rapidly. "I kept getting the same lesson over and over and finally knew there was something I had to learn. I said, 'Father, what should I do?' He said, 'Love yourself and put yourself first.' You get sick and tired of being sick and tired, of people beating on you. It was the day I was almost murdered. I screamed with all the breath I had left as my boyfriend physically tried to take me out of this world. There were weapons involved. I said, I can't do this no more. I had seen little signs of it after two or three years with him, but that day I said, no more of this drama."

She stops abruptly and sinks back in her chair. "I got carried away there. I don't usually talk about this. Death is creepy to me. We have a choice - to choose life or death. I don't like the way death feels. I got out of there in a hurry; stopped the cocaine and I stopped drinking, too. I've been sober for six months."

There's a happy ending to this cinematic story: she has just got engaged to a man she won't name, who "doesn't want to do anything but be with me. I can't believe someone loves me like this and doesn't tire of me or cheat on me. Thank you, Jesus." Suffused with happiness, No More Drama is a party album that's yielded one of her biggest UK hits so far, Family Affair.

But finding God and true love hasn't completely tamed her. Last year she performed with Aretha Franklin on a VH1 Divas Live special, and apparently the queen of hip-hop soul didn't exactly warm to the queen of soul. Mary J sighs and studies her nails. "Some people you just have to pray for."

Dance for Me is out this week. Mary J Blige plays Birmingham NEC on April 19, then tours.

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