Mary J. Blige, the six-time Grammy Award-winning superstar, glides down the massive stone staircase of her Hollywood Hills home to the lower-level gym, where her trainer awaits. Looking toned in black track pants, white tank top, and black sweatshirt, Blige has wrapped a bandana around her head and is makeup-free -- a departure for this diva known for her glamour-girl styling and stilettos.
The Queen of Hip-Hop Soul is ready to sweat. Truth be told, she’s more than ready -- she’s driven. She is preparing to hit the road to promote her eighth album, Growing Pains, and the schedule ahead is grueling: three concert stops in South Africa, five in Japan, one in her adopted hometown of Los Angeles, plus an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
Blige invited WebMD to join her for a vigorous one-hour body tune-up in the home gym of her modern manse perched high on Mulholland Drive. The house is airy and uncluttered and offers breathtaking views at every turn. But on this day, she is focused on only her music and her workout.
During and after the session, Blige, 37, confides the backstory of her new CD -- how decades of pain and disappointment have given way to a stepped-up self-image, improved lifestyle habits, better relationships, and more joy in every part of her life. She’s still struggling in some areas, she admits, and she elaborates with an endearing openness and honesty.
Mary J. Makes Fitness a Priority
One of the secret weapons in her ongoing "overhaul" campaign is Gregg Miele, an A-list New York City personal trainer flown in to whip Blige into concert shape. He's upbeat and optimistic, offering a steady dose of goals and encouragement during the workout. He’s given Blige, along with all his other high-profile clients, his trademark black wristband with “self-discipline” printed in simple white type. Looking at it can provide motivation for healthy living, he says. “It’s a reminder for the other 23 hours I’m not with them to make healthy, conscious decisions throughout their day -- a constant reminder that food does not just jump into your mouth!”
Miele makes such axioms a signature of his program. They are designed to goad his clients into the best shape of their lives, including one on his web site declaring: “The difference between who you are and who you want to be is what you do.”
Today, a one-hour workout is on the schedule. Miele kicks things off by asking Blige to take a brief walk on the treadmill. “A gentle warm-up peps you up mentally and physically,” he reminds her. His workout philosophy is goal-oriented and practical. The home gym is tightly edited: the treadmill, free weights and benches, resistance bands, mats for floor exercises, and a stair-stepper machine.
About 10 treadmill minutes later, Miele leads Blige through flexibility exercises on the floor and some resistance exercises for the arms. So far, everyone’s all smiles. But then the trainer hands her the jump rope, and Blige’s face hardens. She frowns. “I hate this rope,” she says.
Miele doesn’t seem surprised; clearly, it’s a protest he has heard before. And the look on his face makes it clear: The jump rope is not optional. So, Blige follows his instructions to skip for 45 seconds -- a time that seems brief only if you are not the one skipping.
Blige’s renewed dedication to her fitness regime -- along with a resolve to clean up her diet and tone down the rage that she says used to be her “default” mode -- reflects her new attitude and new lifestyle plan. She’s kicked the bad habits, excess alcohol and drugs among them, and is embracing healthier ones, despite a grade-A sweet tooth.
Mary J. Blige is learning to love living with a whole lot less drama.
The 411 on the New Mary J.
Her resolve to be healthy -- physically, mentally, spiritually -- didn’t occur overnight, acknowledges Blige after her workout. She is relaxing on a wheat-colored chaise in a grassy corner of her backyard.
Nor did the problems that led to the need for the overhaul pop up suddenly. Blige grew up in the Bronx, overcoming a childhood filled with poverty and witnessing violence to become a top-billed singer, songwriter, producer, and actress. Her albums have sold more than 35 million copies worldwide since her career debut in 1992 with her smash hit, “What’s the 411?”
As Blige’s rags-to-riches success story unfolded, so did the news that she could be difficult and temperamental, and suddenly fly into a rage. She admits to past struggles, including drinking too much, abusing cocaine, and being depressed. The out-of-control anger, Blige says, was programmed into her as a child -- the way nearly everyone around her responded to life’s disappointments.
“That’s all I ever saw, people reacting to things that way,” she tells WebMD. “When someone disappoints you -- bang! You automatically default back to that stuff.”
Over the years, the shame that followed her temper tantrums convinced her that she needed to change. Finally she said to herself: “You can’t keep doing this all the time -- screaming, throwing stuff, breaking things, kicking windows.”
She credits her husband, music industry exec Kendu Isaacs, 40, whom she married three years ago, with much of her resolve to improve herself. He has encouraged her to turn off the “old stuff” and begin anew. “He’s committed to me, his job, his children [her three stepchildren], himself,” she says. “He tries very hard. In some areas he is stronger than in others, and that’s where I come in to help. We balance each other well.”
Lessons learned from the past few years of self-improvement are packed into Growing Pains. Listeners hear the story of Mary, her work in progress, and perhaps, she hopes, their own unfolding tales.
One other new rule, Blige reveals: She surrounds herself only with positive people -- besides her husband, she says, people like her trainer. And Miele’s steady nature and constant support are evident. If she lags even a tiny bit during the hour-long sweat session, he’s right there: “Four more,” he says in an encouraging tone. “One more.”
Mary J. Steps Up Her Workouts
Exercise has been part of Blige’s life for years, but she’s pumped up her routine recently, motivated by appearance and health. “A couple months ago, I was walking up those stairs right there,” Blige says, pointing to the long, spiral staircase that connects her home’s upper and lower floors, “and I was out of breath.” Blige, who turns 38 on Jan. 11, knew she was way too young to be that out of shape. “Then I saw all this cellulite forming on my leg, and I started to cry. Then I thought, ‘OK, this [exercise] is for health reasons. OK, the cellulite might be a touch of vanity, but the fact that I can’t breathe when I am walking up stairs -- it’s like, I have to do this for myself.’”
Part of doing it for herself is sticking to the workouts, no matter her tour or rehearsal schedule. At home, Blige tries to do the one-hour routine five days a week. On the road, she admits, it’s not always easy, but she does what she can. That’s why Miele has designed a program that works for Blige’s jet-set life. He tells her to think of herself as a professional athlete. “For her, there is off-season, preseason, and in-season,” he says, with in-season being her concert tour. During in-season, he tells her, she can’t expect to work out as much or as intensely as at other times. But whatever the length of the workout, Miele designs routines that include cardiovascular conditioning, strength training, and flexibility and that can be done in any gym -- or even a hotel room.
His strategy works just as well for the rest of us time-strapped noncelebrities. For instance? If you have 30 minutes instead of an hour at the gym, get more mileage out of the workout by stretching rather than resting between exercises, Miele says.
Mary J. Cleans Up the Menu
Blige soldiers on, doing crunches on a floor mat. Miele holds the elastic resistance bands as she does arm work, and her limbs look strong and defined. But her newly buff body is not all due to hard time in the gym, she says. Blige has overhauled what she eats these days.
"Three months ago, I was 146 pounds," says Blige, who is 5 feet 5 inches tall. Since then, she’s dropped 11 pounds, weighing in at 135. She’s a size 8 now. “I want to get to 125 pounds with muscles,” she says.
The self-confessed sweets lover focuses on cutting down on refined carbs (including her favorite cookies) and limiting calories to about 1,500 per day.
Blige’s calorie goal is very realistic, says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RD, a New York dietitian. “If you eat below 1,200, it’s hard to meet your needs nutritionally,” she says.
Likewise, Blige’s goal of 125 pounds is excellent, as is her focus on “quality” carbs, Taub-Dix says. And in moderation, “cheat” foods are OK, Taub-Dix adds. Blige is far from perfect, of course. She can’t name just one “cheat food,” for example. She has several, and they’re all sugary: cheesecake, oatmeal cookies, and chocolate-chip cookies.
To help Mary J. cope with her sugar cravings, her trainer has penned in a signature Miele-ism on the bulletin board in front of her treadmill: “What you eat in private shows up in public.”
Mary J. Reins in Her Rage
Consistent workouts, a newfound respect for what she puts into her body: What accounts for this new attitude? “Sometimes anger is positive,” she says. “It pushes you."
Blige reports that a few years ago she learned to redirect her rage with help from a Christian television show and the Bible. “I watched this pastor by the name of Joyce Meyer,” she says. “I’d TiVo her and watch her every morning. She was talking about anger one day. I started looking up these Scriptures [she referred to], and in one it said anger and vexation lodges -- meaning hangs out -- in the bosom of fools. And every Scripture I read ended with fool. And I thought, ‘Oh, no, I don’t want to be a fool.’”
Blige had just taken her first step toward reining in her rage problem.
About one in 100 adults is angry enough to benefit from anger management, estimates George Anderson, whose firm Anderson & Anderson in Los Angeles provides anger-management programs for businesses and individuals.
For many people, anger is the “default” mode, as Blige calls it, learned growing up, says Robert Allan, PhD, a clinical assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center.
“There are vast numbers of people who have grown up learning that the way to deal with a problem is to get angry whenever you don’t get your way,” he says. People who yell or scream nearly always believe those who hear them will see the light and fix the problem, he says. But it doesn’t work. “The other person reacts to the anger and doesn’t hear the message.”
Blige continues to take heart from Scripture passages that advise trying to be slow to anger. She says she reads them every day.
On the new album, she opens up about her progress. In a song, “Work That,” the first verse says:
You can look in my palm and see the
Read the book of my life and see I’ve
While religion and a supportive spouse have provided the way for Blige, Allan cautions that many people need to go further and seek out professional help or a 12-step program for anger management. Whatever the path, “all require a lifelong commitment and a day at a time.”
Mary J. Skips Ahead
Miele guides Blige toward the workout’s conclusion: push-ups on a balance ball, more resistance training exercises for her upper arms, ab work to trim her torso, and 5-pound hand weights to tone her biceps. Blige reaches for the padded cylindrical weight bar Miele hands her, sits on the mat once again, and does ab crunches as she raises the bar, a movement to help strengthen abs and arms at once. There’s some sweat on her brow but she’s not breathing hard. Her pumped-up workouts are paying off.
Almost done. It’s clear Mary J. is ready to rest. But it’s not over yet. “One more time, Mary J.,” says Miele.
Wordlessly, she accepts the hated jump-rope handles. On this grand-finale skip, she stumbles but repositions the rope, finishing her 45 seconds. She puts down the rope, looking tired; but more than that, she looks satisfied.
Mary J. is in peak form -- physically, spiritually, emotionally. She’s taking it one jump-rope skip, one Scripture reading, one day at a time.
Growing Pains celebrates where she’s been and where she’s going. It reflects “everything that I am becoming and have to become,” Blige says.
“No anger, no self-hatred, no self-resentment. All that takes work,” she says. “It’s going to take a long time. And all these songs reflect that.”
As Blige announces for all the world, and herself, to hear on her new album: “It’s OK, show yourself some love.”
She certainly is.
Anger Management 101
Like Blige, Robert Allan, PhD, a clinical assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, grew up in an environment where anger was the “default” mode. In his book Getting Control of Your Anger, Allan offers a three-step process for taming rage:
Identify the “hook” that feeds your anger. Knowing that a trigger sets you off is the first step toward changing your reaction and not allowing yourself to express the anger directly by screaming or getting physical.
Step back or disengage from the situation, and figure out the need behind the hook. Disengage by deep breathing, for instance. Or develop an “observing” self, a mini-version of yourself whom you visualize sitting on your shoulder viewing the big picture and warning you not to take the anger trigger, Allan says. When we get angry, the feeling is usually fueled by the need for respect or the need not to have our territory breached, or both, he adds.
Fill the need without expressing anger directly. Instead, ask for what you need.
Originally published in the January/February 2008 issue of WebMD the Magazine.