Bolstered by her sexed-up turn in “Lady Marmalade,” 22-year-old Mya moves into adulthood with a pair of projects sure to make even the Ladies of the Moulin Rouge blush.
This feature originally appeared in Complex's June/July 2002 issue (a.k.a. issue #2).
When Mya releases her third album, an as-yet-untitled collection of songs that she started recording early last year, the natural inclination will be to portray the 22-year-old singer as a butterfly liberated from her sheltered cocoon. After all, in visual terms, her last fling in public was as a lingerie-dipped harlot in the made-for-MTV, sugar-romp video for “Lady Marmalade,” alongside infamous big-league sexpots Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, and Pink. The song and video marked a maturation, of sorts, for Mya Harrison. Compared with her previous image—a wide-eyed, ghetto-cute but somewhat spindling teen—introduced three years earlier on her self-titled debut album, her appearance in the vaudevillian pop confection from Moulin Rouge wasn’t just suggestive, it was downright salacious.
“But I’ve been wearing those costumes since I was four years old,” Mya says playfully, dismissing any concern with a little laugh that belies her demure speaking voice. “Your dance teachers put you in that kind of attire when you’re younger, because they say it’s Broadway oriented.”
Not like that, they don’t. Mya is sitting in an empty rehearsal studio in midtown Manhattan, and it’s clear that the exposure she received from “Lady Marmalade”—both literally and figuratively—doesn’t faze her. Mya has seen the little-girl-becomes-woman angle played before, specifically when she released her last album, Fear Of Flying (Interscope), in 2000. Wearing skimpy shorts and cooing evocatively in her videos, Mya seemed to be taking charge of her own sexual awakening.
But her emergence post-“Marmalade” is distinct. Today, even hidden underneath her rehearsal sweats, she is all woman: it’s evident in her halcyon glow, her disarmingly infectious smile, and the way her clothes hug her tiny, curvy frame.
“It’s how you carry yourself,” she says in defense of her on-camera wardrobe, but the statement could refer to her professional game plan as well. “You have to know why you’re wearing what you’re wearing, and why you’re doing what you’re doing. Sometimes you have to show you’re human and play the part.”
Slated for a Christmas Day release, Chicago is sure to receive major buzz from Oscar prognosticators. It’s all the more impressive that Mya didn’t pitch herself for the role, but was solicited to audition by the film’s producers, who clearly saw something in her demeanor that suited Mona’s dangerous sexiness.
“I was a little nervous,” she admits with sarcastic understatement. “I had to learn a piece of choreography, do a monologue off the top of my head, and do something they prepared for the character—all with no script. I also had to sing. And everything was filmed. I didn’t know what to expect.”
Mya’s turn in Chicago is the realization of a dream she’s been cultivating since she was 13. “I came to New York for a whole summer with my mother,” she recalls. “Broadway really inspired me to want to act.”
Luckily, her father, a local R&B singer, and her mother, an accountant, were equally inspired. They arranged for Mya to move from suburban Maryland to New York to become a student at the Broadway Dance Center, and later study at the Dance Theater Of Harlem under the tutelage of tap whiz Savion Glover.
Not that shooting a movie allows for any audience interaction. Still, Mya has found other rewards while working on Chicago. “Movies remind me of recording,” she says. “Just the process of it—the intricacies, the technicalities, the days and the long hours, and mastering and mixing and editing. But seeing the final product, it all pays off in the end. That’s the rush—when you see things come to life.”
Mya should expect her next episode of fulfillment when she releases her new album later in the summer. She exudes a steady confidence when talking about her artistic choices for the record: everything from musical style—adding reggae- and jazz-influenced songs, for example—to lyrical content. “It’s definitely more mature, more blunt,” she confesses with an almost-guilty giggle. Romantically linked with rappers like Silkk The Shocker in the past, Mya’s shy about her current dating habits, but she says her album will definitely reveal more of her: “There are some songs where I say everything a woman may want to, but is scared to.” Case in point is the expected first single, “Why You Gotta Look So Good?” in which she tries to justify staying with a man purely because of his looks.
“It bugged me out she did that song, especially with the wicked beat I had for it,” says Rockwilder, who also produced “Lady Marmalade.” “I originally made it for a rapper, but that tells you where she’s at. She’s a workaholic. She works her craft to the fullest. She does everything she needs to get herself prepared.”
“Plus,” he adds unapologetically, “she’s a very, very sexy woman.”
Indeed, Mya’s unconventional beauty, as much as her singing talent, has helped her stand out from the bevy of recent artists. She is of mixed heritage—her father is black and her mother is Italian American—leaving her ethnic identity ambiguous. “I’m ghetto-street,” Mya says, laughing. “I know I’m different. Even when I think about an acting career, there are so many limited roles to begin with. I have the ability to be Spanish, Indian, Italian, black, Persian. What roles do I see that compliment that?"
She needn't worry. Even at a stage in her career where she feels she's still proving herself, Mya remains resolute and grounded, traits that will help her succeed as an actress, just like they helped her succeed as a singer and dancer. She leans on her family, and, more importantly, her own instincts to guide her professional decisions. "I like being on my own," she declares. "I like proving to my parents, Don't worry, you taught me OK." Knowing how and when to trust herself, Mya should thrive outside of that little-girl cocoon.
ADDITIONAL CREDITS: (STYLING ASSISTANT) Masayo Kishi. (HAIR) Suzette at Artists Agency. (MAKEUP) Christopher Michael at Ken Barbosa. FIRST IMAGE: Shirt and Skirt by Chloe. SECOND IMAGE: Shirt and all jewelry by Chanel / Skirt by D&G / Shoes by Christian Louboutin. COVER IMAGE: Leather jacket and jeans by D&G / Belt by Versus / Sunglasses by Gucci / Necklace by Agatha.