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15 March 2007


NEW British pop sensation Mika has some heavy hitters in his corner, so shut up and listen. CAMERON ADAMS reports


BRITISH dandy Mika is on stage in Camden, briefly slowing down his non-stop poptastic live show for the haunting, classically influenced ballad Over My Shoulder.


Though the show is a sellout and his first London show since topping the British charts with the single Grace Kelly and debut album Life in Cartoon Motion, it isn't stopping loud talkers drowning out his tender balladry.


A familiar looking man with impressively high hair turns around to a particularly noisy couple and fires off a stern ``shhh'' a librarian would be proud of.


The hirsute man handing out the shush? Brian May, legendary Queen guitarist.


He's also one of Mika's most ardent fans, even if that means dealing with noisy crowds himself.


"He's so supportive, to the point of defending me,'' Mika jokes the next day.


"He's also been defending me to the press. It's amazing. I think that's why he's survived so long, he's still awake to it all, he's receptive. And he's not up his own a---, despite all the success.''


The shadow of May's old bandmate, Freddie Mercury, has followed Mika all over the world as he starts on his road to global domination.


Mika's camp antics, flamboyant image and liberal falsetto have fuelled the constant comparisons, and Mercury even gets name-checked in Grace Kelly when Mika sings: "So I tried a little Freddie.''


Some critics say he's tried more than a little to channel Mr Mercury. What does May think?


"Brian says he sees things in me that he saw in Freddie,'' Mika says. "He sees those things in other performers too, like Robbie Williams. He says there's only about four people in the UK he's seen that in and Freddie was one of them and there aren't many left.


He's so incredibly supportive.


"Anyone who tries to diss me in comparison to Queen, it just renders all their criticisms completely futile. That's quite pleasurable.''


It's been a fast, giddy ride for Mika, even though he considers himself "an overnight sensation 12 years in the making''.


The Mika story is as colourful as his music. Born Michael Holbrook Penniman in Beirut in 1983, his family left war-torn Lebanon to move to Paris, then London.


Penniman then adopted his nickname Mika (pronounced Meeka). Targeted by school bullies and suffering from dyslexia by age 11, he had a "little breakdown''.


Mika then enrolled in a musical school, met a Russian music teacher and started earning money as a young teen by singing jingles for everything from British Airways to Orbit chewing gum.


"At the same time as I was singing inflight music I was singing with the Royal Opera House, so I had no snob attitude when it came to what I do,'' Mika says. "It definitely helped.''


Soon he was wooed by the music industry, at a time when Craig David was the role model for male artists.


"Record companies were coming to me saying `You can be successful, we'll support you but you have to be this','' Mika says of requests to make him more R&B. "I wasn't going to change. I told them to f--- off and wrote a song about it and moved on.''


That song became Grace Kelly.


Lyrics such as "Why don't you like me, why don't you like yourself, should I bend over, should I look older just to be put on the shelf'' were not only aimed at a specific music-industry target, but Mika printed them out and sent them to the person in question.


He was vindicated in January when, after signing a more creatively liberating record deal, the song became a British No.1 hit and his global calling card.


"It is really nice,'' Mika says.


"I forget about where that song came from sometimes. It's ironic, to break through with a song like that that is such a statement of honesty is really gratifying.''


Mika isn't honest across the board, however. Since his arrival on the scene, he's had to dodge questions about his sexuality.


"I don't see any reason why you should talk about it,'' Mika says.


"I can see why people are interested simply on a pop-culture basis, but people don't really care. They care for a little bit, because it sells newspapers and magazines, but as far as the work is concerned I don't think it really matters.''


One gay newspaper suggested Mika was keeping his sexuality under wraps in preparation for his mentor Tommy Mottola (the former Mr Mariah Carey) launching him in the notoriously homophobic US market.


"People say `You don't want to talk about sexuality because you're worried about having success in the US and you're worried about sexual taboos','' Mika says.


"I say `Have you heard the f---ing album?' There's a song called Billy Brown about a married man who has a homosexual affair and one of my lyrics goes `I tried to be like Grace Kelly'.


"If I was worried about sexual taboos I certainly wouldn't have made the record I made. It has nothing to do with that. It has more to do with self-respect.''


Mika points to the old-school pop stars who didn't offer their personal life up for mass consumption.


"I'm not creating an enigma or leaving mystery, I'm just respecting myself enough as an artist to give myself room to grow and not to be devoured all in one go,'' he says.


"We all have to be dishes on a plate eventually, with the way we are marketed, but I have no intention of being a cheap Chinese all-you-can-eat buffet.''


Mika says he deliberately knows nothing of the private lives of his musical heroes.


"I'd never compare myself to Freddie Mercury because I look up to him far too much. As an artist, not necessarily as a person. I'm not interested in people as people. Never have been. Never had a poster on my wall. It almost ruins it,'' he says.


"I'm a huge Harry Nilsson obsessive and I'm so uninterested in his personal life because he was horrible and it makes me like him less. So I just know nothing about it. It's so boring.''


Mika is ready for the backlash that comes from instant success.


"The reviews of my album are polarised and that's an achievement,'' Mika says. "I know people like to have a sacrificial cow they can fatten up and then slaughter, but I'm not willing to play that game. People are talking about a backlash but I'm at the beginning of my career and I've got a long way to go creatively and a lot of things to achieve. But I'm willing to go for it. I can get away with it now. Actually I've always gotten away with everything. It's important to get away with everything.''


Life in Cartoon Motion (Universal) out Saturday.


Picture capiton:

Mercury rising: Mika's camp antics, flamboyant image and liberal falsetto have fuelled comparisons with Freddie Mercury.





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