HERE’S HOW YOU begin a story about royalty: Mary J. Blige, 42, is nestled on a banquette at the corner table at Sant Ambroeus, an old-money Italian spot with attractive waiters and really thick white tablecloths on New York’s Upper East Side. We’ll tell you what she’s wearing (1) and, of course, what she orders (2). We’ll leave out the part about how late she is (3), but we’ll describe her serendipitous encounter with another (sort of) famous person dining just one table over (4). How the other woman sashays over, how they embrace like old friends. That’s all true, of course, but when you’re talking about Blige, these typical trappings of celebrity don’t tell the real story.
“Turn that thing off for a second,” she says, gesturing at the tape recorder sitting next to her fork. “Let me do my human thing.” Her human thing means chitchatting with the owner, who greets her warmly, like a regular as opposed to an R&B superstar. Talking to the media, on the other hand, is work. Spend two hours dining with her, though, and you realize that, as her 20-year oeuvre can attest, honesty isn’t something she turns off when the tape recorder is on.
And here, after half a lifetime of hard lessons, 10 studio albums and a break into acting—she brings to life Malcolm X’s wife Betty Shabazz in the forthcoming Lifetime movie Betty & Coretta—Blige is taking stock of things: from her at-times funny fashion choices and how she feels in sweats to who she thinks is killing it on the radio to what she’s working on now, inside and out.
The tape was running, but MJB was, as ever, MJB.
VIBE: It’s VIBE’s 20th anniversary, and this is the style issue. Not surprisingly, you’re the icon we’ve chosen to celebrate.
MARY J. BLIGE: My style? What do you say about that?!
Well, you’ve always been very vulnerable and honest in your music, but for a long time, your look was still so tough. Your style is softer now.
I’ve evolved. I’m a woman now, and I’ve softened. I’ve been a tomboy my whole life. But then you get older, you get married, you soften up. You still have that other exterior if needed [laughs].
You’ve often sort of set the tone. When you first came out, in 1992, female musicians were all doing one thing (5). And then there you were, with a whole different sound.
Right. I would agree with that. When you tell your truth, you are coming from a real place, so you are automatically a leader.
Have there been moments when you’ve been off course?
Yes, of course. There’s always moments like that. If you’re not confident in yourself, you’re going to waver. I’ve wavered, and I’ve lost.
 Gold hoops, a cream cashmere turtleneck, tan leather leggings, and sky-high, knee-high boots with leopard print pony hair details on the shoe.
 “The best thing on the menu,” which is a crab salad. With a coke.
 There was traffic and her people called. Twice. So, actually, we will leave this out. Everyone gets stuck in traffic.
 It was, if you can believe it, Ilyasah Shabazz, a daughter of Malcolm X’s, whose wife Blige has just played in a movie.
 This was around the time when Mariah Carey was wailing up and down the scales on Emotions and Whitney Houston was singing at the Super Bowl and filming The Bodyguard. Blige, meanwhile, was borrowing outfits from the boys and introducing us to a weird blend of hip-hop and R&B that no one had quite heard before.
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