Pop music’s Mika is ready for his close-up 

The obvious: One of the most charming, delightful and altogether sunniest singles in ages belongs to a 23-year-old, Beirut-born Londoner named Mica Penniman, who performs under the moniker Mika.

Already a No. 1 hit overseas, "Grace Kelly" melds barrelhouse piano and a campy vaudevillian melody with the singer’s soaring Freddie Mercury acrobatics (even name-checking Mercury in the lyrics), and frappes it all into the most sugary confection on the air waves.

But the truth behind the track is anything but sweet.

The path from Lebanon to "Life in Cartoon Motion" — Mika’s chart-topping new Casablanca debut disc — wasn’t paved with gold, says the singer, on a recent whirlwind promotional tour of the States.

The Penniman clan left their homeland as it sank into civil war, relocating to France shortly after Mika was born. For eight blissful years, he recalls, "I had a kind of charmed life in Paris, so I took it for granted that life would always be like what my life was like at my little French school."

As soon as his folks moved to Britain, things took a nosedive. Perhaps it was his fashion sense, he reflects — his customary red trousers with matching bow tie. Or maybe it was his operatically-high voice.

"But when we went to London, it was a complete nightmare. I didn’t have any easy time, for every textbook reason, from the size of my hips — which I don’t think are particularly large — to that I was a little bit chubbier then. So I was called everything from a fag to a fatty, and it was like ‘Lord of the Flies.’"

When teachers got in on the derisive act, too, he says, "That’s when I just completely started to break down, and I kind of cut myself off from the world." He was so traumatized, he literally forgot how to read and write. His mother dutifully pulled him out of school for six months, and sent him to study with a Russian singing coach. The lost boy quickly found himself again; Mika was soon appearing in a Strauss production at the Royal Opera House.

The young artist’s life quickly divided into two parts: the fake world, school, and reality, music, where, he says, "I was treated like an adult, given responsibility and paid money. Not a lot, but I felt like I was. ... I was real."

Only one instructor gave him any usable grown-up skills, teaching him that everything creative was about developing a process, and "if you established it in the right way then it could only lead to success. And now I apply that to everything in my life, even my songwriting."

It took a while. But the underdog eventually triumphed over his tormentors. Mika started small, composing in-flight music for British Airways, even an Orbit gum jingle before inking his first hastily-aborted deal ("Grace Kelly" was a kiss-off to some meddlesome execs).

Currently, Mika — who resembles a young Rupert Everett, circa "Another Country" — has been snapped up for Paul Smith’s summer fashion campaign, and licensed his bubbly "Love Today" track to Motorola’s (RED) commercials.

Now, as he stands ready to become the breakout star of ’07, Mika can laugh about those misunderstood days when he was obsessed with comics, toys, art books, Egyptian music — "things that don’t translate well to the schoolyard, because no one ever gave it a chance."

He adds, "But I’m sure if people actually spent a little more time with me, as opposed to writing me off at face value, then things would’ve been easier."

Thanks to the picture-perfect "Grace Kelly," Mika has all the get-acquaintedtime he needs.

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Staff Report

Staff Report

A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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