There’s always been something mysterious behind Mya Marie Harrison’s Mona Lisa smile. When the D.C. native twirled onto the scene in the late 1990s, her wide brown eyes and freshly scrubbed look hinted at purity and innocence—until about 60 seconds into her first video, “It’s All About Me,” when she ripped off her skirt, slid to her knees and started dry humping the dance floor.
The dichotomy of the sexy-sweet chanteuse is a familiar trope in entertainment, and Mya fell right in step with Aaliyah and TLC, helping pave the way for millennial tomboy sex kittens like Ciara.
With two platinum albums (and another couple released only in Japan), her career hasn’t quite reached the heights of her contemporaries. But she’s nabbed a Screen Actors Guild award (for Best Ensemble in Chicago), a Grammy for her contribution on 2001’s “Lady Marmalade” remake, and a second-place finish on Dancing with the Stars.
At 34, Mya says she’s ready to make some changes, take some risks and go for broke. She recently celebrated her sweet 16th anniversary in the music industry by releasing two EPs, with plans for a full-length album later this year. Checking in with EBONY while on the road promoting her latest, Mya muses on the current state of R&B, her love life, (or lack thereof) and why you shouldn’t believe half the rumors you’ve heard about her.
EBONY: You’re very recognizable and have a distinct look. Can you go to Target or the supermarket without being noticed?
Mya: Sure. If I step out in public, I wear sweatpants and a cap. I have my hoodie on and I do what I have to do. The only time it might be different is if I’m catching a flight. Especially if it’s a major city. But I don’t hold myself hostage to the title of “celebrity.” You can definitely move how you want to if that’s what you really want.
EBONY: What’s a typical day like for you?
Mya: It depends on what mode I’m in. If I’m in recording mode, I’m in the studio until five in the morning, sleeping until one in the afternoon, getting up and starting over. But right now, I’m in California doing a promo tour. So I’m working out and doing press and working out and doing fittings and working out some more.
EBONY: Are you going hard in the gym because you feel like you have to live up to a certain image?
Mya: Image is everything. That’s just the way it is. Look, you can be an artist and make music without walking the red carpet, doing press and not playing the political game at all. There are artists out there who do their music and go home. But if you’re an entertainer? Then you’re in the entertainment business. You are now a product. And yes, females are more pressured to focus on the visual. People see the product before they hear it. That’s just the way it goes. So if they don’t like what they see, they may not stick around to listen. Once you make your peace with the fact that as an entertainer you are a product? It gets easier.
EBONY: In addition to image, an artist’s backstory can become a distraction. There was a time when it seemed as if there was more talk about who you were dating than the music you were making.
Mya: It was always like that. From my very first record. People thought I had kids with Sisqo! It was insane. And now, with social media and blogs, it’s even crazier. And so much of it is completely made up—it’s about ratings and numbers and pure entertainment. If I do a collaboration with someone—anyone!—there’s a rumor that I had something going on with them. If you have any kind of sex appeal, people are quick to accuse, abuse, lie, assume, and make up rumors. And that’s not just in entertainment, that’s in life. Period.
EBONY: How did you handle that kind of speculation at the same time that you were just beginning to explore your sexuality?
Mya: I didn’t even see myself as sexy. But I was lucky, because my family was there for me. I was very protected by my family. But at the same time, I was free to explore womanhood. I was taught that it’s okay to be sexy and smart and beautiful.
EBONY: And are you sharing that sexy, smart and beautifulness with anyone right now?
Mya: I was in a long-term committed relationship. But if only one person is committed, it’s not going to work out. [Laughs] So a relationship is not my focus right now. It takes a lot. Especially because of this industry and being a public figure. That’s the nature of the beast. Social media can take things and twist them around, and something innocent on some website becomes a problem in your relationship. It’s a dangerous world out there when it comes to relationships. And I believe we attract what we are. So I want to work on being my best self so I can attract the same.
EBONY: So you dropped your EP, With Love, on Valentine’s Day this year, and you didn’t have anyone to celebrate with?
Mya: I spent the day online with my fans and with my dog, Bear, and I had a wonderful time. I don’t have a problem with being alone. At all. It’s taken a long time for me to evolve into the woman I am today. And I don’t mind being with just me.
EBONY: You’ve seen a lot of people come up in this industry. In terms of R&B singers, who are you listening to right now? And what are your thoughts on the current state of R&B music?
Mya: R&B is very much alive. I hear people say it’s dead. But you have artists like John Legend and Ledisi putting on incredible performances. And there are so many independent artists out there with loyal followings. They are not always on the radio. You might have to search for it. But it’s everywhere. There are so many great movements happening. Mainstream radio could use some balance. But that’s not my call.
EBONY: Your last two albums were only released internationally and the sales weren’t as high as your previous work. What are your goals? And do you worry about your future in this industry?
Mya: When things are meant to be, things are meant to be. I’m not worried about me. I believe all things fall into place exactly when they’re supposed to. My job is to do my best work. And I do that every single day.
Aliya S. King’s work has appeared in national publications since 1998. She is also the author of two novels and three non-fiction books, including the New York Times Bestseller, Keep The Faith, with recording artist Faith Evans. Find her at aliyasking.com and @aliyasking.