Monday 14 October 2019

Samantha Mumba reflects on her pop star days: 'I was called a diva - it wasn't real'


Centre stage again: Samantha Mumba is back in Ireland to play the Evil Stepmother in Cinderella the panto. Photo: Douglas O'Connor.
Centre stage again: Samantha Mumba is back in Ireland to play the Evil Stepmother in Cinderella the panto. Photo: Douglas O'Connor.
Samantha Mumba as the Evil Stepmother in Cinderella
Special bond: Samantha with daughter Sage

Sophie White

Running late to meet Samantha Mumba with no make-up on and greasy hair scraped back into a bun is not a good plan - it is an act of extreme masochism, the woman is radiant.

Throughout our encounter, Sam (can I call her Sam?) is wry and warm and funny as she tells me of the downs, but mainly ups, of dividing her time between her native Dublin and adopted home LA.

Mumba first exploded into the collective consciousness in 2000 with her debut juggernaut of a single 'Gotta Tell You' aged just 17, though by then, the Billie Barry alum was already a veteran of performing, having been discovered by Louis Walsh and signed by label Polydor at 15.

"As a child, it was always what I wanted to do. I was always very determined even at a young age," she says. "The stage was just my happiest place. It's so funny, I found these old diaries from when I was a child and I'd be practising my autograph and I'm like: 'What the hell? That's so bizarre!'"

The overnight success of her sassy first single immediately catapulted Mumba to a new level. "It was mad," she tells me of the early days of relentless travel and performing. "So much work goes on behind the scenes and writing music before it's even public. But you can put so much work in and it still doesn't mean it'll work."

It worked. 'Gotta Tell You' was a top five single in Ireland, the UK and the US, and eventually earned platinum status selling one million copies. Mumba went on to focus on acting roles and made the move to LA in her early 20s. She adores the lifestyle there and even the Trump effect has not dimmed her love for it.

"California wouldn't be the most Trump place, I love where I live. I'm sure there are certain places in America where it's a changed place, but from my experience, living in LA has been the same as it always is," she explains. She does concede that there has been a shift in what is considered an acceptable view to hold, however: "I think it's hate that's always been there but people are more comfortable to express it now maybe."

Mumba's career has criss-crossed both the Atlantic and the entertainment industry as she writes and performs her music, collaborates with some of the biggest names in Hollywood and appears here and in the UK on television and reality TV. Most recently, she was a viewer favourite on Celebrity Masterchef earlier this year.

It's the kind of schedule that sounds head-melting but Mumba, who landed back in Dublin two days before we meet and is heading straight into rehearsals for the Limerick Christmas panto Cinderella, looks immaculate and seems completely relaxed, though when I remark on this she breaks into peals of laughter.

"Oh, I'm very jet-lagged, totally delirious. I was texting my mum and apparently Sage only woke up at half one - we're both wired and then awake in the middle of the night. But… coffee!"

Two-and-a-half-year-old Sage accompanies her mother everywhere while dad, LAPD officer Torray Scales, stays in LA. This kind of arrangement seems the epitome of the oft-referenced plight of the contemporary mum, the struggle of the juggle. However, Mumba seems as laidback and unruffled when it comes to motherhood as she does on most subjects.

"It would be hard coming over and her not being with me, I couldn't cope with that. She loves being home, she says 'Dublin'," Mumba hams up her Dublin accent and laughs. "She loves having time with her nana - she's totally spoiled here."

While Mumba is pragmatic and breezy, she admits it's tough having a baby so far from home and would love to convince her mother to relocate to LA.

"She came over about five days after Sage was born and stayed for a month which was great… I don't know how I would have gotten on (without her) because everything is just so new. Where do you even start?"

"The birth?" I venture. To which Mumba smiles: "Well, she made it here in one piece!" But adds: "Of course, it's horrifying! It's terrible, but you'd do it 10 times over. It is what it is."

And herein lies Mumba's appeal, she's real in an age of overly produced and 'managed' star personas - though her years in the business have taught her to be quite guarded, especially when talking to the likes of me.

"Ninety per cent of the stuff that's been written about me, to be totally honest, is in some way inaccurate or in some way untrue so… it's part of the industry.

"If you're thin-skinned, it's not the right industry for you. I've been in it since I was very young so it would take a fair amount to faze me. I'm very happy… and I've always had a good base of family and friends around me so that helps."

Mumba's frustrations are completely understandable and she possesses a canny knack of being warm and expansive while also protecting her personal life. She is slow, for example, to elaborate on her relationship.

"Everyone thinks, did he pull you over and give you a ticket? Nothing like that, we just met out in LA."

Having been burned by the media earlier in her career, the rise of social media has had a welcome impact for celebrities like Mumba who've been tracked assiduously and unfairly represented in the past.

"When I was really busy and working a lot it was before social media, so there was no direct connection with people.

"It got to the point where there would be 'diva' headlines - it was like that was just the thing to be said - it wasn't real. It was just that time as well, everything was different, journalism was different.

"It was so much more powerful because whatever was written was believed, as opposed to today, where I could just tweet 'that wasn't true'. Back then, you didn't have that access to people and they didn't have that access to you. Which is mad."

This access has intriguingly led to a grassroots campaign on Irish Twitter earlier this year for Mumba to give Ireland a dig out regarding our embarrassingly flaccid Eurovision efforts of late. Jenn Gannon, an Irish journalist, made the initial plea to which Mumba replied: "I would love to!"

"I have not been officially asked," Mumba now clarifies when I attempt to further the cause. "No one's contacted me to do Eurovision, so it's not really my place to say 'yes, I'll take it for the country!'"

The Eurovision overlords would probably need to get their skates on as Mumba's schedule is looking hectic over the next 18 months. She's back writing music, toying with working on material for other artists and continues to develop her acting.

She also has a fair bit of wickedness to conduct this Christmas when she plays Cinderella's Evil Stepmother in the panto at Limerick's University Concert Hall, a role she is clearly relishing.

"I've always played the nice one - I can't wait to be booed and evil and mean! I couldn't even explain a panto to anyone in LA. I've never seen anything there like a panto. I can't even imagine what an American version would be like!

"This is just fun and a couple of months of just wackiness, and the crowd in Limerick will be brilliant."

The Spar Christmas Panto Cinderella runs at the University Concert Hall, Limerick, from December 18 until January 7. Tickets from €18.50 with matinee and evening shows. Visit for details or call the box office on 061 331549.

Irish Independent

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