Why Samantha is still mumba one
She enjoyed global stardom at the age of 15, but then all went quiet for the lovely Samantha Mumba. When Ciara Dwyer catches up with her the star speaks about her career, her new love and that Spiderman dress
Samantha Mumba’s in a good place now. “I'm very happy at the moment,” says the Dublin-born singer-songwriter who has spent the past few years living in LA. It certainly seems to agree with her. It shows in her serene manner. And she doesn't seem to be too concerned about impressing anyone, apart from herself. But this is no bad thing.
She turns up for our meeting with her hair shining and some light make-up, but you get the feeling that she is not keen on flaunting herself. Clad in a navy summer dress that shows off her shapely legs, she ruins the look with a pair of clumpy Ugg boots. The photographer asks if they are her only shoes. She nods and then laughs at his dream of stilettos. He'll have to take her as she is. These days, she is a woman who is at ease with herself and the world around her. But this is not smug; rather she is a pleasure to behold.
Samantha wants to talk about her role as Girl Friday in Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre's pantomime — Robinson Crusoe and the Caribbean Pirates.
“I love the idea of coming back to do it,” she says. “I can't wait to be home in Dublin with my family. All the dancers in the show are my friends. Ninety-three shows is no joke but it'll be really exciting to be back up there on stage, singing live.”
With her return to this stage, she is coming full circle. It all started at the Gaiety, with her first performance, at the age of six, in a Billie Barry Stage School show. Her parents had bundled the energetic toddler off to the famous stage school when she was three.
From day one, she loved it.
“I can't speak highly enough of it,” she says. “I know it's not for everybody but it really stands to you. If you're going for a job interview, it gives you that confidence and presence. From doing that from such a young age, I've always been fearless about doing anything like that.”
Later, Samantha went on to perform at the Olympia in Dublin, first in The Hot Mikado and then in Rockin' Hood.
During the run of Rockin' Hood, a man from Sony Music Ireland spotted Samantha's talents and she was snapped up. Louis Walsh became her manager and all of a sudden Samantha Mumba was a star. She had just turned 15.
It was clear for all to see that this was no instant X Factor thing. Having done the rigorous training with the Billie Barry Stage School, performances on the Late Late Toy Show and on the Gaiety stage, she was ready to make her big entrance in the music world. When she appeared with her first single, Gotta Tell You, it was obvious that Samantha was the real deal. Her voice was unusual in that it was so deep, but boy could she sing and dance. And she looked great.
She hit the big time. As well as singing, she showed a talent for writing songs. She got a publishing deal before she got a record deal. Before she knew it, she had soared to the top, with top 10 hit songs in Ireland, England and the US.
And she was happy to be living her dream.
“I've always been ambitious. I've never felt like I couldn't accomplish something. I think my Mam instilled that in me. She said you can do anything, once you set your mind to it.”
Samantha grabbed the opportunities she was given and soon it became clear that she couldn't continue at school at the same time. There were contracts on the table. This was her moment and she was going to make the most of it.
“I was always away, working. It wasn't only in Ireland and England but places like Germany and France too. I was working so hard and I was exhausted. I was on about 15 planes a week.”
Then a chance phonecall changed everything. She was asked to audition for a part in a Dreamworks film, The Time Machine, based on the HG Wells novel. Acting had never even featured on her radar.
“My goal was always music. It was always singing. Acting was completely left field.”
Much to her amazement, she was offered the role. She thought that this was a great opportunity but there was a downside, she explains. Just as her music career was on a roll with her successful first album, she would be out of circulation for several months, with filming and then later promotion for the film.
It was a case of too much, too soon, and it was then that her music career started to plummet.
At that stage, Samantha came home. She was 20 when she bought her house in Dublin. It was time for her to take a breather.
“It was such a relief because I was ready for a break. It had been five years non-stop of everything. I just needed not to see a suitcase for a while. I was trying to figure out the direction for the second album. The spark was gone. The passion was gone. At that point, I’d kind of had enough of music. That
was when I moved to LA with my family — my Mam and my brother.”
Although united in spirit as a family, Samantha's Zambia-born father couldn't join them in LA as he worked as an aircraft engineer and was based between London and Dublin.
“I know that in the press this period has been perceived negatively, as a career low, but I haven't reached a low point, personally. I've always been working. Even after I moved to LA, I came back to Ireland and shot two movies. I never stopped working.”
I agree that I thought she had gone off the boil, especially when I saw her appearing at a film premiere for Spiderman in London wearing a skimpy cobweb dress. It seemed like she was trying to revitalise her career by doing a Liz Hurley on the red carpet routine.
“Let me explain about the Spiderman dress,” she says, sounding fully aware that it wasn't her greatest hour. “Scott Henshall was the designer. He's a friend of mine. He put me in beautiful dresses for the Meteor awards and other events. He phoned me up and said that the film company were willing to fly me over and put me up, if I would wear Scott's web-cut diamond dress. It all sounded fabulous — going to a premiere in this amazing dress. When I saw the dress in London, I nearly had a heart attack. It was just one of those things. I wanted to call my Mam and ask her what to do. It was too late to pull out. I wore the dress but I was mortified. I should have asked to see the dress beforehand but for a dress that expensive I didn't think it was going to be that little piece of fabric.”
There is something very endearing about Samantha and the way she admits to her mistakes. These days in LA, she no longer pursues a music career. As she says, “I still have a passion for music but I'm not in love with the music industry. Besides 15 is very young to decide what you're going to do for the rest of your life.” But she is not ashamed of her decision to put the singing aside. She feels content with what she has done in the industry.
“I've accomplished what I set out to accomplish and I'm very proud of that,” she says.
These days, acting is what floats her boat. She takes lessons four times a week. Having just completed a pilot for a TV series, she spends her time going to about two auditions a week.
“Sometimes you walk into an audition and you see a roomful of girls that are just different variations of you. Nine times out of 10, they're a better variation of you. That can be intimidating. It's a room of clones. I give 100% cent in the audition and then when it's done, it's done. If I don't get a role, I don't take the rejection personally. Instead I think, if it's for me, it's for me and if it's not, it's not.
“When I'm in LA, it's just home and I'm with the love of my life and I've great friends out there but when I come home I find people saying, ‘what are you doing? How's everything going? What about acting? What about music?' I feel that people are rooting for me more than I am. I'm very content.”
The love of her life is her fiancé, LAPD police officer Torray Scales. They met in September 2007 in Les Deux nightclub. He asked her to dance and she told him that she didn't like the song, so when another song came on, he tried his luck again.
“I liked that he had the nerve to do that. I thought he was gorgeous. He's six foot one, buff and very handsome. I like a big, protective man.”
They exchanged numbers, went out for dinner and after that first date they saw each other every day. It wasn't long before they moved in together.
“It's only now that I'm with him that I understand why it never worked out with anyone else before. With other relationships, when it got serious, to engagement time, I always jumped. I often wondered if I had commitment issues but until it's the right one, it's not going to work. It's a real relationship. There are arguments but we love and respect each other. We enjoy each other's company and we're happiest when we're together. I'm really enjoying being a homemaker.
“I iron his uniform for him every week and I put the crease in his pants. I take pride in that he's lovely and fresh going off to work.”
So, does she stand at the door and say, “Have a good day honey”?
“Yeah, pretty much,” she says. “He's very normal. I like a man to be a man. I've dated celebrities and they're a bit precious. You feel like saying ‘get over yourself'.”
Some days Samantha goes to work with Torray.
“I do ride-alongs with him in the squad car. I just sit up the front with him. It's very interesting but you just have to sign a waiver that if you're shot or killed they're not liable. He's very good at what he does. I'm sure that when a lot of guys see him they don't want to give him a hard time.
“When I'm home by myself, he makes sure that I've a little gun in the house. You never know. He takes me to the shooting range a good bit. So I've learned. I'm actually pretty good.”
Samantha Mumba — singer songwriter, actress, and now skilled markswoman. What's next for the multi-talented one? Babies, she hopes.
“That's my goal for next year,” she says. After the panto, I presume. You go, girl!
Robinson Crusoe and the Caribbean Pirates' is at the Gaiety Theatre from December 3 to January 29, 2012. Tel: 00353 1677 1717 or go to ticketmaster.ie