25 in 2009: Mika

Born: 08/18/83 In: Beirut Is: Musician

On a rainy night this summer, Mika -- the poofy-haired, outrageously tall British pop star -- is being shuffled around a room full of record industry insiders. It's hard to get a read on him. He doesn't look bored, but he doesn't look excited either. Nevertheless, as he gamely poses for a photo with a woman who claims some relation to the '08 Olympics, he doesn't truly light up until someone asks him who made his pink-and-cream striped blazer. "Van Beirendonck!" he says excitedly, before pulling it back to reveal a set of suspenders bearing the Belgian designer's bearded face in silhouette. His enthusiasm might be described as cartoonish or childlike -- both adjectives frequently thrown at him -- but the truth is he just seems happy to have a connection to someone else in the room. "You know him?"

This contrast -- a looming man-child who can seem both joyous and lonely, often in the same song -- is Mika's unique gift as a performer. His first album, 2007's Life in Cartoon Motion, was loosely based around childhood themes, and its smash single, "Grace Kelly," chronicled the struggles of growing up ("I've gone identity mad!" he sings over some jaunty piano before launching into a mercurial falsetto). The follow up, The Boy Who Knew Too Much, comes out in September, and builds on the themes of the earlier record, sometimes literally: while Cartoon Motion was about being a kid, Boy is about being an awkward teenager. But the theme, Mika says, is "in the lyrics, and also in the attitude." Just like adolescence, it is by turns despairing and triumphant, mixing fragility with what Mika calls "unapologetic exuberance," referring specifically to the lead single "We Are Golden." The tune boasts both a gospel and children's choir, though the chorus is more "We Don't Need No Education" than "We Are the World." (The lyrics reference a "teenage circus" and "living it up when you're young and you want some.") While recording, he wrote with a teen's pent-up energy, penning more than 45 songs before narrowing them down to the 12 on the final version.

Born in Beirut before spending time in Paris and London, Mika recalls a longing for music and dance in his early life growing up the middle child with four siblings. "I remember forcing my sisters to dance to flamenco and then crying when they wouldn't do it," he says. "I never wanted to dance alone." He practiced piano for three hours a day before ultimately enrolling in (and dropping out of) London's Royal College of Music. His debut came quickly after that, changing the then-23-year-old's life in myriad ways. (Among other things, Fiat sent him a fancy sports car -- which is a shame, he jokes, because he doesn't drive.) He's hooked up with some famous friends in ways that include working in collaboration with the aforementioned Walter Von Beirendonck, hanging out with Ian McKellen and calling Pete Townshend for advice. ("He told me the feeling I was feeling" -- namely, self-doubt -- "would always come back.") And while Mika is a bona fide celebrity in the U.K., he has yet to break through here. But like the young man toiling at the piano for hours -- and not unlike a typical teenager -- Mika is determined to find success. "I'm a turtle," he says. "I build slowly, but I never, ever stop."
Paul Underwood

Wears: a jacket and shirt by Viktor & Rolf, pants by Balenciaga by Nicolas Ghesquière, cummerbund by Zuleika for the Hand Collective and shoes by Christian Louboutin opposite: same shirt and pants with a blazer by Walter Van Beirendonck, and sneakers by Converse

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