“I’m the best-kept secret around,” insists former Supremes superstar Mary Wilson, speaking from her apartment in New York City.
It’s not even 10 a.m., and already this lady’s fired up to tell her story.
And why not? One of the hottest industry scoops of the summer exposed the acerbic dispute that erupted between the cantankerous Miss Ross (as she insists on being called) and Wilson, the only original Supreme to carry on the group’s legacy.
Although the group didn’t officially disband until 1977, Ross went solo in 1970, leaving Wilson to carry on the dream that she, Diana and Flo Ballard had spun into one of the most influential music acts in history.
So Wilson replaced her former gal-pals and kept right on singing.
But earlier this year — when Ross announced she was taking her over-inflated self on a sweeping, coast-to-coast Supremes reunion tour — a hot spate of verbal volleys sprung up between the two women, which played out publicly on television talk shows and in magazines.
The media portrayed this catfight as a petty battle over the almighty dollar. Though Ross was slated to earn $15 million for the tour while Wilson was offered a mere $3 million, careless journalists didn’t seem to get the gist of Wilson’s vitriolic backlash.
“They tried to make it seem like it was only about money,” she protests. “But now everyone is beginning to see.” While Wilson took to the airwaves in her own defense, the diva sat back — demurely batting her eyelashes, feigning puzzlement at Wilson’s ire.
According to Wilson, every detail of the tour was nailed down by Ross’ camp before Wilson was even told about the reunion!
“All the venues had already been booked,” she explains. “I was an afterthought, and that hurt. So by the time they called me, I would not have accepted the moon. They should have called me first; no one gave me a choice.
“I have been quiet for many, many years and people thought I was just happy-go-lucky,” she goes on in that smoke-sexy voice that made her famous. “I didn’t want to [go public], but I had to speak out to save my dignity.”
Yet, when instant karma kicked Diana in the proverbial buttocks (in the form of extremely poor ticket sales and, eventually, a canceled tour), Wilson claims her heart went out to her longtime band-mate.
“I am not happy about someone else having pain in their life,” Wilson says.
In reporting Wilson vs. Ross, the press conveniently forgot that Wilson had been on the road since ’99 doing her own Supremes tribute tour, way before Ross’ idea was even conceived. Whether this absurd omission was an honest oversight or an intentionally calculated ploy to bolster ratings for Ross’ tour, Wilson seems too rock-steady for this miniscule marketing hiccup to have made a permanent dent in her otherwise gratifying life.
“Two years ago, when I realized that our 40th anniversary was coming up, I wanted to do a real tribute to the Supremes. So my management team started booking the concerts, and it was so well accepted that my agent didn’t want it to stop,” she explains.
“This tour is [also] the vehicle to show how much I can do even though I don’t have a hit record. Here in America, we discard our real talent and go on to the younger people. You don’t even hear about the great stars any more. The [record] industry undermines us in that regard,” she declares, heating up the phone lines. “But the Internet has changed the image, and now all my information is readily available. I’m getting phone calls again from interested recording companies. … Of course, I do Supremes songs in my shows, but I also do my own songs so that people come away knowing the real Mary Wilson.”
As if making the concert circuit every weekend weren’t enough to keep a girl busy, she’s also into her third year at NYU’s liberal-arts program, where she revived her education after a 30-year hiatus.
“My mother could not read or write, and one of her fondest desires was for one of her children to attend college,” she confesses. “After my children were grown up, I had this void in my life, so I enrolled in college. Because I want to write more books, my focus is on psychology, art history and critical thinking.
“I have maintained a B average and I’m really, really proud of myself,” she crows.
Balancing out her intellectual pursuits, Wilson works a steady gig every Wednesday morning as a DJ on New York City’s classic R&B radio station, WWRL.
“I love people, and the show keeps me in touch with reality,” she admits. “And even though it is a music program, I bring up hot issues. For instance, I think we should concentrate on cleaner lyrics.”
But wait, there’s more: Wilson has starred in three off-Broadway plays, including the innovative interactive theater comedy Grandmother Sylvia’s Funeral, and is currently negotiating a deal to produce one herself. She also performs with major symphony orchestras across the country, headlines occasionally in Vegas and has recently recorded her first voice-over on a national commercial (for Colgate). Obviously, this woman possesses the time-management secret of the century.
Aside from her voluminous artistic accomplishments, Wilson also lectures on behalf of the Value Your Heart program, sponsored by the National Council on Aging.
“I want to get the message out that 50 million people are walking around with high blood pressure and don’t even know it,” she notes. “Afro-Americans are at high risk and we want people to go get checked.” (It’s an issue that hits close to home: All of the older members of her family have high blood pressure, she says.)
Yet for all her current triumphs — not to mention 41 years as a showbiz icon — Wilson’s personal life has been weighted with an inordinate amount of tragedy. In 1994, the singer lost her youngest child, 14-year-old Rafi, in a car accident that nearly claimed her own life as well. In her second book, Supreme Faith — Someday We’ll Be Together, Wilson candidly recounts her abusive marriage, the death of Flo Ballard and her struggle to keep the Supremes together after the Motown hit factory ground to a halt.
Yet she considers these tragedies more existential blessings than life-crushing catastrophes.
“I don’t see things as tragedies. I’ve just had some real intense situations,” she observes. “Even … the abusiveness of my husband, which was the worst thing that ever happened to me, became a learning experience and showed me where my strength was. I said to God, ‘Wow. This is not going to be it for me. I have too much to do.’ I mean, how can you possibly realize who you are without having these lessons? Yeah, I’ve lost my twinkle in terms of being that terribly blind teenager, but I’ve gained balance.”