We've watched Mario grow from a cornrows-having tween crooner to a debonair ballroom dancer. But there's more to this 21-year-old. In 2007, Mario allowed MTV cameras into his life to capture his mother's jarring struggle with a 20-year heroin addiction and his desperate plea for her to seek help in the documentary "I Won't Love You to Death: The Story of Mario and His Mom." Now, with a huge weight off his shoulders-his mother, Shawnita Hardaway, has been clean for nearly a year-the Baltimore native is gearing up for the next phase in his life. Mario gets personal with ESSENCE.com about his Do Right Foundation (which helps kids in drug-prevalent environments cope), fears that his mother might relapse, and what he hopes his legacy will be. Plus, he sets the record straight on rumors about him and his "Dancing With the Stars" partner, Karina Smirnoff.
ESSENCE.COM: Some people wouldn't be so open about a family member's battle with drugs, especially a parent. What made you decide to do that documentary?
MARIO: I was launching my foundation, and I felt the documentary gave kids and young adults with the same issues [as me] inspiration. I feel like it has helped me to grow a lot, with the things that I have experienced and gone through with my mother. I also felt like it showed who I really was as a young man outside of the music, because sometimes you can get lost in that box of being just a teen star-I'm more than that.
ESSENCE.COM: What made you decide to launch the Mario Do Right Foundation?
MARIO: In terms of my faith in God, I've seen what He's brought people through, what He has brought me through, and how He still allows me to be focused on my goals and dreams. I want these kids to realize that they have the future ahead of them and this is just an example of how God can work.
ESSENCE.COM: What were the challenges of making this documentary with your mom?
MARIO: My mother is a very blunt person, and more than anything she wants to be a speaker. She wants to help change lives. But there were times when we both were like, "Turn the cameras off." Everything that you see in the documentary was written, approved and signed by me, so there were a lot of things that weren't shown, yet everything you see is real and raw. I hope people are inspired by it and that it will change people in a positive way.
ESSENCE.COM: Yes, the feedback has been great. Clearly, you made the right decision.
MARIO: I have to thank God for everything he has brought me through. My mom has almost a year clean now. I'm very proud of her. I can't wait for her to finish her book, which should be done soon. I'm excited about that.
ESSENCE.COM: Do you fear she will relapse, since she has tried to quit in the past?
MARIO: I try not to think about it that way, but it's a daily struggle for someone who has been using drugs for over 20 years. And this is something that she tells me. You still get this feeling inside, but as long as you don't feed it and you feed your mind and body and spirit with a substance that fulfills you, then you should be good. But you have to continue to feed your mind, body and spirit.
ESSENCE.COM: For you, that fulfillment must come from music.
MARIO: Sometimes you wake up and you feel inspired to write and do music and sometimes you don't. You can't plan creativity but that has to be my getaway-that has to be my escape.
ESSENCE.COM: How hard has it been balancing the pressure of the music business with your personal life?
MARIO: You have to learn how to separate the two. It's tough sometimes but I think that's the way it has to be. It wasn't easy at first, and I'm still learning how to manage both.
ESSENCE.COM: Is it true that you are doing a reality show?
MARIO: There are a lot of rumors going around. No, I'm not doing a reality show. I'm focusing on my next record. Anything I put my mind to, I focus on it 110 percent. I know there's a lot of competition out there, but I have yet to show my full potential in music and I'm ready to do that.
ESSENCE.COM: When can we expect your next album?
MARIO: I would like for it to be out by the end of the year. I would like for the first single to be out in August and just keep it going. I have a lot of great music that shows so much growth. I've grown a lot in the past year; I've just been so focused.
ESSENCE.COM: What's the craziest rumor you've heard about yourself?
MARIO: Well, the one that was ongoing was obviously the rumor about Karina, my partner from "Dancing With the Stars," and me.
ESSENCE.COM: So, that was just a rumor?
MARIO: Yeah, you know, I was diggin' her and we had a great time together but she was in a relationship at the time. I would rather not have dealt with the pressures of going through that whole thing-I wanted to keep it professional. As a young man, when you're focused on something, sometimes a woman can be a setback a little bit (laughs). But for me to get physical with her or get in a relationship, even though it was tempting, I wouldn't have been as focused. I kept it professional.
ESSENCE.COM: You were great on the show. How did it impact your career?
MARIO: It opened people's eyes that have probably never bought a Mario record in their life. It's a very personal show and you get a chance to show your personality. It allowed me to look into other things, as far as writing books and more film projects, but most importantly, I want the people who watched every week to know that I make good music. A lot of young artists get stereotyped-I don't feel like I am one of those artists but I want to show why I'm not. I want to be an all-around entertainer and that's my goal.
ESSENCE.COM: What do you want your legacy to be?
MARIO: At the end of the day, I want my legacy to be timeless. I want people to look at my career and my life and say, "You know what? He was a good man. He was a hard worker. He helped change lives and he was an inspiration and a role model." If they would ask a young man, "Who would you want to model your life after?" I would love to hear my name.
Photo Credit: Rowena Husbands/Blink Of An Eye Photography