At first impression, the man no one knows as Michael Penniman seems uncharacteristically quiet. As he takes a well-earned break from rehearsing for a tour to promote one of the year's most eagerly anticipated global releases, he seems tired and anxious, a far cry from his usual upbeat ebullience. He knows it, and he apologizes politely for his demeanor before taking a drawn-out pause to refocus and return as the witty, charming, unashamedly upbeat force of nature the world knows and-mostly-loves as Mika. "It's always a big stress figuring out how to do things live," he says, becoming more animated with every word. "It's really kind of terrifying. I wish I could just mime. I'd be so much happier." Pause. "I'm joking, of course."'
"Witty," "charming" and "unashamedly upbeat" are also words that could be used to describe Mika's music - a winning mix of radio-friendly piano ballads, sexual ambiguity and melodic pop. His debut album, "Life in Cartoon Motion" (Island/Universal), sold 5.5 million copies worldwide, according to his handlers at London-based Machine Management.
His U.K. base -- Mika was born in Lebanon but has a dual U.S. and British citizenship -- contributed 1.6 million of those copies, and Mika regularly leaves his London apartment to find gifts from fans or even fans themselves, camping overnight outside his door.
"It's fine," he deadpans. "I soon get rid of them."
His first major-label single, "Grace Kelly," claimed the top spot in the United Kingdom, Denmark, Ireland, Italy, Norway and Wallonie, and went top 10 in 10 other markets. Meanwhile, the album hit No. 1 in France, Flanders, Greece, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, Wallonie and the United Kingdom, and it went top 10 in eight other markets including Germany and Australia.
In France, he's bigger than Johnny Hallyday and fancy cheese put together-so big that his gig there in July 2008 was staged in front of 55,000 fans at the Parc des Princes Stadium in Paris and featured $1.3 million worth of acrobats, clowns and associated stage production.
"I wanted to do a show that was visually effective no matter how far away you were sitting and, unfortunately, that comes with a price tag," he says. "It's so rare to get to a stadium level on a first record, we were just like, 'Let's celebrate it. Let's have fun and do something incredible.' "
For Mika's next trick -- his second album, "The Boy Who Knew Too Much," which arrives internationally Sept. 21 on Casablanca/Island Records and a day later in the United States on Universal Republic -- he wants to become a star in America.
The IFPI's top 10 list of 2007's global best-selling albums ranks "Life in Cartoon Motion" at No. 9. Significantly, on a list that includes Avril Lavigne, Josh Groban, the Eagles and Amy Winehouse, Mika is not only the sole debut artist but also the only one to make the list without occupying one of the top two spots of the Billboard 200.
"Life" debuted and peaked at No. 29 stateside and has sold 350,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan-a respectable but unspectacular figure, as Universal Republic president/CEO Monte Lipman concedes.
"Although it was not ultimately a breakthrough, it was a very good foundation," says Lipman. "We certainly did not enjoy the global phenomenon like some of the other territories around the world," he says. "But if you compare apples to apples and new and developing artists in America it was substantial and significant."
Mika agrees. "It's a funny one in the States," says the singer, who was nominated for a best dance recording Grammy Award in 2008. "I'm kind of a cult artist there and, although radio rejects me, I still sell singles. I'm in this very fortunate place where my shows sell, my songs sell, and I'm able to grow in a way that I want to."